This WA bill could make it easier and safer to change your name

A proposal that passed the Senate this week would boost privacy for people who are trans or queer, those escaping domestic violence, and refugees.

Maia Xiao on the UW campus

Maia Xiao testified before the Washington State Legislature in favor of Senate Bill 5028, which would require name-change petitions to be kept private to ensure a petitioner’s safety. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

A legislative proposal would make it safer and more accessible to change one’s name, an issue that primarily affects refugees, people who are transgender or gender-nonconforming and those escaping domestic violence.

Senate Bill 5028, proposed by Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, would expand the current name-change process to allow Washingtonians to apply through any district court in the state – as opposed to only the one in which they reside – and also would allow certain petitions to be filed in any superior court in the state. 

The bill would additionally require that petitions filed through a superior court be sealed from public record to ensure a petitioner’s safety.

SB 5028, at its most basic level, addresses privacy – or a lack thereof.

When someone changes their name under the current system, their old name, new name, and complete mailing address are publicly published with the county recorder, even though name changes through marriage are marked private.

“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,” Maia Xiao testified during a Jan. 12 hearing. “[SB 5028] says that you should at least be able to go there and share your concerns without having to be harmed first.”

Xiao, a graduate computer science student at the University of Washington, began writing a letter during the pandemic outlining the need for greater privacy protections for transgender individuals. In March 2022 she sent that letter to Sen. Pedersen, who wrote back expressing his interest in pursuing a bill similar to a New York model.

Maia Xiao, who testified in favor of SB 5028, photographed at the Bill & Melinda Gates Center for Computer Science on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023. (Amanda Snyder/Crosscut)

“[SB 5028] just acknowledges that the world has changed so much, and we are seeing so many more harms … There are so many harms in the world that might not involve physical violence inflicted on you, but they can still be so destructive to you as a person,” Xiao said in an interview. “I think this bill basically recognizes those nuances.”

In 2015, New York’s legislature amended section 64-a of the New York Civil Rights Act, effectively ending the requirement that a person prove physical harm or a threat to their safety to make a name change private.

The American Medical Association in 2019 recognized “an epidemic of violence against the transgender community, especially the amplified physical dangers faced by transgender people of color.”

“Many of the queer and trans young people that we work with do not have supportive families or safe places to live where their identities are affirmed and their names are affirmed,” said Bekah Telew, co-executive director of Seattle LGBTQ+ Center. “And this legislation really gives people more access to choice and to live in [their] choice[s] more safely.”

To do this, many trans and gender-nonconforming individuals have chosen to leave their country of birth and build a new life in the United States. However, the intersectional identity of being an immigrant and a member of the LGBTQ+ community can carry double weight in a nation that has launched countless legislative attacks on LGBTQ+ rights and existence. 

According to the Human Rights Campaign, LGBTQ+ people are 97 times more likely to report being sexually abused in immigration detention. 

“Refugees and immigrants tend to cling together in a smaller community so that they can support each other,” said Mahnaz Eshetu, executive director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance of Washington. “If there is a need to escape from that, from the family or the community, I think the name change will be a great help.”

At the bill’s hearing on Jan. 12, 47 people signed in “pro” and two signed in “other.”

“The one fear that we have, that we’re still working through, is whether or not this process could be abused or manipulated by somebody to try to escape accountability later on,” said James McMahan from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs at the hearing. “We know that’s certainly not the intent that will be by far a very rare instance, but we wouldn’t want to inadvertently allow that to happen.”

The language of the bill will not allow offenders under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections and sex offenders subject to registration requirements to petition a superior court for a name change; however, they may still be able to petition a district court. Name changes granted in a district court are not sealed from the public record.

The bill has received bipartisan support, with legislators finding common ground on the issue of privacy.

“The reason I agreed to co-sponsor this bill is because I believe in people’s fundamental right to privacy,” Sen. Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley, said during the hearing. 

According to Dana Savage, president of the QLaw Bar Association of Washington, SB 5028 is consistent with Article 1 Section 7 of the Washington Constitution mandating the right to privacy in our personal affairs.

Not all name-change applicants would be able to petition a superior court if this bill passes; in fact, the restrictions remain narrow. 

As written in the first substitute bill, name-change petitions can be filed in any superior court across the state:

  • “When a person desiring a change of name is an emancipated minor or has received asylum, refugee, or special immigrant juvenile status; or
  • When the reason for the person’s name change, or the name change of the person’s child or of an individual subject to guardianship for whom the person has been appointed as guardian, is related to gender expression or identity, or is due to an experience of or reasonable fear of domestic violence, stalking, unlawful harassment, or coercive control.”

“It definitely shows some support for immigrants and trans people and non-binary people because it does extend that super-, super-narrow definition of who is allowed to go through superior court to get a name change and seal it,” Xiao said. “We love to see it. I love to see it. I think it's great that it is happening, but I don't think the fight is over yet.”

SB 5028 passed the Senate on Feb. 1 with 45 yeas, 3 nays, and 1 excused. It is now in the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee awaiting a hearing.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors