While scrolling through Facebook one day, I came across a video of an 18-year-old transgender man whose friends at school surprised him with enough money to legally change his name. As I watched him cry and hug his friends, I smiled and felt hopeful for the future, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much his friends had collected.
I learned that changing one’s name requires a significant amount of money, with the exact amount varying by county. Philadelphia County charges $388 to file a name change petition, according to the Philadelphia Court System.
The cost to change one’s name is absurdly high, and that financial barrier needs to be lowered, especially considering the fact that legally changing one’s name can be a crucial part of the process of gender transition and of eliminating gender dysphoria, which Planned Parenthood defines as “the distress, unhappiness, and anxiety that transgender people may feel about the mismatch between their bodies and their gender identity.”
“There’s this person that I pretended to be for many, many years,” said Rebecca Zalkin, a freshman mathematics major. “I think I chose to change my name because I didn’t want to be seen as that person anymore.”
On top of this financial burden, the protocol for changing one’s name is long, complicated and potentially dangerous for transgender individuals.
“The process itself is sort of insane,” said Bucky Baker, a sophomore public health major and president of Students for Trans Awareness and Rights. “It’s just so convoluted and complicated, and you can’t really do it on your own. It’s so hard to figure it out on your own without actual legal help.”
In Pennsylvania, the first step is to submit a Petition for Change of Name to the county prothonotary office, along with the aforementioned fee, according to PA Law Help, an organization providing legal help to those experiencing poverty.
Pennsylvania law requires any name change be published in two newspapers, in case someone objects to the change. This effectively forces trans people to decide between outing themselves to the public or having a legal name incompatible with their identity.
“It’s kind of scary for privacy reasons,” said Jackson Burke, a freshman fine arts major and vice president of STAR.
After the change is approved, more steps and expenses follow. Copies of the paperwork need to be sent to different offices so they can update their files.
Zalkin had to spend $100 to submit their petition, along with another $120 to make multiple copies, she said.
Transgender people face a poverty rate of 29.4 percent, compared to 21.6 percent for LGBTQ people generally and the 15.7 percent for non-LGBTQ people, according to the William’s Institute’s 2019 study of LGBTQ poverty.
It’s evident that only wealthy people have the income available to pay for expensive costs that come from changing one’s name, and when a system only works for the choice few, it’s a sign that the system needs to be reformed.
A decrease in the costs of name change are important, but it’s only a bandage for a much deeper wound.
Laws that complicate the process of legally changing one’s name invalidate the identity of transgender individuals and add to a system of institutionalized transphobia. Transgender individuals should not need to pay hundreds of dollars, enter a convoluted application process and out themselves to the public in order to change their name.
These laws came about to prevent people from changing their names to avoid debt, but to compare this to transgender individuals is problematic because it implies that transgender people are trying to escape from something. It equates a criminal trying to distance themselves for their crimes to somebody who’s become their truest, and that’s unfair.
Government officials need to recognize this and develop a simpler and less expensive process for transgender individuals by informing themselves about trans issues.
“People don’t usually change their name that often,” Jackson said. “It’s usually just when you get married. So, they’re not prepared for people who are getting it changed for other reasons.”
Students looking to change their name can seek help from the Name Change Project at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and the Mazzoni Center, an organization dedicated to LGBTQ health and well-being that provides legal advice for transgender individuals looking to change their name.
Of course, legally changing one’s name doesn’t make somebody’s presentation of their gender identity any more or less valid, but for a number of transgender individuals, it’s an essential step in the process of transitioning.