A day in name-changing court
July 25, 2019 4:38 PM   Subscribe

I walked into the Shelby County Probate Court because I wanted to affirm myself in an official capacity, to become closer to who I was. What I didn’t expect was for my name changing process to be such a unique shared experience with everyone else in that room. Other than newlyweds, there is no celebrated milestone or cultural script that leads you to believe you will ever find yourself in a courthouse signing away a name you’ve carried around for a couple of decades or more. But here we all were. We all named ourselves, and demanded to be recognized. We bore witness to each other.
posted by cynical pinnacle (19 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Beautiful. I am beginning to come out as trans and anticipate making the same pilgrimage to the courtroom someday soon. Amazing how a short and simple story can be so affirming and life-giving. I needed to hear this story today -- thank you.
posted by switcheroo at 5:22 PM on July 25, 2019 [15 favorites]

I'll be honest, I don't remember my name change as triumphant. Bittersweet because it felt a bit like society was demanding I give up my name. It was also the start of the boring cleanup work of my transition but also freeing in a way. Because of Minnesota's rules at the time, it was usual for transmasculine people to change their names fairly "late", so that "cleanup work" was the end of years of ID stress.

Part of the reason people delayed name changes was that it maximized the chances of changing a gender marker on a Minnesota birth certificate (which was otherwise functionally impossible for most afab people at the time), so the whole thing was tarnished by the fact you were playing judge roulette. I'm pretty sure I drew the last holdout judge in Hennepin County, who, after having made my friend cry, made her clerk do the dirty work of calling me and saying she wasn't going to grant the gender marker part of the petition, hinting I should exercise me right to a different judge. I ultimately didn't, as it didn't much matter in my case (I wasn't born in MN), but there was this question hanging over the hearing about what the judge was going to say. She took the cowardly route and just pretended I hadn't mentioned my gender marker.
posted by hoyland at 6:25 PM on July 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

Oh my gosh, this is wonderful, thank you for posting it.

My name change process was really similar, down to the reasons for the others changing theirs that day. We had all been brought in as a group to the courtroom, and didn't even know what order we'd be in. The judge just called us each up in turn, and asked the first folks to briefly describe their reasons for changing their name.

I went third; the first was a young adult with his parents, changing his name to his stepfather's because he considered that man his real father; then an adult was changing hers because her birth name was much too long and she never liked it. But when it was my turn the judge just silently looked at my petition, and said to me, "Please state for the court that the reason described in your petition is indeed your reason for changing your name," or something to that effect (on my form I'd written "Common use due to gender transition"). I never actually had to state out loud in the court room that I was trans, or what my dead name was, even though I have the privilege to be able to be very open about it and totally would have said so. I really, really appreciated that, and I got the feeling that the judge was very sensitive to trans concerns like that? Gender euphoria definitely describes the feeling I had after that experience.

The time and energy updating all my other documents is another story (driver's license, social security, passport, bank, and birth certificate were the biggest). I think my attitude about that quickly became "Oh thank fuck that one's out of the way. Next..."
posted by elsilnora at 6:28 PM on July 25, 2019 [20 favorites]

On preview, after seeing what hoyland said, yeah playing judge roulette in certain jurisdictions is definitely shitty. Though in my case in Pennsylvania they didn't even make me have a hearing with a judge about the birth certificate? I just mailed a form and copy of my certification for the name change and a doctor's letter for the gender marker change to the Department of Vital Statistics, and then... assumed they had lost or denied it, because I didn't get any word at all from them for six months?

Until one day I suddenly got my new corrected birth certificate, in an envelope that had come unsealed entirely, and was just totally open. Hopefully the certificate was the only thing that had ever been in there!

Birth certificate gender marker change was definitely the hardest part for me, and it really sucks how much it varies and becomes more difficult or impossible in different states.
posted by elsilnora at 6:52 PM on July 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

i see y’all and I’m sending love to all a y’all.

Someday I’ll share my own particulars on the name and gender marker change front but I don’t have it in me to write about it.

Much love in place of my own lack of ability to dredge up my transition memories tonight.
posted by nikaspark at 7:06 PM on July 25, 2019 [11 favorites]

This was moving to read.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:08 PM on July 25, 2019

Though in my case in Pennsylvania they didn't even make me have a hearing with a judge about the birth certificate?

States are all over the map when it comes to birth certificates, both in terms of what they'll do and what they require. Some require court orders, others don't. Some have medical or surgical requirements, others don't. Ohio has constructed a catch-22 where, on paper, you can change a birth certificate, but, in reality, you can't. (That said, perhaps taking forever is a constant--Illinois didn't even cash my check for something like two months.)
posted by hoyland at 2:53 AM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Instead of getting married, my partner and I chose a new surname and both changed our names to that. It seemed more symmetrical that way. We chose a name that had lots of good connotations for us.

In the UK, all you have to do to legally change your name is sign a bit of paper (a 'deed poll') with a couple of people who've known you for a while as witnesses. You then use that bit of paper to change your passport and a million other things.

We had a name-changing party with a sortof 'ceremonial assault course' made of various marriage-type ceremonies from around the world - breaking a glass, jumping a broom, presenting a whale tooth to the parents of the bride, the groom getting the soles of his feet beaten with dried fish, guests smashing porcelain*, etc. The final stage was signing the deed poll. It was fun.

* we did lego instead of porcelain
posted by memebake at 4:32 AM on July 26, 2019 [15 favorites]

I am cheering for these people and their lovely name change experiences!

I didn't have a mushy happy name change, though I was (and am!) thrilled with the name I chose and that it is my legal name. I went to the country court offices--no actual courtroom stuff--submitted paperwork, paid a chunk of money, schlepped to the local newspaper because it had to be posted in a paper and paid a lot lot more money, waited for it to be published, bought a copy of the paper, then schlepped back to the court offices to show my proof of publication. Name change done. Maybe I should have a cake this year to celebrate my name-iversary. Or pie.
posted by carrioncomfort at 6:20 AM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding nikaspark entirely. I did get to do my name change on my birthday and I got applause at the end from the courtroom gallery.
posted by odinsdream at 7:27 AM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've done this twice, both in the very old Travis County Courthouse. The first time was before gay marriage was legal, and I changed my last name to my fiancee's. The second time was after our divorce. I didn't want to go back to my maiden name -- that felt like a long time ago -- but I wanted to be free from my ex's name. So I picked my own last name, something unusual, but not unique; there are a few people who have my new last name.

I always heartily recommend it to others. Every time I see my "new" name, it makes me happy. It's like a present you can give yourself. It's always been strange to me that in my culture, we name new babies before we have any idea of their personality or character. Even a puppy, you usually see if a name fits, but not a baby.

I've had a job preparing name change documents for others. It was always interesting to see what people picked and what reason they gave the court. Some memorable ones: a man changing his first name to "Sir"; a mother changing her toddler daughter's name as she hadn't noticed that her initials spelled "ASS"; several parents changing their trans kids' names, always heartwarming; multiple people changing a nonstandard spelling of a common name to the usual way it's spelled. Seeing what was required in different states was interesting, too -- some states had a one-pager that was basically what's your current name, new name, and check this box that you're not doing this for fraud reasons, sign here and you're done. Other states had several free-write questions that had to be answered. Florida required every address you'd lived at for the last...20 years, I think?

People are always curious about someone who's changed their name. I know for some people, they had never even considered it was possible to choose one's own name until they talked to me about it. I love that we have a procedure for this.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:23 AM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

This is why I am becoming ordained. I specifically want to work with trans communities, sex workers and other folx who feel excluded or not welcomed by religion/spirituality, but still would like to create meaningful rituals to celebrate their transitions and milestones. I will be ordained (smicha) in 2022, but I expect I will start as soon as I can.

This was a wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing it.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:53 AM on July 26, 2019

Thanks for posting this, and for all the stories shared here!

I am waiting for my mom to pass on so I can change my last name without having to fight her about it. When pronounced it sounds like a dirty phrase and changing one letter turns it into an insult, so it's never been kind to me, but more than that, it's my dad's family name, which he got from parents so terrible that he was put into foster care during a time in the U.S. where even unspeakable horrors usually didn't lead to state intervention. Having the last name that reminds me of the sexual, emotional, and physical abuse he endured from family and extended family with that name (and the subsequent abuse I endured from my brother). When I have to give my last name often people snicker, and it's uncommon enough (I think there's only one other person with my first + last name out there) that google search results have gotten more frighteningly specific as time goes on, which is problem because I live in fear of that abusive brother finding me.

I've never talked about this before, I appreciate that I could here and hope I am not taking up too much space. It feels insignificant to want to change my last name when I compare it to the experiences of many trans folks, including the author, of the struggles of legal name changes to affirm their gender identity, but being able to write this comment helped me understand that I have valid reasons to change my last name that aren't just about vanity.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:19 AM on July 26, 2019 [13 favorites]

Absolutely not about vanity. There are so many valid reasons. I hope you get the name that is yours to enjoy and be at peace with.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:37 AM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

“Gender identity,” I said. He gave me a reassuring smile, I think.

...the judge just silently looked at my petition, and said to me, "Please state for the court that the reason described in your petition is indeed your reason for changing your name,"

The thing that always amazes me is how easy it is to be kind.
posted by klanawa at 12:52 PM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

The judge who issued my name change, smiling kindly at me, asked "Will having the name Annika make you a happier person?" I smiled at him and quickly looked out the courthouse window at the tops of trees in the morning sky, then looked back beaming and said "yes. yes it would".

He replied " I wish you all the best, Miss Annika Morgan (this was before this happened) and signing the decree finished with "it's been an honor to be a part of helping you live your fullest life".

I cried. because I cry at everything.
posted by nikaspark at 3:05 PM on July 26, 2019 [9 favorites]

but being able to write this comment helped me understand that I have valid reasons to change my last name that aren't just about vanity

My partner changed their last name in 2004 just because they wanted to, and that's okay. No one should have to justify changing their name and the only reason it's so sweet for trans people is because the extra shit we catch along the way. But really I would give up my feeling proud of overcoming the bullshit I endured in trade for living in a world were we all just got to be who are without having to fight through so much internal and external friction over it.
posted by nikaspark at 3:09 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]

It was neat to read about his experience. I didn't think about doing mine on a significant day or anything, just getting it done. I don't remember the judge's exact phrasing, but I do think he just asked me to affirm that my reasons on the paper (gender identity) were correct, without saying them out loud or asking me to say more. It was a little stressful being in court at all and really nice to have it go well and that part be done.

I've changed my name at a dozen places now and there are so many to go. I know there are a ton out there I haven't even thought of and it makes me a little crazy. (I've also found out that some of the more official places have apparently been letting me get away with simply a first initial, which I hadn't remembered, and I wonder if they have any more name buried in their records or if I can just leave them be.)

It's also interesting what you need where -- at both libraries I'm a member of, I needed the court order with my library card, but no photo ID or anything. Both passport and driver's license needed the Social Security card, which still seems odd to me. Luckily nothing needed a birth certificate, as I don't have one, and am not likely to be able to obtain one at this late date.
posted by Margalo Epps at 9:19 PM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

Both passport and driver's license needed the Social Security card, which still seems odd to me.

As a note, you shouldn't need a Social Security card to get (or change the name or gender marker on) a US passport. Updating the SSA database first surely doesn't hurt, but isn't obligatory to my knowledge. (I think I did Social Security first as the university wouldn't recognise the court order, only a new Social Security card, and the clock was ticking on a diploma.)
posted by hoyland at 5:04 AM on July 27, 2019

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