Changing your legal name is now safer, easier, and (potentially) free if you’re trans in Washington state.

Last week, Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5028, amending existing state law around name changes. 

Privacy is the heart of this policy: Name-change petitions will now be private and sealed by the court if you are transgender, a child adoptee, a victim of domestic violence, a refugee, or someone who has received asylum.

If you’re low-income and can’t afford a name change, then you’re covered. 

A judge can now waive all fees (often in excess of $350) for you or a nonprofit assisting your name change.

A person (or their legal guardian) can now also file a petition in any superior court in the state, even if they live in a different Washington county. Wait times in King County are… long, so this may help if you’re stuck in a queue.

"I was happy to sign this bill that provides reasonable accommodations for individuals making important life decisions and makes the name change process more accessible in superior court. It better protects the privacy of those escaping violence, juveniles under guardianship, and transgender and nonbinary people," Gov. Inslee said in a written statement to The Stranger.

Money Is a Huge Barrier

Danni Askini, executive director of the Gender Justice League in Seattle, has written many checks for name changes herself.

Her organization spends a whopping $10,000 a year paying these fees for trans people–and they pushed for this bill along with the QLaw Association of Washington and the Lavender Rights Project.

Prior to Inslee signing the bill, Askini says judges could only waive a small portion of the cost–an $85 court fee–leaving petitioners to pay a hefty county assessor's fee. The judge can now waive it all.

SB 5028 also helps people who flee domestic violence. Many leave their homes with nothing–let alone a checkbook or a debit card needed to pay fees.

Trans people face disproportionately high levels of poverty, so money is a huge obstacle to the name-change process. 

People who have been out as trans for years may never have the $325 to $500 to pay for it, forcing them to reveal their birth name and trans identity every time they enter the bar, apply for a new job, or produce their ID during a traffic stop. 

“How many weeks of groceries is that for somebody?” asked Askini. “Five-hundred dollars is like–you have to go without food for a month. Or you have to go without your prescriptions. Or you’re not going to pay your phone bill…. It’s a lot of money, when you think about the other things in people's lives, just to have the government document [be] the name that you are called by.”

But who counts as low-income in the eyes of the law? That’s up to a judge’s discretion, too.

Askini says in King County judges typically take this to mean anyone that lives at or below 300 percent of the federal poverty limit (i.e. earning $43,740 per year) and receives any kind of public benefit, such as low-income housing, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

But Askini hopes judges will consider where people live and waive fees for those earning below their area median income, which is $121,000 in expensive-as-fuck Seattle.

Now, the bill only addresses the cost of changing a legal name. 

Trans people who want to amend all of their identity documents with a new legal name, including their passport and birth certificate (if it hasn’t been made illegal by the GOP in their home state), will still have to pay out.

The Gender Justice League crunched the numbers and found trans people spend on average $960 to $1,000 to do it all. This law could reduce that by at least a third.

Privacy = Safety

An unsealed name change can leave someone vulnerable to harassment.

While some trans people are comfortable sharing their old names, or deadname, many keep it secret.

Yet, this name can be easily discovered in public records. 

Maia Xiao, a trans woman studying computer science at the University of Washington, saw a transgender friend subjected to online harassment and bullying after records of their name change were posted publicly.

This inspired Xiao to write to bill sponsor, state Senator Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), to encourage him to protect those who petition for a name change. She then testified in favor of SB 5028, and then later watched Inslee sign it.

“This bill does something pretty simple,” Xiao told the Senate Law and Justice Committee in January. “What the current law requires is that you have to be beaten up by somebody before you’re even allowed to go into a superior court and state your case in front of a judge. [SB 5028] says that you should at least be able to go there and share your concerns without having to be harmed first.”

She’s right–sealed name changes were only available for domestic violence survivors who could convince a judge they were in danger.

Askini, who works with DV survivors at the Gender Justice League, says the bill will lower that threshold and extend protections for survivors of stalking and cyberstalking.

Pedersen modeled his bill after pro-trans laws in New York and Oregon, but expanded its privacy protections to refugees, people granted asylum, victims of domestic violence, and child adoptees.

The privacy component of name changes hadn't occurred to Pedersen before Xiao's letter.

"I'll just say that's how some of the best bill ideas come to you," he said. "It's been greatly satisfying to know that we are just protecting more and more people and broadening our understanding of what it means to be an inclusive, affirming state."

The Washington Legislature has really gone gangbusters with bills benefitting transgender people in our state this year, bucking national trends that much of the West (Idaho, Montana, Utah) is following. Once the dust settles on this session, look for an update on what else the state did for us this year.