Legal recognition for transgender, nonbinary Pennsylvanians doesn’t come easy. Here’s why some are calling for change

By: - June 29, 2021 4:57 pm

Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus Policy Committee hear testimony from impacted Pennsylvanians and legal experts on barriers for the transgender community. (Screenshot)

For Alex Quinn Range, who came out as nonbinary last year, legal recognition didn’t come easy.

Changing their name resulted in a “grueling” months-long process that required a “ridiculous” amount of paperwork, the Erie County resident, college student, and advocate testified Tuesday during a Senate Democratic Caucus Policy Committee hearing on barriers for the transgender community.

“While I was lucky enough to have supportive parents, we had no idea how much time, money, and effort would be required in order for me to live as my true self,” Range said. 

They added: “We started the process in April, had the court hearing scheduled for May, and as of right now, I am still in the process of getting my name corrected on certain accounts and documents.”

In total, Range’s family paid nearly $400 to legally change their name. Half of that cost went toward publishing a public hearing notice in their local newspaper, as well as the legal journal, Range said.

“Which honestly, I didn’t even want,” they added.

Another $150 was used to process their petition at the courthouse; the rest went toward correcting their birth certificate and getting new identification, they said. Range is still waiting for name corrections, including to their social security card, which requires an original birth certificate and a court order to prove that the name change is legitimate.

This is a process that varies statewide and one anyone in Pennsylvania has to go through to legally change their name or gender identity — no matter the reason, Corinne Goodwin, executive director of the Lehigh Valley-based Eastern Pennsylvania Trans Equity Project, told the Capital-Star.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Trans Equity Project represents a 10-county region, and every county’s process is different, she said. Some counties require a third party to conduct fingerprinting and background checks; others require residency documentation for the last five years, as well as judgment searches.

“Some counties will do it over the phone, and sometimes, you have to go out of town,” she said. “There’s no national process for it, and there’s no single state process for it.”

When Goodwin — who owns her own business and has experience with legal documents — changed her name, she looked at the 30 pages of paperwork and thought, “Yeah, this is way over my head” and hired an attorney to help her through the process, she said.

In Pennsylvania, the cost of legally changing a name without an attorney can range anywhere from $300 to $600, Goodwin said. With an attorney, individuals could pay upwards of $2,000. The process, she added, can take as many as 120 days, depending on court calendars and if an individual can take time off to file documents.

“And if you can’t get a day off for three weeks, it’s going to delay it,” she said.

For comparison, the name change process in New Hampshire costs $130. Application instructions are two pages, and processing is estimated to take 45 days.

Citing the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey from Pennsylvania, Olivia Hunt, senior legal counsel on identification documents for the National Center for Transgender Equality, testified that 69 percent of respondents reported that none of their IDs had the name and gender marker they preferred. Only 9 percent had their preferred name and gender marker on all ID documents and records. Thirty-five percent of those who had not changed their legal name reported that they had not done so because they couldn’t afford it.

But the cost isn’t the only deterrent, Thomas Ude Jr., who serves as legal and public policy director for the Philadelphia-based Mazzoni Center, said. Publishing hearing notices in local newspapers could pose a risk to someone’s privacy and safety, he added.

“Publication is also different today than what it was a dozen years ago. It doesn’t just appear in the classified section of the newspaper and then go on a shelf,” he said, noting that publication could result in someone having access to an individual’s former and chosen name based on a newspaper archive and in a court database. “That is a concern not just for personal safety, but also economic safety.”

In 2020, the rate of violence against trans people was higher than any year since the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group, began tracking data in 2013. So far this year, the advocacy group has reported at least four acts of violence against transgender and nonbinary people in Pennsylvania.

“You are leaving yourself open to the threat of physical violence,” Goodwin said, noting that some counties require the applicant to publish their address.

An individual can apply to waive the requirement to publish, and in many cases, they’re successful, Goodwin said — but not always.

In Pennsylvania, there is also no statewide law to protect transgender and nonbinary people from discrimination — meaning that a landlord could refuse to rent to a tenant based on their gender identity with no repercussions, Goodwin added.

But the best way to make the name and gender identity change process easier in Pennsylvania is to establish a simplified, statewide process, Goodwin said.

“This impacts not just people of transgender experience,” Goodwin said, adding that someone might want to change their birth name later on in life or change their name after a divorce. “It impacts cisgender people who want to change their name. It’s not just about transgender folks. It’s anybody who needs to change their name.”

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