Advocates fight name change rules that disproportionately affect trans people

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Three trans women say a Pennsylvania law has caused them to lose opportunities, put them in danger, and prevented them from living fully as themselves.

A transgender rights advocacy group is battling a Pennsylvania law that bars transgender people who have been convicted of felonies from changing their name to affirm their gender identity.

The petition is being brought by the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, which advocates for transgender equality through litigation and policy work.

On Monday, the advocacy group filed name change petitions for three transgender women in Pennsylvania: Monae Alvarado, who spent three years in prison for burglary; Chauntey Mo'Nique Porter, who was convicted of aggravated assault in 2008; and  Priscylla Renee Von Noaker, who was convicted of rape in 1987 and served 10 years in prison.

Pennsylvania's law, which passed in 1998, says that people who have been convicted of felonies must wait two years after being released from prison to change their names. Pennsylvania residents with serious felony convictions — including murder, rape, aggravated assault, and certain kinds of theft — can never change their names.

The three trans women say the state's law has prevented them from being accepted at work and finding employment.

"Every time I need to show my ID for any reason or go on a job interview, I am forced to explain who I am and why my name on my ID is different from my true name," Porter said in a press release. "This puts me in danger, causes me to lose opportunities, and doesn’t allow me to live fully as myself."

The advocacy group filed the petition as part of its Name Change Project, which helps low-income transgender and/or nonbinary people change their name on identification documents in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and several counties in New Jersey and New York.

"Our and our clients' goal is to ensure that all transgender people in Pennsylvania are able to obtain name changes," Gabriel Arkles, the group's senior counsel, said in an email to the American Independent Foundation.

Seventeen states have some form of name change ban for people with criminal records, according to the Marshall Project. Some of them, like Pennsylvania, are even more strict, and say that people convicted of certain crimes can never change their name. According to the Movement Advancement Project, 25 states have laws with some kind of additional requirement or restriction for people who criminal records who want to change their name.

Transgender people — and especially Black trans women — face disproportionate levels of discrimination and abuse, both inside and outside the criminal justice system.

A 2017 study published in Sexuality Researched in Social Policy that looked at the effects of legal name changes for transgender women of color found that these restrictive state and federal policies "may contribute to persistent health disparities and poor health outcomes among transgender people."

The Vera Institute of Justice explained in 2016 that transgender people, who experience harassment and discrimination at an early age, face greater economic instability, and as a result, can commit "crimes of survival," including "violent acts of self-defense." Transgender people are also in the position of battling anti-trans bias from police. Police profiling of transgender women of color, often as sex workers, only exacerbates the issue of trans people's involvement in the criminal justice system.

According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, 58% of transgender people who had interactions with police said they were mistreated by police, such as being misgendered multiple times, sexually assaulted, or otherwise physically assaulted or verbally harassed.

For many of these reasons and more, Arkles said that the Pennsylvania law affects many trans women of color who are treated unfairly by the legal system.

"For another, trans women of color face bias at every level of the criminal legal system — in stops, arrests, charges, plea offers, convictions, and sentences. As a result, trans women of color sometimes end up with convictions for things they absolutely did not do. And, unlike white middle class and wealthy cis people, they are incredibly unlikely to get away without a conviction if they do break the law."

Regardless of whether a trans person has committed a crime or what their reason was for doing so, Arkles said that everyone deserves the basic dignity of a name change that corresponds with their gender.

"If we want people with criminal records to have any sort of a real shot once their sentence is over, we can’t have laws like this one that put them back in danger and make it almost impossible to get hired or get through school. Putting our clients in danger and robbing them of the ability to define who they are helps no one," he said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.