New York Ruling Eases Name Changes for Transgender People

by Cara on October 22, 2009

in courts, gender, human rights, LGBTQ, trans

The New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan has made a ruling that will make it easier for transgender people to petition for a name change. The ruling overturned a previous decision by a lower court:

Should a transgender person seeking judicial permission to change her or his name be required to furnish medical documentation justifying the change?

A panel of justices in State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled on Wednesday that the answer is no. The ruling was a victory for the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

The fund had brought the case on behalf of a transgender man, Olin Yuri Winn-Ritzenberg, who had petitioned the New York City Civil Court seeking to legally change his name from Leah Uri Winn-Ritzenberg.

In February, a Civil Court judge in Manhattan, Manuel J. Mendez, denied the petition, ruling that Mr. Winn-Ritzenberg first had to provide a letter from a physician, psychologist or social worker documenting the “need” for the name change.

Michael D. Silverman, the executive director of the transgender advocacy group, argued that the state’s common law generally allows an adult “to change his or her name at will, for any reason,” and that transgender petitioners like Mr. Winn-Ritzenberg were being held to a higher standard. About 10 other people, all in Manhattan, have approached the fund with similar reports of having their name-changing petitions denied for the same reason Judge Mendez gave.

Legally changing one’s name is one of many major hurdles that trans people face during transition, and the unnecessary difficulty of the process is just yet another way that a cis controlled system polices trans people’s genders and identities. Cis people already regularly feel as though they get to call trans people by the incorrect name, and that’s all about reinforcing undeserved privilege. Further, the issue is about more than just respect and the right of every person to be called what they want to be called — which ought to be enough — but also about basic safety. In a world where transphobia is so regularly expressed through violence and seriously consequential discrimination, one’s official documents matching their identity can sadly be a matter of life and death, or of accessing needed services or not.

The previous ruling that Winn-Ritzenberg had to provide a letter from some sort of authority figure documenting a “need” for the name change also was not only a hurdle, it was an insult. What it meant was that a court could choose to take the word of individuals universally presumed to be cis (even though they’re not), about the lives and needs of trans people, over the words of trans people themselves. It medicalized and pathologized trans identities where they need not be, and dismissed marginalized people’s authority over their own lives.

And in addition to the fact that no one should need a letter of permission, or should be forced to disclose their medical history in order to complete a simple legal request, there’s also the reality that not all individuals requiring a name change have access to medical treatment as a part of their transitions, or even want it:

Advocates like Mr. Silverman note that not all transgender people take steps like hormone-replacement therapy or sex-reassignment surgery; many take the view that gender is socially constructed, or not even a stable or meaningful category altogether.

The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, which represented Winn-Ritzenberg in his case, has also released a statement on the ruling, which says in part:

[T]he appellate court wrote, “[t]here is no sound basis in law or policy to engraft upon the statutory provisions an additional requirement that a transgendered-petitioner present medical substantiation for the desired name change.”  The court’s decision sends a powerful message that transgender people must be treated equally and that they cannot be subjected to different legal requirements than everyone else. People’s names are fundamental to their identities.  This decision confirms that each one of us has the right to be known by a name we choose.  That decision can’t be second-guessed by doctors, therapists or anyone else simply because someone is transgender.

Upon learning of the ruling, Olin said, “This means that I can finally change my name and move forward with my life.  My gender transition has been a very personal journey, and no one is in a better position to decide that I need to change my name than I am.”

Unfortunately, according to a comment left on a post about the ruling at Pam’s, there is question about whether or not the ruling will effectively set precedent throughout all of the state. (I don’t know enough about the law to have any idea one way or the other.) And it seems pretty clear that a legislative solution would be far more ideal than the current system whereby judges get to make their own decisions about whether or not to allow a name change, and bad rulings have to be individually challenged in districts all over the country.

But in spite of the limitations, the ruling was the right one, is undoubtedly a positive thing for those people whose lives will be affected by it, and does send a strong message of support for transgender rights. It’s just necessary to remember that as far as these messages go, a lot more of them are needed.

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{ 4 comments }

1 polerin October 22, 2009 at 2:00 pm

I’m glad I didn’t have this kind of an issue at my name change. I’m wondering if Mr. Winn-Ritzenberg had retained professional assistance? It’s sad that you would have to, but .. yeah. It sometimes help to have a lawyer at your shoulder if someone wants to start being an ass.

2 Cara October 22, 2009 at 2:08 pm

Polerin, from what I’ve gathered over at Pam’s and from TLDEF’s press release, he had the assistance of TLDEF from the beginning, but the judge in the case was being an asshat. Mr. Winn-Ritzenberg could have produced the documentation requested (or potentially begun the process again? I’m not sure), but instead made the conscious decision to fight the judge’s decision, in attempt to prevent the same problem arising in the future.

3 kaninchenzero October 22, 2009 at 4:55 pm

Good. I’m glad to see this kind of thing challenged for what it is. Excellent analysis of the issues at hand, too; thank you.

4 Marigold October 23, 2009 at 8:46 pm

Hey Cara, I’m from Australia and have been following your blog with interest of late. I thought you may be interested in some developments in how the government recognises gender identity in Australia. A report by the Australian Human Rights Commission can be found at:
http://www.humanrights.gov.au/genderdiversity/index.html
and a blog which was set up for the purposes of the report can be viewed here:
http://www.hreocblog.com/genderdiversity/viewforum.php?f=2

Hope you find this of interest!

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