Lambda Legal Urges Georgia Court to Grant Name Change for Transgender Man

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June 9, 2016
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Lambda Legal client Rowan Feldhaus
Lambda Legal client Rowan Feldhaus

Lambda Legal filed a brief today in the Georgia Court of Appeals on behalf of Rowan Feldhaus, a transgender man whose petition to legally change his name to reflect his gender identity was denied by a trial court.

Learn more about the case.

Rowan says:

“I felt insulted and objectified to be told by the court that I would not be able to have the name that my family, my friends, and my co-workers all call me, based on sexist opinions about ‘appropriate’ names.

"It can be a scary situation when I show up for work or the first day of class and my legal name does not match my public presentation and my gender identity. I just want to change my name so that it reflects who I am.”

Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Beth Littrell says:

“For many transgender people, going to the court to change their legal name is an important first step towards aligning their legal documents with their gender identity.

"There are only a few exceptions that allow a court to deny someone the right to change their name. Being transgender is not one of those exceptions. Changing your name is time-consuming and costly and should not be denied based on sexist notions or transgender bias.”

Rowan Feldhaus, 24, is from Grovetown, Ga. He works with the Singh Investment Group and is a student at Augusta University. Although doctors assigned his sex as female at birth, Rowan’s gender identity, and therefore his sex, is male.  In July 2015, he took a critical step to be acknowledged for who he is by filing a petition for name change in the Superior Court of Columbia County, Ga.

At the hearing on his petition, held in February 2016, Rowan provided all the necessary information for a name change. He showed that he had completed all statutory requirements, and – though not required – he also provided evidence to educate the court about transgender people and the need for identity documents that accurately reflect their gender identity. He produced an affidavit from his therapist, who confirmed that Rowan is transgender and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria, and that changing his name would be an important part of his treatment. Rowan testified that he was not delinquent on bills or trying to elude creditors by changing his name. 

Superior Court Judge J. David Roper stated that he would deny the requested name unless Rowan chose another middle name, because “Elijah” was not gender-neutral and he “do[es] not approve of changing names from male to female – male names to obvious female names, and vice versa.” Roper said that it could be “dangerous” for a person not to know your gender by your name, but Rowan refused to seek another name to satisfy the judge’s opinion about ‘appropriate’ names based on gender stereotypes.

In March, Judge Roper denied Rowan’s petition based on what he describes as “this court’s policy” of denying names that are not indicative of gender in a way he personally approves. He also cited his concern that Rowan’s name might offend the “sensibilities and mores of a substantial portion of the citizens of this state.” Lambda Legal is appealing the denial and challenging the judge’s unfair and unlawful policy.

M. Dru Levasseur, Lambda Legal's Transgender Rights Project Director, says:

“The court misunderstands the limit of a court’s discretion in these matters. There are many people—men and women, transgender or not—who know what it feels like to be insulted because their name does not meet someone else’s gender stereotype.  For transgender people, having a name that reflects who they are is a meaningful step to being affirmed in the world. The real threats to public safety are by those who refuse to respect name choices or who bully people because their name doesn’t fit a sexist stereotype.”

In the brief filed today Lambda Legal argues that the trial court abused its discretion when it denied Rowan Feldhaus’ name change even though he met all the necessary criteria because the decision was arbitrary and based on insufficient reasons. The brief also argues that the court’s denial was unlawful discrimination based on sex and a violation of Rowan’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression.