People with Felonies Have the Right to Live Gender Affirmed, Too

Three trans women have filed a lawsuit against a Pennsylvania law that forbids them from changing their names because they have serious prior felony convictions.

The suit, which the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF)’s Pro Bono partner Reed Smith filed this past week, represents trans women Alonda Talley, Chauntey Mo’Nique Porter and Priscylla Renee Von Noaker. The women all live affirmed in their female gender, but because years ago they were convicted of certain felony crimes, a statute known as the “irrebuttable conviction bar” prevents them from ever legally obtaining name changes.

The bar is the result of a 1998 legislative amendment that aimed to stop fraudulent name changes whose purpose might be to avoid having to meet financial obligations. Some convictions lead to a bar for two years after a sentence is completed. However, for more serious felony convictions, the bar is permanent. It is this portion of the statute that is particularly egregious, because it demonstrably punishes people for life.

The petition argues that the statute violates due process law because, “The Pennsylvania Constitution does not allow for a system under which a person has no opportunity to show that they are seeking a name change for a non-fraudulent purpose (such as to reflect a gender transition), and a court has no opportunity to decide whether the petitioner is seeking a name change for a non-fraudulent purpose.”

The suit further outlines how the law violates the right to free speech, because Pennsylvania has a long-established precedent for name changes as a part of a citizen’s right to define their own identity.

If these sound like quite academic reasons, it’s worth digging into how the harms of these alleged infringements actually manifest for the women in this suit. The lawsuit outlines how every time trans people are required to give their birth-assigned names—for example for passport information, job information and other such legal transactions—they must essentially broadcast the fact they are trans.

The suit says, “This inherently requires them to publicize intimate medical information—the fact that they are transgender—against their will every time they seek to engage in everyday transactions … [and] has caused Petitioners to experience discrimination, ridicule, and contempt.”

Trans people are subject to overwhelming rates of emotional and physical abuse, discrimination and financial and employment disparity. The irrebuttable conviction bar essentially punishes trans people by ensuring they can never move on from past crimes and then punishes them again every time they must disclose their names. It puts them at severe risk of abuse and discriminatory action.

It is undeniable that the women in this suit did commit serious felony crimes. Porter and Talley were convicted for separate incidents of aggravated assault 10 or more years ago, while Von Noaker, now 68, was convicted of rape some 30 years ago. The women do not deny these convictions, nor are they seeking to hide from them. However, they have moved on with their lives and are now each in employment and giving back to their communities.

The crux of the issue is that, were they not trans, they would not still be being punished in this way every time they, for example, pay for something with a debit card that discloses their dead names.

It’s also worth pointing out that in 2018, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission said that existing state laws on sex discrimination cover gender identity, which means trans people can be protected form wider discriminatory action, even if no explicit law is in place enumerating them as a discriminated against class. This further highlights why the irrebuttable conviction bar is out of step with the wider legal framework.

“The right to control one’s name and self-identity is a fundamental right, as is the right to avoid disclosure of sensitive personal matters,” Lawyer Luke E. Debevec says in a press release. “A person ought to be able to obtain a name change to match their gender. … For the Commonwealth to foreclose any way to prove a legitimate purpose for a name change violates the rights enshrined in our constitution. The outcome of this petition will affect all individuals across the state in similar circumstances who seek to change their name.”

The lawsuit seeks injunctive relief against the permanent name-change bar but not the entire statute. A potential way forward would be for the legislative branch to amend the statute to give trans people and others with valid claims a means of having their name change reviewed by a judge who could adjudicate whether the claim is for a valid reason—in this case to live gender affirmed and free of the ever-present danger of being outed.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

32 comments

Lizzy Q
Lizzy Qyesterday

many thanks

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Lizzy Q
Lizzy Qyesterday

many thanks

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Mia B
Marta B6 days ago

Tyfs

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Peter B
Peter B11 days ago

Thanks for this

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Mark Turner
Mark Turner11 days ago

Ty.

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Lara A
Lara A12 days ago

Thank you for posting

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O12 days ago

Wait to get out of jail to change your name.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O12 days ago

Then don't commit felonies.

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O12 days ago

ok

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Clare O'Beara
Clare O12 days ago

th

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