Judge says trans name change offends Georgians

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A transgender college student in Augusta is fighting a court decision that denied his name change after a judge refused by ruling that the request might offend the “sensibilities and mores” of Georgians.

So Rowan Feldhaus (photo), 24, is appealing the decision of Columbia County Superior Court Judge J. David Roper, who initially asked Feldhaus to choose another middle name. The one Feldhaus sought – Elijah – wasn't gender-neutral enough for Roper. On Thursday, Lambda Legal filed a brief in the Georgia Court of Appeals on behalf of Feldhaus. Roper is a judge in the Augusta Judicial Circuit, which includes Richmond, Columbia and Burke counties.

“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,” Feldhaus said in a prepared statement. “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 argued that Roper abused his discretion when it denied the name change in March. Feldhaus, an Augusta University student from Grovetown, Ga., started the legal process to change his name in July 2015 to help align his legal documents with his identity. At a hearing in February, Feldhaus provided the information needed for the name change, Lambda Legal said, but Roper refused. 

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.

A month later, Roper rejected the name change, Lambda Legal said.

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.

Attorneys with Lambda Legal said the judge overstepped his authority and made a decision steeped in bias. 

“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,” Beth Littrell, senior attorney in Lambda Legal's Atlanta office, said in a prepared statement.

“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,” Littrell added.

Roper's decision denies Feldhaus “a meaningful step” in being affirmed in public, according to M. Dru Levasseur, director of Lambda's Transgender Rights Project.

“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,” Levasseur said in a prepared statement.

“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,” Levasseur added.

[photo courtesy Lambda Legal]


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