The Name Game, or, Why Judges Matter

blind justiceUPDATE: There is now a petition to remove this jurist from office.

A regional newspaper from Oklahoma reported this weekend that District Court Judge Bill Graves repeatedly denies legal name change requests from transgender people when their cases are assigned to him. But let me take a step back and provide a little context for why I’d pluck this one sad story out of the bin, and why this matters to transpeople and all of us.

Several hurdles stand in the way of any individual’s transition; in addition to the social shifts involved in telling one’s friends, coworkers and family about their gender identity, and on top of navigating the health care and mental health industries to make one’s chosen medical changes, there is also the myriad of legal rules and guidelines to manage. Making the legal changes even more complex for transfolk, most of the laws that transect gender identity weren’t designed for this purpose, leaving us to cobble together a paperwork patchwork to get what we need in the way of identity documents and necessary legal guidance (like wills or power of attorney). And just to throw another monkey wrench into the mix, consider that the requirements for obtaining new identity papers or altering old ones are different not only from state to state, but sometimes from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. For example, some states will grant a new birth certificate with no notation on the form that there has been any change from the original name or sex marker, other states will show that the certificate has been amended, and some states, like Ohio, forbid any changes to their issued birth certificates, no matter the reason. 

The decentralization of the legal name change process and birth certificate form has meant that depending on where one was born and where one currently lives or which jurisdictions one can access impacts federal documents that are “downstream” from these state- and city-controlled documents. Because one must submit a birth certificate in order to get a United States of America passport–the quintessential citizen’s ID–until recently some transpeople were unable to travel outside of the country, or at least find themselves delayed by months or years, just because the circumstances of their birth precluded it. I can think of fewer things that are as un-American as being beholden to one’s birthplace.

Yes, America is a country of inequity, even though its identity documents suggest that we are all equal. In the US, if I’d kept my original sex marker and gotten married, I could have changed my name without applying at my local district or superior court, because our paternalism assumes all women will marry and take their husband’s name. And although it’s not as popular as changing one’s surname, women could most certainly change their first and middle names on their marriage license applications and have those legally adjusted as well. This is in context with the medical system at work in the US, as well. If I’d wanted to increase the size of my breasts rather than remove them, I would not have needed a letter from a mental health professional with a valid diagnosis to hand to the surgeon. Part and parcel with being transgender in America is the experience of being second guessed by nearly every other adult in the process of transition. We are used to, if unhappy with, a set of hegemonic systems that investigate our motivations and that cast suspicion on us when other individuals not on the margins make personal choices for their lives.

Certainly what this justice in Oklahoma asserts is not new or even unexpected. I’ve known people who were refused their name changes in Philadelphia and New York City, not two cities known for being especially conservative. Perhaps only his audacity to publicly admit his biases and stand by them is notable here, but in this election season, Judge Graves’s bigoted values is evidence of why voter ID laws are so inhumane and corrupt. For trans individuals who don’t look gender normative, there is resistance at the polls. Add to this tension the need for appropriate identification papers, and it’s easy to see why some organizations are worried about our community’s access to voting. My dear friend, Dr. Jody Herman, wrote a report on this subject last April.

Nontrans people take for granted that we all have easy access to the government institutions who manage and are responsible for our identification documents and everything that is dependent on them (Social Security benefits, driver’s licenses, airline tickets, bank accounts, etc.). When those institutions decide to withhold the paperwork we are entitled to, it is destructive to our psyches, our ability to succeed, our feelings of stability and connection to the rest of culture, and our material assets. Graves’s logic is beyond vapid and nonsensical, and yet he is allowed to apply it to the detriment of others. Meanwhile, the other judges on the bench in his district routinely grant these name change requests, even when requested by transsexuals. That one’s future happiness and self-determination should come down to which judge is assigned the review is anathema to the rule of law. He may not be very different from the pharmacist who refuses to fill a prescription for a woman’s Plan B bill, or the medical doctor who refuses a life-saving treatment to a drug addict, but I believe we must resist these gatekeepers when they act against the public’s interest. Judge Graves may not be the only justice misapplying his skewed values onto marginalized people, but he should not be protected by his commonality, either. We should call for his removal from the bench because he has shown himself to be unfit for duty.

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Categories: LGBT Civil Rights, ponderings


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One Comment on “The Name Game, or, Why Judges Matter”

  1. September 19, 2012 at 8:00 am #

    I am from Oklahoma, and this is quite upsetting to me. Whether it’s the first time it has happened or the last doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t be happening at all. I told a friend about the news, and he had a fantastic reply: “Ironically enough, Oklahoma was once a male state named Oklahomo.”

    Certainly. humor doesn’t fix the problem, but the best humor does draw attention to the absurdity of the situation, and this situation is absurd.

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