Court: Yuma Judge Was Wrong to Deny Transgender Man's Name Change

The transgender flag.
The transgender flag. Wikimedia commons user torbakhopper
A judge erred in denying a transgender man's request to officially change his name solely because they want legal documents to reflect their gender transition, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday.

Earlier this year, Sebastian Tomas Valentine walked into a Yuma County Superior Courthouse and attempted to change their name (Valentine uses they/them pronouns.) Valentine already had been using their new name for some time and had been saving up to pay the $305 application fee to make their name change official.

They checked five boxes indicating the name change was solely for their "best interests," that they understood their new name would not release them from legal obligations, that they were not requesting a name change to commit fraud, that they had not been convicted of a felony, and that they were not facing any pending criminal charges.

At the bottom of the four-page form, Valentine wrote on a line explaining why they were requesting a name change: "I am transitioning and want my documents to match my identity."

Six days later, on February 26, Yuma County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Kenworthy denied Valentine's name change application for "failure to show cause." Kenworthy did not hold a hearing or provide any further explanation for the denial.

Valentine was furious. They told New Times that they recently cut ties with their mother after she refused to accept their new identity. "That's my mother denying my existence," Valentine said. "For Judge Kenworthy to deny my name, that's basically erasure in my community."

They appealed the denial with representation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance.

Kenworthy's decision was a misapplication of Arizona law, according to the opinion released by the appeals court. Three appellate judges agreed that Arizona's name-change statute does not require an applicant to "show cause." In addition, the judges ruled that the law "does not permit the superior court to deny a person's name-change request only because the person wants the new name to reflect a gender transition."

Abby Jensen, the legal director of the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance, told Phoenix New Times that the appellate opinion should send a message to judges who wrongly "act as gatekeepers in determining whether someone's request to change their name is legitimate."

"This is especially important to transgender people, because sometimes judges think that someone who was assigned male at the time they were born would be fraudulent if they had a name that most people associate with a woman," added Jensen, a transgender woman who also serves as an appellate attorney for the Pima County Defender’s Office.

"I am so overwhelmed, not just with happiness for myself, but any other people we might be able to help," Valentine said.

According to Jensen, Kenworthy denied Valentine's application while the judge was holding up another name change application for a transgender man based on his failure to show proof of gender reassignment surgery. While Arizona law requires proof of surgery to change one's gender marker on a birth certificate, no such proof is required to change one's name.

"It seems the judge just didn’t want to deal with transgender people asking for name changes," Jensen said. Kenworthy eventually relented, according to Jensen, and allowed the name change.
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Steven Hsieh was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from August 2018 to April 2020.
Contact: Steven Hsieh