Transgender Women Win Legal Document Case

Transgender Women Can Obtain Legal Documents to Match Who they Are, After First Being Denied Under North Carolina Law

By Melanie Nathan, February 23, 2014.

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Hadassah Chayim

New York, NY February 23 2014- The Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund today announced favorable decisions for two transgender women seeking name changes in North Carolina. Síle Kelleher and Hadassah Chayim had been denied the modification because they had previously changed their names. Under a provision of North Carolina law dating from 1891, individuals may only change their name once for reasons outside of marriage and divorce, or if they are reverting to their original name.

In the first case, TLDEF won a name change for Síle Kelleher. Ms. Kelleher had been prevented from changing her male birth name to Síle, a traditional Irish spelling of Sheila, because she had previously changed it. TLDEF applied for reconsideration of the denial, citing constitutional concerns that would be raised by a refusal to change Ms. Kelleher’s name. TLDEF argued that forcing Ms. Kelleher to use a male name violated her freedom of expression as well as her constitutionally protected privacy and liberty interests. The judge agreed that “denying a name change would cast doubt upon the constitutionality” of the law in this instance and granted Ms. Kelleher’s name change.

Ms. Kelleher’s prior name change dates from 1995, when she first attempted to live openly as female. Subject to overwhelming pressure from her family, she resumed living as male and legally reverted to her birth name in 1999. Living as male proved as unworkable as ever, and in 2008 Síle began the process of permanently transitioning to female. “I did my best to live as someone I wasn’t to please my family, but I could no longer do it.  It was time for me to live as my true self for good,” she said.

Without a judicial name change, however, the North Carolina native was unable to obtain identity documents that match who she is. For years, Ms. Kelleher was regularly subjected to discrimination, confusion and even accusations of fraud when she was forced to present identification with a male name on it.

“I am finally free to be myself with a name that matches who I truly am. No one should be forced use a name that doesn’t match who they are,” said Ms. Kelleher. “I am absolutely thrilled that I will no longer be subject to scrutiny because of my name.”

In the second case, Hadassah Chayim had legally changed her name five years ago for religious reasons from her male birth name to a traditionally Jewish male name. Since that time, she had begun living openly as Hadassah, but  was forced to retain her male legal name as a result of North Carolina law barring a second name change.

Ms. Chayim was equally relieved by the court’s decision to grant her name change. TLDEF won the reversal of the initial denial using the same arguments as in the first case.

“My name ‘Chayim’ means ‘life’ in Hebrew,” she said. “Now I can finally create a new life for myself, one free of the depression and anxiety that resulted from being unable to be my true self.  My name change will allow everyone  to see me for who I really am.”

“Something as fundamental to identity and expression as one’s own name should not be subject to government interference,” said TLDEF Staff Attorney Noah Lewis, who represented both women. “These rulings confirm that each one of us has the right to be known by the name of our choice.”

In addition to TLDEF, the legal team representing Ms. Kelleher and Ms. Chayim included Marjorie Press Lindblom, Adam T. Humann and Lexi Brine of Kirkland & Ellis LLP in New York and Mark Sigmon of Graebe Hanna & Sullivan, PLLC in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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