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Three transgender women challenge portion of Pennsylvania’s name-change law

A current provision of the law blocks people from being able to change their names to match their gender identity.

Three Pennsylvania women filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging a provision in the state's name change law. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Three Pennsylvania women filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging a provision in the state's name change law. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Alonda Talley, a Philadelphia transgender woman, is one of three Pennsylvanians who filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Commonwealth Court challenging a 20-year-old provision that prevents them from legally changing their names.

Currently, the state’s name-change law contains a provision barring people convicted of certain felonies — including rape and aggravated assault — from ever changing their names, said Patrick Yingling, one of the attorneys representing the women.

People convicted of other felonies may change their names after a two-year waiting period.

The provision being challenged, Yingling said, was an amendment enacted in 1998 that barred those with serious felonies from ever obtaining a new name — the presumption was it would be for fraudulent purposes, such as avoiding financial obligations. The people in this lawsuit are barred from changing their names because of felonies they committed before they identified as women.

“There is a big problem with the law. It ends up prohibiting a lot of people with legitimate reasons for getting a name change,” said Yingling, one in a group of Reed Smith lawyers who are representing the transgender women pro bono. “In particular, for transgender people, they just want a name change that reflects their identity and true gender.”

In an affidavit filed with the lawsuit, Talley, 32, said she was convicted of aggravated assault in 2009. Now, 10 years later, she identifies as a woman — but her only government-issued identification cites her birth name, Adolphus. As a result, she’s experienced run-ins with police and challenges to voting. She hasn’t even tried to board a plane.

“I have been harassed and insulted by police who have repeatedly insisted that Adolphus is not my ‘real name’ and demanded I provide my ‘real name,' " Talley said in the lawsuit. “Police have threatened to arrest me for ‘misrepresentations’ or ‘false pretenses’ after they demanded I provide my identification and then perceived a mismatch with my identity.”

A spokesperson for the Department of State, which is named in the lawsuit, was not aware of the filing early Thursday.

The other plaintiffs listed in the court filing are Chauntey Mo’Nique Porter and Priscylla Renee Von Noaker. Both live in Allegheny County.

In her affidavit, Porter said she was convicted of aggravated assault in 2008: “I have endured abuse, harassment, and humiliation from police, employers, coworkers and other service providers, such as bank employees," she said. "Recently while attending a club with friends, a bouncer viewed my government-issued identification card and announced ‘That’s a dude!’ to surrounding patrons.”

Such incidents can lead to potentially dangerous situations for transgender people in what otherwise should be mundane, everyday encounters, said Luke E. Debevec, a partner in the firm’s Philadelphia office.

“There’s an opportunity for violence and misunderstanding and all sort of affronts to a person’s dignity if you cannot be known by your own name,” Debevec said.

Debevec said he believes this lawsuit is the first to challenge the constitutionality of the provision’s “irrebuttable conviction bar" — irrebuttable because those affected are not allowed to seek a court hearing to tell a judge the reason for the name change.

“We’re seeking a declaration and permanent injunction against the law being enforced the way it is,” Debevec said.

The law -- which includes murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping as the serious felonies barring a name change -- already contains provisions requiring criminal background checks, judgment record searches, public hearings, and publication notices of the name change, he said.

It’s also a free-speech issue, Debevec said.

Pennsylvanians have the “right to protect one’s own name and reputation, and in addition, to free speech, which means the right to speak and not to speak,“ he said, as in not being forced to tell strangers that their name doesn’t match their gender identity because they are transgender.

Under the current law, he added, “people can live their entire lives being forced to speak a name they don’t recognize as their own identity. That’s not justice.”

The lawsuit came out of the work of the Name Change Project, a long-running pro bono enterprise in multiple cities involving Reed Smith and the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, among others, to help indigent transgender people get their names changed.