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One of the first “nonessential” judicial services to be put on pause when the coronavirus ground Philly’s court system ground to a halt was name changes. They were suspended on March 17 and only recently picked back up, using a remote filing system.
The monthslong delay and subsequent backlog have delivered a blow to Philly’s queer and trans community.
Being misidentified by your dead name has been shown to fuel depression and suicidal thoughts among LGBTQ people.
“They’re at the point where they’re ready to take that step and claim their name and move forward so they can engage with the world and their community without someone questioning who they are,” said Thomas Ude, director of legal and public policy at the Mazzoni Center, a Philly LGBTQ services center.
Frankie Elicker first petitioned the court for a name change in early March, just before the pandemic swept into Philadelphia.
While waiting to be assigned a hearing date, they daydreamed about all the things that would change — their driver’s license, the daily sign-in sheet at work, shipping labels on packages. Their dead name would finally be just that.
When the courts shut down, Elicker understood. That didn’t make it any less painful.
“It’s just been a whirlwind,” said the 24-year-old East Kensington resident. “There’s a lot of moments where it’s been very invalidating. It’s something I have to deal with every day that affects me deeply as a trans person.”
In late June, Elicker was finally assigned a hearing date for mid-September.
Court officials say they’re trying to modernize the e-filing system, but haven’t released any details. Spokesperson Gabe Roberts confirmed petitions have been accepted virtually for about a month or two — but they seem to be moving more slowly than usual.
The name-change process was already complicated, usually taking about two months to complete. Now it’s become an ordeal to one that can take the better part of a year, if not longer — which has dissuaded some Philadelphians from pursuing it altogether.
“I think I would’ve made that move if it weren’t for all the court closures and red tape that’s involved,” said Charlie Pekarek, a nonbinary person who lives in West Philly. “There’s already quite a lot of barriers at play. With a public health crisis…it’s not a helpful addition.”
How it works
How does one initiate a name change during the pandemic?
First, you’ll want to secure copies of your fingerprints. A ton of private businesses can do this — Elicker recommends Rosa’s fingerprinting truck at 16th and Callowhill.
2) File the form
Then, normally, you’d fill out the name change petition form and drop it off to the Civil Filing Center at City Hall. But that’s closed now, so you’ll have to file it electronically. To do that, you’ll need to create an account with the First Judicial District. Courts officials cautioned that with an influx of e-filing the site might be a little slow right now.
Also, this step is costly — often prohibitively so. The total filing procedure can add up to more than $900. If you need help, nonprofits like the Mazzoni Center and the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund can help you make the case to have fees waived.
2a) Wait for confirmation
After all that you should expect… to wait even longer. The people who filed RIGHT before quarantine — like Elicker — are being assigned hearing dates for September, which is longer than the usual two-month wait that the Mazzoni Center’s Ude has come to expect.
3) Publish details — or get the requirement waived
This next step is a little weird and archaic. If you’re changing your name, there’s a rule you need to publish details — including your old name — in two local publications. For trans people, publicizing your queerness can be dangerous. You can ask to have this requirement waived, too.
4) Get your records searched
Once you’re finally assigned a hearing date, you’ll need to run judgment searches with Family Court and the Office of Judicial Records within 30 days before your hearing. Basically, they ensure that you’re not trying to escape child support or debt by changing your name. Together, those will run you about $70.
For now, Roberts said, both those services are still available — though that’s always subject to change depending on the state of the pandemic.
5) Attend a hearing
Then there’s the hearing itself. Roberts said the courts have been holding these on paper — meaning they’re not requiring clients to come into City Hall in person unless there’s something unusual about their case. So if you petition the court now, it’s likely they’ll approve you remotely and notify you via email.
6) You did it
If all goes well, you’ll get your decree. If you can believe it, that still isn’t an official name change — more like a document that allows you to actually change your name. Carry it around with you, and use it to get actual name changes at official places like the DMV, Social Security, your job, etc.
Your ability to do that will depend, of course, on the opening status of those agencies when your decree comes in.
“Thankfully now most agencies are open,” Ude said. “People we received decrees for can get those documents updated. But it’s more complicated than it was.”
Why it matters
Though courts officials are finally breathing life back into the tedious name change process, some Philadelphians are resistant to broach the subject in the first place because of how uncertain this has all been.
West Philly’s Pekarek has wanted a name change since at least 2014. They’re turning 30 this year, and were hoping to start a new decade finally leaving their dead name behind. But the pandemic has turned the process into such a mess that they’ve given up hope for finishing the process in 2020.
“I just don’t have the energy to see this whole process through,” Pekarek said. “It’s a lengthy one.”
Meanwhile, Elicker awaits their September hearing date with cautious optimism. They chose the name Frances after their late step-grandfather, who always made them and their cousins laugh. They figured, maybe, by honoring a family member, they could encourage their family to accept their identity.
“It’s a complicated relationship with parts of my family,” Elicker said. “So many things you have to decide whether or not you want to keep with you when you’re queer. I’m trying so hard to not get rid of my family .”
It’s still not perfect. Their family members stumble on their pronouns all the time. But last week, Elicker’s grandmother called them Frankie for the first time. That was huge.
A legal name change would offer similar validation — legitimizing their identity in a real, legal way. For now, all they can do is wait.
“There are a lot of things in the future that I’m a little anxious about, to see if it goes through,” Elicker said. “I know it’ll all fall into place eventually. I just really need to practice some patience.”