Trans Petitioner’s Identity Protected in Name-Change Case

Westchester County judge agrees to waive publication requirement

Finding that transsexuals are at risk of being victimized by hate crimes, New York Supreme Court Justice William J. Giacomo, in Westchester County, has granted a transsexual man’s request that the usual requirement that a name-change notice be published in a local newspaper be waived, and that his court files be sealed.

The November 10 ruling identifies the name-change applicant only by his initials, E.P.L. The petitioner’s victory is apparently rare by New York City area standards.

“This is an application by Petitioner, a transgender individual, for a name change to correspond with his male gender identity,” Giacomo wrote. “An adult does not need permission of the court to change one’s name, however, ‘public policy favors a court’s review and granting of name-change applications because this makes the change of name a matter of public record.’”

Court-ordered name changes are especially useful for transsexuals, since the written order can be helpful in getting the appropriate changes made on identification documents such as passports, drivers licenses, and social security cards. Such proof of identity has become more critical in recent years given post-9/11 security in place across the nation. A documented change of name is also useful in business matters such as credit history and credit card identification.

One possible downside of a court-ordered name change in New York, however, is the statutory requirement that the change be published in a local newspaper, a precaution that mitigates the risk that the name change has been undertaken for fraudulent or law enforcement evasion purposes.

The publication requirement can be waived if the court finds that it would jeopardize the safety of the person changing their name. Typically, the waiver is granted to victims of domestic violence seeking to avoid their perpetrators. E.P.L., age 20 and embarking on his life as a man, did not allege that he had been the victim of violence in the past due to his transsexuality. Instead, he argued that publishing his name change would out him as transsexual in the community and increase the risk of violence to him, given the well-documented history of hate violence targeting the transgender community.

Giacomo pointed to numerous studies showing the vulnerability of transsexuals to such violence, and noted particularly the recent enactment of the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, expanding the definition of hate crimes to include those perpetrated because of the victim’s gender identity. The judge found that E.P.L.’s request was well-grounded, concluding, “While petitioner did not, and hopefully could not, cite a personal experience of violence or crime against him based on his gender identity, he has made a compelling argument as to why, at the age of 20, he has a right to feel threatened for his personal safety in the event his transgender status is made public.”

The court’s opinion was published in the New York Law Journal on November 16.

Giacomo’s order is noteworthy given the difficulty of winning the same protection in New York City. An attorney at the West Village Name Change Clinic in Manhattan informed this reporter that the organization routinely makes a request for anonymity and a sealed file on behalf of its transgendered petitioner clients, but has been uniformly denied for the past six years.