A New York State appeals court today struck down a lower court's requirement that transgender people seeking to change their names provide medical evidence of their need for the name change. The ruling was handed down in an appeal we filed on behalf of Olin Winn-Ritzenberg, a transgender man whose petition to change his name to Olin was denied by the lower court because he had failed to provide a letter from a doctor, therapist or social worker establishing his need to change his name.
But the appellate court wrote, "[t]here is no sound basis in law or policy to engraft upon the statutory provisions an additional requirement that a transgendered-petitioner present medical substantiation for the desired name change." The court's decision sends a powerful message that transgender people must be treated equally and that they cannot be subjected to different legal requirements than everyone else. People's names are fundamental to their identities. This decision confirms that each one of us has the right to be known by a name we choose. That decision can't be second-guessed by doctors, therapists or anyone else simply because someone is transgender.
Upon learning of the ruling, Olin said, "This 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."
We were lucky to have the assistance of some incredibly talented lawyers, including Brenna DeVaney, Benjamin Edwards, Daniel Gonen, and Janson Mao, who served with us as Olin's co-counsel. Daniel admirably argued the appeal. And our friends at Debevoise & Plimpton and Lambda Legal submitted a stellar brief in support of Olin's appeal. You can read the appeal brief we submitted on Olin's behalf here.
We'd be remiss if we failed to acknowledge Olin's perseverance throughout the long appeal process. Instead of complying with a lower court requirement that we all knew was unjust (and that had been imposed upon many other people), he chose to fight it, delaying his own name change for many months to finally put an end to the practice of subjecting transgender name change applicants to this burdensome and demeaning doctor's note requirement. Thank you, Olin!
Olin changed his name through TLDEF's Name Change Project, which provides free and low-cost name changes by matching transgender community members in New York City with lawyers in private practice who provide their services free of charge. If you or someone you know needs help with a name change, please contact us.
Many months ago, when we first filed this appeal, we asked the question, "Who Decides?" Who decides what your gender identity is? Doctors, government officials, and agency administrators? Or each one of us as autonomous individuals? After many months, we're very happy to have closed the circle with a victory for freedom and self-determination.