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A new frontier for Florida courts: Transgender name changes

Christopher Novak of Plant City smiles at Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan as he requests to legally change his name from Christine to Christopher in August. Sheehan approved.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

Christopher Novak of Plant City smiles at Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan as he requests to legally change his name from Christine to Christopher in August. Sheehan approved.

On a rainy summer afternoon inside the courthouse by the railroad tracks in Plant City, the case is halfway down the crowded docket.

Petitioner: Christine Rose Novak, it reads. Name change.

Weary-looking people fill the benches in family court, most of them here for divorces. But in the third row, wearing a vibrant blue necktie and the beginnings of a beard, sits the petitioner, his girlfriend at his side.

"Novak," the bailiff calls.

The petitioner stands, starting to sweat. He wonders if the judge will be judgmental. He has had some experience with judgmental.

Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan waves him up close to the bench, looks into his file, asks a few questions.

"And you are currently Christine Rose?" she says.

Yes.

"And you wish to change your name to Christopher Skye?"

"Yes ma'am," says Novak, 27.

By now the restless audience has stilled to listen. "He's a girl?" a woman whispers to her friend.

No criminal record, the judge notes, and nothing to indicate you're doing this to duck a debt. She looks at a driver's license photo that could be his pretty sister. Then she peers over her glasses at him.

She says she is glad to be part of this moment. "You look every bit Christopher," she says. Papers are signed, dated, stamped. "You are now a young man, officially on paper," the judge says. The whole thing takes only a few minutes.

He walks out of court with his girlfriend. The rain has stopped. Legally, he is who he feels like he has been for a long time. He has a name that sounds like himself. He is, officially, Christopher.

• • •

In Florida, as long as it's not for nefarious purposes like avoiding a bankruptcy or hiding a criminal record, you can change your name for pretty much any reason. Pay your fee ($414 in Hillsborough County, $395 in Pinellas), submit your paperwork, show up for your court date. You don't even need a lawyer.

A Miami-Dade judge recently granted a local artist's request to henceforth be known as Leonardo da Vinci. A Florida man with the last name Dudah once legally made his first name Zippidy.

Often, name change requests are about restoring former names after divorces or making sure the name someone has been using matches the one on his birth certificate. But at this moment in history — when even small- town America knows Bruce Jenner became Caitlyn and the president himself has weighed in on bathrooms in schools — judges are seeing more of another kind of name change on their dockets: Transgender people who want their names to reflect not the sex to which they were born, but the one with which they identify.

Because the required forms don't ask why someone wants a new name, it's difficult to say how many gender-based requests are sprinkled amongst the hundreds that pass through local courtrooms each year. But on both sides of Tampa Bay, judges say the numbers are up.

"There have been more over the last year or two than I had previously seen," says Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Jack Helinger, who has been on the bench eight years. Among his cases have been teenagers, who must have the consent of both parents.

Some local judges handle gender-based name changes at the bench or move them to the end of the docket to avoid any reaction from the audience. A petitioner isn't required to bring documents from a doctor specifying details of transitioning — counseling, hormone therapy, surgery — though judges say they often do.

For the unfamiliar, transgender issues can be uncharted territory: terms like nonbinary, pangender and — instead of Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms. or a gender-neutral honorific used in Britain, Mx. (It's unclear how wide usage could be here, though the term was added to Merriam-Webster Unabridged in April.)

An August conference for Florida judges included a class on transgender matters in court. One question: How do they properly address someone standing in front of them asking for a name of a different gender?

Miss or Mr.?

He or she?

"I don't want to insult anyone," says Hillsborough Circuit Judge Michael Scionti, elected to the bench in 2014.

The simplest solution: Ask. "I'll ask, 'Jonathan Smith, how do you prefer the court address you?' And they'll say, 'Judge, I prefer 'Miss Smith,' " Scionti says. "And that seems to be working well."

It sounds simplistic that people in court should be called by the right name and pronoun, says Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Scott Bernstein, chairman of the Florida Supreme Court Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity. "But you wouldn't believe what impact that has on a litigant," he says.

As the Trans and Youth Program Coordinator at Metro Health, Wellness & Community — a St. Petersburg and Tampa nonprofit that began as an HIV service organization and provides LGBT primary care, therapy, counseling and support groups — Lucas Wehle finds himself helping two or three people a week negotiate the legal name- change process he has been through himself.

"Especially lately," says Wehle, 24.

He goes through the paperwork with them step by step and sends them to the police department for fingerprints for the required background check. He tells them to get copies of birth certificates and, "I don't know, your cat's middle name" — to make sure nothing's missing.

His mother cried when he changed his name. His father wanted him to wait. They have come around since, he says.

"Names are super important," he says.

Changing your name is a turning point, Wehle says. But it can also be as practical as the cashier who wouldn't let him pay for his lunch because of the feminine-sounding name printed on his card.

"Most of the time it's ignorance," Wehle says. But on occasion, "you'll find the anger," too.

• • •

Transgender name changes tend to get granted without much fuss.

But earlier this year in Augusta, Ga., Superior Court Judge J. David Roper declined to change the name of a college student from Rebeccah Elizabeth to Rowan Elijah Feldhaus.

"I don't know anybody named Elijah who's female," the judge said, according to a court transcript. "I'm not going to do that. I've never heard of that. And I know who Elijah was, one of the greatest men who ever lived."

Months later, he ruled similarly in the case of a transgender man who wanted to legally become Andrew Baumert, the name by which he said everyone already knew him. The judge refused. "My policy has been that I will not change a name from an obviously female to an obviously male name, and vice versa," he said.

The judge did say he could "live with" the petitioner picking a "gender-neutral" name and suggested Shannon, Shaun or Bobby. "Even Morgan is now transgender," Roper said. "Jamie, whatever."

Baumert declined. Both cases are on appeal.

But this resistance appears to be the exception and not the rule.

"Most states have treated transgender folks like they treat all other people before them asking for a name change," says Beth Littrell, senior attorney with Lambda Legal, the national LGBT legal advocacy group that's handling the appeals. They are hopeful about the legal precedent these cases could set. A decision in the Elijah matter is expected by April.

• • •

How do you pick a new name for the rest of your life?

Obviously, the decision is intensely personal. Some people try on names with friends or support groups and discard what doesn't fit. Some peruse baby names popular now or when they were born. Some take the names of relatives or famous people. Some ask their parents: What would you have called me if I had been a boy? If I were born a girl?

Others say they have quietly carried around what seemed like their real name for years.

Whatever it is, "you need to identify with it," Wehle says.

Once a high school football star and homecoming king, Gina Duncan is now the transgender inclusion director for Equality Florida in Orlando, helping businesses and corporations develop fully inclusive transgender policies and procedures.

Here is how she got her name when she started to transition from male to female a decade ago:

"For some reason, the trend seemed to be you chose the most flamboyant name that you thought was the most feminine," she says. She picked Tiffany. "I must have known four different Tiffanys that were transgender" at the time, she said. (Others report picking names considered hyper-masculine, like Phoenix.)

Over dinner, she told friends. "They all kind of turned their noses up and said, 'You don't really look like a Tiffany.' " Someone said she looked Italian — maybe a Gina.

"It made a lot of sense in that my old name was Greg," she says. "I became Gina."

"It was all very random. But it had a lot of meaning for me."

She also remembers snickers in the courtroom the day she made it legal. It came from court personnel.

• • •

Advocates say a legal name change can be an important psychological, social and emotional step — particularly given a transgender population in which a stunning 41 percent report having attempted suicide. It's a population that also reports high rates of discrimination and harassment.

A name that matches your gender identity — and how you look, dress and present yourself — is "a very simple way that the world validates you as who you are," say Mira Krishnan, a Michigan neuropsychologist and diversity consultant who has worked on LGBT issues. "It has a sense of feeling right."

"It's funny — people will say to me, 'I forgot what your name was before,' " says Krishnan, who legally changed her name two years ago. "I do, too."

Some won't speak their former name. It's called "dead-naming" when someone else insists on using it.

"When I use my birth name, it's kind of like lying," says JJ Martinez, a 27-year-old Tampa college student who came out as a transgender man at 19. "Pretending to be somebody I've really never been."

Novak, the Plant City petitioner who hopes to become a chef, says a new name is like saying goodbye and then welcoming who you are.

"Your happier self," he says.

Transgender activists say that carrying around a name that doesn't match how a person looks can even be dangerous. It can attract the kind of attention "that can lead to harassment, abuse, even violence," says Littrell of Lambda Legal.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 40 percent of respondents reported being harassed when they used an ID that did not match their gender expression. Fifteen percent were asked to leave an establishment. Three percent said they were assaulted or attacked.

"It's not like you wake up one day and say, 'Oh, this is who I can be,' " Martinez says. "Nobody would choose to do something that could get them killed."

Judges say they see the weight of this in court.

"I've heard from enough transgender folks who tell me the day they get their name change — something which they celebrate like you and I might celebrate a birthday — they view this as almost like a rebirth for them," says Judge Bernstein.

"I sense some relief," says Judge Scionti.

"Sometimes," says Judge Helinger, "it is truly moving on to another chapter of life."

• • •

He got to the Hillsborough courthouse ready to become Jeremiah Josiah "JJ" Martinez and leave Tiffany Lynn behind three hours before his hearing was supposed to start. He wore a suit — dress for success, his mother always said — prompting a woman in the courtroom to consult him for lawyerly advice in her divorce.

The bailiff said he was last on the docket. By the time his case was called, he was shaking.

The judge asked why he wanted this. He said he wanted his name on the college degree he was about to get, and one day on his children's birth certificates. Later he would remember she smiled. Granted.

Here is what happened afterward:

"Have you ever seen this thing where a guy excuses himself from a meeting, goes in a room and does a little dance?" he says. "I did that in the hallway."

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]

A new frontier for Florida courts: Transgender name changes 09/26/16 [Last modified: Monday, September 26, 2016 10:03am]
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