Bills would let transgender people seal name-change requests
SEATTLE – You can change your name, but in many states you can’t completely shed your old one — something that’s of particular concern to transgender people and that legislators in at least two states are trying to change.
A bill in Washington would allow gender expression and identity as reasons to seal, or keep out of the public record, a future petition for a name change. And a California bill would require the sealing of petitions by minors to change their name and gender on identity documents.
In states where such petitions aren’t sealed, transgender people can be susceptible to cyberbullying or even physical violence because their previous names, and by extension their lives, are an open book in the public record, advocates warn. Students, for instance, can and do easily find and share such records when they are looking for background on a new kid in town, one advocate noted.
Maia Xiao, a University of Washington graduate student, has changed her name in that state and said the publication of a transgender friend’s name-change records in an online forum led to relentless harassment, including hate mail. She wrote last summer to Democratic state Sen. Jamie Pedersen to urge reform.
“It feels very close to me,” said Xiao, who would not disclose the name of her friend, citing privacy. “I don’t live a very online life, but it’s really scary to know that something so personal can be so easily accessed by transphobic trolls who want to cause harm.”
Pedersen is sponsoring the Washington legislation, which passed the Senate this month with bipartisan support and is expected to also pass the House. The bill is modeled on laws in New York and Oregon and would also extend records privacy to refugees, emancipated minors and people who have been granted asylum.
Currently, only people subjected to domestic violence can have their name changes easily sealed in Washington. Some other states, including California, also make exceptions for victims of crimes like human trafficking, stalking and sexual assault.
“This seemed to me like a simple action that could go a long way in making transgender people a lot safer in our state,” Pedersen said.
Some officials and law enforcement officers worry that criminals who request a name change could escape accountability under the proposals. The Washington bill would allow courts to unseal a name change file if law enforcement had reasonable suspicions, and sex offenders and incarcerated people would still be ineligible for a sealed name change.
“This is not the intent of the bill, and such cases would be rare, but there needs to be procedures in place to prevent it,” Jennifer Wallace, executive director of the Washington Association of County Officials, said in an email.
The approaches in Washington and California contrast starkly with recent and mysterious moves in Florida and Texas to compile lists of trans residents using public records, and as lawmakers in at least 39 states consider a torrent of anti-trans bills.