After a two year legal struggle, New York courts uphold an incarcerated transgender woman’s right to change her name, reversing an earlier denial of her legal name change related to lack of medical evidence and the possibility of “confusion”
ALBANY – The New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, Third Judicial Department, held that an incarcerated transgender petitioner cannot be denied a name change simply because she seeks to adopt a feminine name in place of a traditionally masculine name.
SRLP initially filed a name change petition on behalf of Shaniece N. Powell, a writer who runs the blog Indelicate Prose (indelicateprose.wordpress.com), in the Supreme Court of Chemung County in July 2011 following a lengthy legal struggle to obtain her birth certificate, which are often inaccessible to incarcerated people. Justice Judith O’Shea of the Supreme Court initially denied Ms. Powell’s petition because it did not include affidavits from physicians or therapists that she had completed sex reassignment surgery. Justice O’Shea ruled that “the name change will cause confusion…and is fraught with the danger or deception.”
Upon reviewing the Supreme Court’s decision, the Appellate Division, Third Department ordered that Ms Powell’s petition be granted. Writing on behalf of a unanimous panel of five judges, Justice Mercure stated that the petitioner had the right to change her name and that “confusion is attendant to any change of name and does not, in itself, justify denial.” In support of the decision, Justice Mercure cited two of SRLP’s earlier victories: Matter of Golden, the first appellate level case holding that failure to provide medical evidence is not grounds to deny a name change petition filed by a transgender petitioner and Matter of Guido, which held that judges cannot impose extra requirements under the name change statute simply because the petitioner is seeking a name change to one traditionally associated with the opposite gender.
In overturning the Supreme Court decision, the Third Department also rejected Justice O’Shea’s suggestion that the submission of medical or psychological affidavits were necessary to supplement Ms Powell’s petition.
Chase Strangio, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project attorney & Equal Justice Fellow who represented Ms. Powell named the decision as a victory, “We applaud the Court’s reversal of the lower court’s denial of Ms. Powell’s name change. The decision below ignored the law and clearly reflects the biases that transgender individuals are perpetually forced to navigate in the legal system. Legal name changes are vital for transgender individuals who need identification that affirms their preferred name. In New York, and in most jurisdictions in the United States, a name change order is required before legal identification documents can be updated. SRLP has fought judicial bias in the name change process since we opened in 2003.”
Sylvia Rivera Law Project attorney Elana Redfield discussed the broader implications of today’s ruling, “Prior to today’s decision, name changes in the Third Department (which covers vast territory in Eastern New York State, excluding New York City) might include a statement that the name change order does not prove that a gender change has taken place – which led to a lot of confusion and was wasn’t actually within the court’s power to determine. The court’s decision today improves on the previous case law by not making any determination or statements regarding the petitioner’s gender – leaving it open to the individual to self-determine their gender or gender transition without the court overreaching their jurisdiction to weigh in on it.”
After the initial ruling in the lower court that denied the name change, Ms Powell reflected that she would continue the fight to get her name changed, “well…the new news was of course disheartening, but I hope that we can strike again and get a new outcome. I am really not shocked. My type aren’t really accepted with kisses to the cheek and warm embraces. I will not give up hope and I am remaining positive and optimistic.”
By reversing the lower court’s order in this case, the Appellate Department helps to ensure that transgender individuals in prison will have access to the courts to assume names consistent with their gender identities and that the law that applies equally to incarcerated and non-incarcerated transgender petitioners. For Ms. Powell, this decision means that she will be referred to by her preferred name by officers, prison officials and other individuals.
Even with a victory such as this ruling, the work isn’t over yet, Strangio explained, “the struggle for full justice for our transgender, gender non-conforming and intersex community members in prison continues but we honor this decision, as well as Ms. Powell’s bravery and resistance, as powerful acts to bring affirmation and recognition to those who are fighting to survive in New York prisons and jails.”