In a genial statement published by The Huffington Post last week, famous whistleblower Chelsea Manning evinced hope that the seemingly minor yet personally significant victory of a legal petition to change her name would raise awareness of trans* issues among the American populace.
This may seem banal to us gender-normative (or somewhat-gender-normative) cis-folk, but it makes a huge difference to trans* individuals. It means: having legal documents that accurately reflect our gender identity and expression, being able to use bathroom facilities without much fuss, and the availability of (discounting financial and legal hurdles) the relevant forms of healthcare. All things that we take for granted but we would greatly miss them if we did not have them.
Being able to change your name (and gender marker) with ease is a big deal if you are gender-dysphoric, for which transitioning—physically and socially—is the only treatment that will save your life. As it stands now, state-issued identity-documents are required for everything between traveling, getting a job, and purchasing medicine.
In some states, such as New York, you need a court order to initiate the process of changing your name. Applications can be viewed by the public and individuals are required to print a notice in the newspaper (exemptions due to safety concerns are permitted). Now you have privacy and disclosure concerns atop a long paper-trail and filing fees (to the tune of $210 ).
There have been some legislative efforts underway that streamline the name and gender change process for transgender people. California governor Jerry Brown signed AB 1121 last year, which to by-pass the court, forgo the $435 fee, and apply directly to the Office of Vital Records. And there is the English Common Law Rule for name change. It seems mostly applicable to the newly married, but nevertheless seems to serve as a better and more liberty-friend guide for dealing with all voluntary, name changes- regardless of the reason. The only stipulation is consistent usage of your preferred name- and the usual disclaimer about not doing it for fraudulent reasons and other activities that impinge on the rights of others.
If you believe in maximal, individual liberty and self-determination (and even if you don’t), it is important to realize how burdensome state regulations can be. Being wary of and pushing against state meddlesomeness—in all areas of activity (save for violent crimes)—would be an achievement, even when it concerns a matter as seemingly trite as changing your name. Pushing back the state would be a meaningful change for marginalized individuals in our society—especially trans* for whom the intrusiveness element has been amplified.
Get rid of the statutory procedures for name change. Not only would it enable trans* individuals to transition with more ease—safety and privacy intact—but it is consonant with individual self-determination and liberty.