NY Court: Trans People Don’t Need Dr.’s Note for Name Change

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday October 23, 2009

New York's top court reversed a lower court's ruling that said transgendered people choosing new names to fit their gender identity needed documentation from a doctor to make the change legal.

A three-justice panel overruled the lower court's finding on Oct. 21, reported The New York Times in an story published that same day.

The three New York Supreme Court justices on the panel, Douglas E. McKeon, Martin Schoenfeld and Martin Shulman, wrote that the plaintiff had "satisfied the requirements for a name change," and further noted that, "In the absence of fraud, misrepresentation, or interference with the rights of others, the name change petition should have been granted."

The justices wrote that, "There is no sound basis in law or policy to engraft upon the statutory provisions an additional requirement that a transgendered-petition present medical substantial for the desired name change."

The case had been appealed by the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, the article said, and stemmed from a petition by Olin Yuri Win-Ritzenberg, a 26-year-old transman looking to change his name legally from Leah.

Winn-Ritzenberg's petition was turned down in February by Manhattan civil court judge Manuel J., Mendez, the article said. Judge Mendez ruled that before his petition could be honored, Winn-Ritzenberg would have to secure a doctor's note saying that he had a genuine "need" to change his name. Documentation from a social worker or a psychologist would also have been acceptable, according to Judge Mendez's ruling.

That ruling contradicted the law as applied to everyone else, argued Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund executive director Michael D. Silverman, who noted that New York law says anyone is free "to change his or her name at will, for any reason," the article said, going on to note that the Defense Fund had also heard from about ten others with similar bureaucratic impediments to their name change requests.

Silverman pointed out that for many transgendered people, surgical or hormonal means of altering their anatomical gender are not necessary in order for them to embrace their gender identity. Living as a member of the gender with which a person identifies is often enough to satisfy a need to be recognized as belonging to that gender. A change of name, like a change of wardrobe, hair style, and other external factors, can help align a person's gender perception with his or her gender identity.

The article noted that the Defense Fund offers a Name Change Project to help transgendered individuals with the process of obtaining a new legal identity.

Said Silverman, "This ruling confirms that each one of us has the right to be known by a name we choose. That choice can't be second-guessed by doctors, therapists or anyone else just because someone is transgender."

Mr. Winn-Ritzenberg said, "This ruling means that I can finally change my name and move forward with my life. My gender transition has been a very personal journey, and no one is in a better position to decide that I need to change my name than I am."

Legal name changes and new documentation reflecting a person's change of name and gender are important when it comes to everyday matters like job-seeking or voting.

Indeed, trans individuals have found themselves unable to vote in the past due to disparities between voter's rolls and their new identities; a story posted at The New York Times last November reported that a transgendered voter's change of name is often not reflected on records available to polling place workers.

That creates a whole new class of voter disenfranchisement, according Silverman, who told the Times that "tens of thousands" of transgendered New Yorkers faced potential problems at polling places--if, that is, they ventured out to vote.

Silverman posited that voters living as one gender, but with a first name still on the records as an artifact from their days living as the other gender, might "feel uncomfortable asserting their rights in this type of situation."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.