Trans Immigrant Fights Indiana for the Right to Change His Name

State law prohibits noncitizens from legally altering their names.
(Photo: Andy Sacks/Getty Images)
Sep 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

For many members of the trans community, adopting a new name that corresponds with their gender identity is a momentous step toward living a more authentic life. But for some trans residents of Indiana, that step is out of reach because of their citizenship status.

This week, the Transgender Law Center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of John Doe, a trans immigrant who has kept his name anonymous to ensure privacy. The suit challenges a law that prohibits noncitizens from changing their legal names.

“I want to use a name that is in line with my true identity,” Doe said in a press release. He lives in Indiana legally but is not a citizen. “Without a legal name change, I am forced to use an ID that is inconsistent with who I am and puts me in danger of harassment, violence, and being outed as transgender whenever I present it.”

Doe, a 31-year-old Mexican citizen, moved to Indiana with his parents when he was six. Doe was first granted Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals status and received asylum because of his gender identity last year.

Doe has lived his entire adult life as a man, and all of his official documents identify his sex as male. Because he has a traditionally female name, the authenticity of his ID is often questioned, and he’s forced to reveal his gender identity to strangers. He will be able to apply for citizenship within the next five years, but in the meantime, Doe risks violence and harassment.

“But for [John Doe’s] noncitizenship status, he’d be able to fully transition, to be a man living in the United States,” Matthew Barragan, a staff attorney at MALDEF, told TakePart.

The complaint argues that barring a legal name change is in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits discrimination based on citizenship.

The complaint lists Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and other state officials as defendants. Pence’s office did not respond to TakePart’s request for comment.

In 2010, the Indiana legislature passed a law that bars noncitizens, including those living in the U.S. legally, from changing their names. The authors of the bill argued that it would prevent immigrants from committing identity theft. MALDEF has found that Indiana is the only state in the nation with a law that prohibits the changing of names by noncitizens.

Transgender immigrants aren’t the only people affected by Indiana’s law. In the days since the complaint was filed, Barragan has heard from a number of Indiana residents who are unable to change their names, including refugees whose names were copied down improperly when they fled their home countries. They are unable to correct errors that create conflicting names on their legal documents and thus cause additional barriers to gaining legal residency.

“[The legislature] believed that immigrants were more likely to commit fraud and illegal activity,” Barragan said. “We find that law to be discriminatory and unjust and have no rational basis.”

Ironically, for John Doe, maintaining a female name that does not match his gender expression has led to accusations of fraud.

“When he goes to bars he’s had experience with bartenders or managers thinking his ID is fake because it says male and it has a feminine name, and he presents as male,” Barragan explained. “Those of us who have a name that corresponds to our gender marker don’t have an issue with that.”

The complaint also details an encounter in an emergency room during which Doe was forced to reveal that he was transgender, only to have hospital staff gawk and laugh at him before he received care.

“That type of treatment has been common for him,” Barragan said. “He’s not able to live his life the way he wants, and he’s always forced to make this explanation to people he doesn’t really know. He doesn’t know if they’ll be friendly. He feels he shouldn’t have to do that, and we agree with him.”