On Nov. 16, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order to protect the right of confidentiality for trans citizens. The executive order will make all name change orders exempt from public access and will treat name change orders as confidential for trans adults. This is a huge step forward for trans people in New Jersey, as name changes are a source of stress for trans individuals. Research backs this up—the University of Michigan noted that public name changes can cause significant distress. At the end of a year when more anti-trans bills have been submitted than any other year in history, bills that protect trans people signal real support for a population that is constantly targeted with legislation curtailing our ability to live, work and obtain medical care.
Name changes can be exceptionally hard. When I submitted my name change a few years ago in the state of Maryland, I was forced to inform the sheriff’s office and have them place a notice at the local courthouse for all of the public to view. This provided a significant source of stress to me as a trans adult: what would happen if someone decided to walk by and keep a record of all of the trans people changing their names in my local area? It didn’t help that my name change was from a very common male name to a very common female name—any passerby would have been instantly aware that I am trans. Furthermore, as an outspoken trans activist, these name-change publication requirements put people like me at risk, as I have been the frequent recipient of threats.
Maryland’s laws were changed in 2021 when the Maryland Legislature passed SB0581, a bill that mandated courts waive publication requirements for name changes. This bill would have saved trans people like me from high levels of stress. Although Maryland’s laws have changed, other states still require name changes to be public record. Many states require trans people to go to burdensome and risky lengths to publish their name changes in local papers. According to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), only 23 states do not require name-change publications. Eighteen states require publication with court discretion, and nine states mandate publication. Not only does New Jersey not have a publication requirement, but now the name-change files themselves are confidential.
A change in policy like this would have protected a trans friend of mine in Pennsylvania who worked as a public servant and who was afraid to have her name changed because everyone in town would then be aware that she was trans. She went through lengthy steps to conceal her driver’s licence name, and utilized services such as Mastercard’s “True Name” policy, which allows trans people who have not had legal name changes to still use their preferred name on their credit cards. The idea of having her name change publicly accessible was so frightening to her that it deterred her from obtaining it.
Governor Murphy’s order comes as many conservative states have moved in the opposite direction. In 2022, over 155 anti-trans bills were introduced in legislatures across the U.S. Some of these bills deal directly with name changes and gender markers. Mississippi’s “Real You Act” sought to curtail name and gender changes for trans youth and incarcerated trans adults. School boards and boards of education like the Ohio State Board of Education have also sought to curtail name changes for trans people. Just this year, the Ohio State Board of Education voted on a policy to tell teachers that they must tell parents when a child “claims a discordant gender identity, questions their gender identity or requests alternative names and pronouns.” The policy was sent back to committee in October after fierce opposition from trans rights activists.
Having correct gender identity and name documents is extremely important for trans people. Research in the The Lancet showed that trans people who had their preferred name and gender marker on all of their ID had a lower prevalence of serious psychological distress, suicidal ideation and suicidal planning. Correct name and gender markers on documents saves lives, and any policy that can make changing names easier for trans people will lower the barrier to access this simple yet life-saving measure.
New Jersey, along with many other states, can still do more. In signing the executive order, Governor Murphy released a statement calling on the legislature to pass a law that would waive the $50 fee for changing one’s name. This will make it so that trans people can afford name changes more easily. Given that trans people suffer disproportionately from poverty, with 29.4 percent of trans people experiencing poverty, according to the Williams Institute, lowering the financial barriers to obtaining name changes will be extremely helpful to this population. Other states have exorbitant name change fees—Pennsylvania’s name change fees can amount to over $900.
New Jersey is not the only state making name changes easier. Last year, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to ensure that name changes are kept private and confidential. In New York, the Gender Recognition Act of 2021 eliminated publication requirements for name changes—this act also simplified the process of sealing the proceedings. Just this year, Maine signed a law that would eliminate the publication requirements around name changes. More and more states are recognizing that this is a critical step to protecting trans citizens.
In a time where trans people are facing threats of violence, protective policies make us feel safer. We need more policies like Governor Murphy’s executive order making name changes private. Identification documents are often a major barrier to trans acceptance, and any laws and policies that make those documents easier to access can save lives. This action is worth celebrating for trans people in New Jersey and we will be watching carefully for other states to follow suit.