What’s In a Name?

Earlier this year, Sylvia Guerrero—mother of slain transgender teen Gwen Araujo—and her attorneys at the Transgender Law Center, announced that Ms. Guerrero’s request to legally change her daughter’s name had been granted by the California courts.

It was a touching gesture, but it also gave real legal weight to the life Gwen, who was brutally murdered in 2002 in northern California, lived as a transgender girl.  

But why legally change the name of a dead girl? Beyond serving as the last, loving gesture of a mother who tragically lost her child, there are a number of compelling reasons. Hopefully, it will stop the misuse of Gwen’s birth name and gender in future news coverage. But more significantly, the name change stakes a claim for who Gwen really was. During the trial of her murderers, defense lawyers, in an unscrupulous attempt to justify the brutal beating and killing, inaccurately portrayed Gwen as a “boy” who deceived “his” attackers.

Every year, hundreds of transgender people access the courts to change their birth names. Though it may seem like symbolic paper pushing, having legal recognition of your chosen name and appropriate gender is critical—for validation, for social recognition and for safety. Just look to the current struggle for marriage equality for gay and lesbian people to see how significant a role legal documentation plays in granting protections, benefits and responsibilities.

Names are important.

Imagine not having your correct name or sex on your driver’s license, passport, Social Security records, HMO card, school transcripts, employment records, lease or mortgage.

Mismatched names on official I.D.s can turn a routine traffic stop into an arrest, or a trip to the emergency room into a public spectacle. According to a recent San Francisco-based report by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the Transgender Law Center, nearly one in two transpeople in that city reported gender-based discrimination in employment, one in three suffered discrimination in housing and public accommodations, 25 percent reported discrimination by police officers and more than 30 percent reported they’ve been discriminated against while trying to access health care.

The bias underlying these unfortunate statistics is premised on the idea that transfolk are trying to fool people when we express our gender identity by living as our true selves. For us, the name and sex we were assigned at birth doesn’t align with the reality of our lives. When we transition, it’s not about deceiving people, it’s about being true to our selves. Unfortunately, we’re stuck living this truth in a system that makes few allowances for our existence.

That’s changing.

The recent recognition of Gwen’s name by state courts is emblematic of society’s growing recognition of and respect for transgender people. Winning our hard-fought inclusion in the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) proposal before Congress is probably the most significant step towards trans equality on the national level and, if enacted, would be a critical move toward curbing gender identity discrimination in the workplace—a major factor in the employment crisis within the trans community.

Earlier this month, I finally went to court to legally change my name and sex. It was a long time coming. Born female and named Jill Louise, I’ve never conformed to gender norms—to the chagrin of my parents. Growing up, I was always asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?” As an adult, it was “Can I help you, sir… ma’am… sir?”

I’ve been living and working as a man named Simon for five years. Now, with the blessing of the Superior Court of San Francisco, it’s official. My colleagues gave me “It’s a Boy” cigars to celebrate. Lucky for me, I was born in California—a state that allows transgender people to legally amend our birth certificates. Many states don’t, which forces trans men and women to live in a legal limbo.

With the help of our allies in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and progressive communities, we can work to implement a nationwide, systematic and streamlined way to legally recognize transgender men and women—without requiring we surgically conform to biological convention. It should be common practice to allow people to mark the gender and use the name that corresponds to their identity on all of the forms that we routinely fill out at schools, hospitals and in employment.

So what’s in a name? Names are significant for all of us—transgender or not. They express our true identity. From a practical standpoint, having identification documents that are consistent with the name and sex one lives in the world is a necessity.

Simon Aronoff is a board member of the Transgender Law Center and a senior account executive at Fenton Communications, a public interest communications firm.

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