A version of this story was published in the Chicago Sun-Times.
A group of transgender women with criminal records filed lawsuits in federal courts in Illinois and Wisconsin on Wednesday, contending that the states are preventing them from legally adopting their chosen names.
In the lawsuits, the plaintiffs describe discrimination and abuse they suffer because, by law, they are required to use names on their government identification that out them as transgender.
Illinois law prohibits those convicted of felonies and certain misdemeanors from legal name changes within 10 years of the end of their sentence; some specific crimes prohibit any name changes ever; the Wisconsin law has similar restrictions, which attorneys for the women on Wednesday called among the most restrictive in the nation.
In the lawsuit, the women describe a wide range of discriminatory effects. One woman described being told she could not enroll in a community college unless she used the name on her government identification. Another was denied food stamps. One, Keisha Allen, contends that being unable to change the name on her government identification made it difficult to get a job, and on two occasions led to physical assaults at work.
The law “makes trans people more vulnerable to discrimination and violence,” said Lark Mulligan, an attorney at the Transformative Justice Law Project, at a press conference Wednesday. Mulligan is representing the eight Illinois women along with attorneys from Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
Mulligan told Injustice Watch that the lawsuits raise an issue that has not been decided yet by any courts. But the issue is significant: A 2015 survey found 25 percent of Wisconsin respondents, and 34 percent of Illinois respondents, who showed an ID with a name or gender that did not match their gender presentation were verbally harassed, denied benefits or service, asked to leave, or assaulted.
Mulligan estimated in a 2017 article that the name-change statute could potentially prevent six thousand transgender people in Illinois from changing their names on identity documents.
Eisha Latrice Love, one of the plaintiffs, was denied disability benefits through the Regional Transportation Authority after an employee saw her government-issued identification and discovered she is a transgender woman, the lawsuit states. Love was forced to leave and was unable to receive her benefits that day.
Love, who has been outspoken about trans rights in Chicago, was charged and convicted of aggravated battery in a public place after she was approached by a group of men at a gas station in March 2012 who, she contended, verbally harassed her with anti-trans epithets and physically attacked her. One of the men’s leg was injured when Love and another woman fled the scene of the incident in a car.
She was charged and convicted after she reported the incident to police.
“I’m trying to move forward with my life but when I go public places and do public things, I’m constantly reminded of my past,” Love said in a statement released to Injustice Watch Wednesday morning. “Winning this case isn’t just about having my name, it’s like having a piece of me completed.”
A 2017 lawsuit challenged the Illinois statute, and had received the support of then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan. But the plaintiff in that case reached the 10-year bar on name changes while the case was pending, ending the lawsuit without a decision.
The office of her successor, Kwame Raoul, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Wisconsin lawsuit, brought by attorneys Adele Nicholas and Mark Weinberg, involves a lifetime bar that prevents plaintiff Karen Kreby from legally changing her name because of a 1992 conviction that requires her to register as a sex offender. Wisconsin law requires registrants to report all names with which they have been identified, requiring Kreby to report both her chosen name and the name she was assigned at birth.
The Illinois statute in its current form was a relatively recent addition to Illinois law. In 1993, then-State Representative Tom Dart, who is currently the Cook County Sheriff, proposed a bill which provided for a two-year name-change waiting period for convicted felons.
The 10-year waiting period was added on in 1996 in conjunction with the creation of the sex offender registry in Illinois. In 2007, the statute was amended to include lifetime bars for certain felonies and misdemeanors.