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In 1998, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to prohibit name changes for people with serious felony convictions. (Amy Sisk/WESA)

Three transgender Pennsylvanians are suing the state over a law that bars people who have been convicted of serious felonies from changing their names. The law is meant to prevent fraud, but the plaintiffs say it goes too far, and that they have a constitutional right to change their names.

“There are plenty of individuals with felony convictions, transgender individuals among them, who seek to have a name change and aren’t doing so for a fraudulent purpose,” said Patrick Yingling, a Chicago-based attorney at the Reed Smith law firm. “Whether someone is transgender or not, they should be able to go before a court and explain the legitimate reason why they need a name change.”

Yingling and a team of lawyers at Reed Smith, as well as the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, are representing the three transgender women pro bono in the suit. 

Under Pennsylvania statute, people who have been convicted of serious felonies, including murder, rape, and robbery, are prohibited from changing their legal names. People convicted of less serious crimes must wait at least two years after completing their sentence, and not be on probation or parole, before obtaining a name change.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Commonwealth Court, says transgender people who cannot change their names often must share personal details about their gender against their will. As a result, the suit says the law violates their right to privacy under the state constitution.

“It’s important to realize that these are individuals who just want to live their lives with a name that matches their identity,” Yingling said. “It’s a big deal to have to show government-issued identification that doesn’t match your appearance, and to deal with how people may react to that.”

In their complaint, the plaintiffs say the problem can arise in a range of situations, such as applying for a job or going to the bank. They say they have faced harassment and scorn when police ask to see their ID, and when they must show their ID at restaurants and bars.

For example, plaintiff Chauntey Mo’Nique Porter said in a sworn affidavit, “recently, while attending a club with friends, a bouncer viewed my government-issued identification card and announced, ‘That’s a dude!’ to surrounding patrons.”

Porter, 39, was convicted of aggravated assault in 2008.

Another plaintiff, Alonda Talley, was convicted of aggravated assault a year later. In written testimony, she said when police have viewed her ID, which bears the name she was given at birth, they have threatened to arrest her for “misrepresentations” or “false pretenses.”

Talley, 32, said she also has been questioned when she goes to vote and tries to pay bills over the phone.

“As a result,” the suit says, “Ms. Talley is forced to inform strangers that she is transgender or forced to come to an office in person to complete tasks that others can do quickly over the phone.”

The third plaintiff, Priscylla Renee Von Noaker, was convicted of rape in 1987. The 68-year-old served 10 years in prison. In her affidavit, she said, “I have suffered two recent heart attacks, but when I go to the hospital for treatment, I cannot use my preferred name; instead, I must use a name that does not match my gender expression and with which I have never identified.”

In addition to the Commonwealth itself, the Pennsylvania Department of State and its acting secretary, Kathy Boockvar, are named as defendants. A department spokeswoman declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

The plaintiffs contend that, if they could change their names, the state would still have means to prevent fraud. Under the usual practice for obtaining a name-change, those seeking to change their names usually must advertise a legal notice in two newspapers or similar publications.

That requirement, and the publicity it could potentially create, is known to cause discomfort for some transgender people. A judge may waive the requirement in some cases.

Yingling, the plaintiffs’ attorney, notes that a judge must approve any name change. That, he said, provides another safeguard against fraud.