Transgender Women Challenge State Laws Blocking Name Changes

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Eisha Love, a 30-year-old trans woman living in Chicago, was incarcerated for nearly four years after she and a friend were attacked at a gas station in 2012 by men hurling transphobic slurs. One assailant was injured as the two women attempted to flee in a car. Love’s case has been compared to that of CeCe McDonald and others who have faced harsh criminal charges for defending themselves against anti-trans violence: Transgender women and particularly trans women of color experience high rates of violence, police profiling and criminalization.

Love was subjected to more violence while she was imprisoned for years, awaiting trial in the Cook County Jail. Despite being a woman, Love was held in a maximum-security facility for men, and she lived with a target on her back. Jails and prisons are very dangerous places, and a federal survey released in 2014 found that more than a third of transgender prisoners experienced sexual violence. While incarcerated, Love was attacked by a guard who turned around and filed assault charges against her, but a judge sided with Love in that case. Love said in an interview that seeing the man in court was a trauma, on top of everything else.

Love, who was released in 2015 after accepting a plea deal, is an outspoken activist who has used her story to draw public attention to the criminalization of transgender women of color. Now she is fighting to topple another injustice: Laws preventing people with criminal records from changing their legal names. Love was convicted of a felony, and under Illinois law, people with felony convictions must wait 10 years before they can legally change their name. Love’s legal name, which signals that she was assigned male at birth, appears on her ID and other documents. This immediately outs her as transgender whenever she presents them, and may raise additional suspicions about her identity. This puts Love at risk of experiencing further discrimination and violence.

“Right now, people see me as Eisha Love, but at this moment in time, I am legally someone else, and I want to be legally who I am,” Love told Truthout in an interview.

Trans and non-binary people often change their name to one aligned with their gender identity, and it’s common to seek a legal name change so their identity is reflected on ID cards and other legal documents. Love is one of several transgender women challenging an Illinois statute that prevents them from changing their legal names because they have been criminalized in the past. Similar lawsuits were recently filed on behalf of transgender plaintiffs in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, and a legal team in Texas is planning a challenge to name-change restrictions there. Lark Mulligan, an attorney for Chicago’s Transformative Justice Law Project (TJLP) who filed the lawsuit in Illinois, said the legal challenges are part of a “coordinated movement” to change state laws that create barriers for trans people seeking to change their legal names.

“This is a growing movement,” Mulligan said in an interview. “Illinois is not the only state that has restrictions … but we do have some of the most punitive.”

Truthout recently reached Mulligan while she was helping with a monthly “name change mobilization” in Chicago, where transgender and non-binary people seeking to change their legal names can gather in a common space and access free legal assistance. Even for those who have not been criminalized, there are several barriers to changing a legal name in Chicago, including fees, paperwork and a requirement that the name-change petition be published in a newspaper or other similar publication for three consecutive weeks. Mulligan says it typically costs about $550 to change a name in Chicago, and the process varies in different states and locales.

Mulligan said TJLP recently reached a notable milestone and celebrated legally changing 1,000 names over the past decade. The lawsuit challenging the Illinois name-change statute grew out of this work.

“Every single month, at least one person comes to the name-change mobilization that we have to turn away because they are not eligible,” Mulligan said. “It’s really upsetting, and disproportionately impacts transgender and gender non-binary people, particularly Black trans women, who are disproportionally criminalized and overcharged and over-sentenced.”

Laws restricting legal name changes for people with criminal records vary from state to state and were probably originally intended to prevent fraud and evasion of criminal registries, Mulligan said. (This is unnecessary even for the system’s purposes, since law enforcement can track people in multiple ways besides their first and last name.) While some states have few restrictions, or restrictions that only pertain to certain charges such as fraud and sexual offenses, Illinois requires anyone with a felony conviction to wait a decade after their sentence before changing their legal name.

Transgender people are disproportionally criminalized: For example, transgender women are often profiled as sex workers by police, and anti-trans groups have falsely painted trans people as perpetrators of sexual violence in an effort to prevent them from using public bathrooms that correspond to their gender. Given the prevalence of felony convictions among trans people, name change barriers take a heavy toll both during and after incarceration.

Love and Mulligan argue that the First Amendment guarantees transgender people the right to be addressed as they wish and change their legal names, and conviction-based barriers violate this fundamental right. Beyond this violation, there are many other problems that can arise when a legal name cannot be changed. Cisgender people may take for granted that their identity is taken at face value when asked for a driver’s license or other identification. However, consider, for example, a trans woman whose ID shows her picture, but lists a name that sounds like it belongs to a man. People may doubt her identity, or treat her differently for being trans. This is one reason why people jump through so many hoops to take their “deadname,” or name assigned at birth, off their government documents, according to Mulligan.

“That deadname can out a person to anybody who sees that ID,” Mulligan said.

In a 2017 white paper, Mulligan describes two women — one cisgender and one transgender — who apply for jobs and food stamp benefits, two resources that can be crucial after incarceration. The cisgender woman has no trouble when she presents her ID to her caseworker and potential manager at a restaurant. However, when the transgender woman shows her ID, there is a picture of a woman next to the name “Thomas,” rather than her chosen name. The caseworker accuses her of attempting to defraud the government, and then asks invasive questions about her genitalia when the woman explains she is transgender. Similar problems arise at her job interview, and the offer of employment is rescinded.

“Applying for jobs, applying for housing, entering government buildings — there are so many times we present our IDs,” Mulligan said. “We live in such a police surveillance state, and that puts trans people at risk.”

Transgender women of color experience extremely high rates of poverty and discrimination and are often in need of government services, but they are also more likely to be criminalized and lose their right to change their name in a state like Illinois. It’s a dangerous Catch-22 in a world where anti-trans discrimination is common. A 2015 survey found that 28 percent of transgender people living in Illinois reported being fired from their job, being denied a promotion, or not being hired because of their gender identity. One in five had experienced housing discrimination, such as being evicted from their homes or denied housing, in the past year. Only 11 percent reported having all their IDs and documents changed to reflect the name and gender they prefer.

“I have to explain things to people and have to be looked at differently just because of [my ID],” Love said. “I have definitely experienced the discrimination in multiple ways, I have that happen in so many different ways.”

Of course, there are also deeply personal reasons for changing a legal name. Love has used her name since she was a teenager, and she said that she has worked hard to become the woman she is today. She wants other people to see her for who she is, but she is also demanding the freedom to be herself and see that reflected in every part of her life.

“This is who I worked to become. Let me be me, and let me be free to be who I am and who I say I am,” Love said. “I can’t complete Eisha Love if the documents are not saying who I am.”

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