Trans people with felony convictions fight for right to change names in Illinois

Advocates say the state's name-change law disproportionately affects trans people. But recent efforts to change the law have hit roadblocks.

Eisha Love and other advocates are fighting to change Illinois’ name-change statute. They say the law disproportionately affects trans people.

Max Lubbers

Eisha Love and other advocates are fighting to change Illinois’ name-change statute. They say the law disproportionately affects trans people.

Eisha Love stood outside an apartment building on Chicago’s West Side in February 2019, searching for a new beginning. In the seven years before, she’d lived in a jail cell, a shelter, and her mom’s apartment. Looking for her own place felt like a big step toward reclaiming her freedom, Love said.

She greeted the realtor who took her on a tour of the apartment as Eisha, the same name that she’d used when she introduced herself via email before the showing. But once she sent her application after the apartment tour, the realtor asked why she’d put a different name on the document. Like many transgender people, Love considers the name given to her at birth as her deadname — unless she’s forced to use it, she lives as Eisha.

Love explained that she’d written her legal name on the application, and the realtor realized that she was a transgender person. Love said she remembers the realtor warning her that the landlord didn’t like a lot of “traffic” through the building. Love said she understood the implication: Because she was a transgender person, the realtor assumed that she must do sex work, and she wasn’t welcome.

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Her application was rejected. Love thinks that the rental process might have gone differently if she had legally changed her name. But a felony conviction stands in her way.

An Illinois law prevents people convicted of felonies who have not been pardoned from changing their names for 10 years after the end of their sentences — or for life for identity theft and certain sex-offense convictions. Love was convicted of aggravated battery about a decade ago and completed the terms of her sentence in 2016. That means that she still has several years to wait.

“I just want to live like everyone else do,” Love said. “I try to have a strong-minded personality where I can get through anything. But you can’t get through it when you have to use your [deadname] consistently throughout life.”

Love and other advocates are fighting to change Illinois’ name-change statute. They say the law disproportionately affects trans people, who often face harassment and discrimination when they have to show an ID with their deadname, including when they apply for jobs, housing, and social services, or when they go to a hospital, an airport, or a bar. In a 2017 DePaul Law Review article, one legal advocate estimated that the law prevents thousands of trans people in Illinois from changing their names.

Recent efforts to change the law have hit roadblocks. In late March, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by trans plaintiffs alleging that the current bans and waiting periods are unconstitutional. And a bill that would have eliminated name-change waiting periods has stalled in the Illinois Legislature.

Love said the issue remains urgent. Her story highlights the effect that the name-change ban has on Black trans people, who are criminalized at disproportionate rates.

Love ran into legal trouble in 2012 at a gas station in Chicago, where she said a man harassed and attacked her because she is a trans woman and then lied about it to the police. The man, whose name is redacted in police records, alleged that Love had made sexual advances toward him and that he hit her out of fear when she approached him. But Love said the man instigated the fight when he began harassing her and another transgender friend with transphobic insults and threats. She said he punched her in the face, and that she fought him in self-defense. Fearing for their lives, Love and her friend escaped to her car, and she struck the man’s leg with her vehicle as she drove away from the gas station, she said.

Police records show that Love turned herself in to police after the incident. Love was charged with five counts of aggravated battery and one count of attempted murder, according to court documents. She entered a plea of guilty to one count of aggravated battery, and prosecutors dropped the other charges. The judge in that case sentenced her to five years in prison and one year of court supervision in December 2015. But by then, she had spent more than three-and-a-half years in jail, so authorities released her with time served.

After getting out, she lived in a shelter and then with her mom until a Chicago-based anti-poverty organization, the Heartland Alliance, granted her financial assistance to rent an apartment in 2019.

Despite the challenges that she faced attaining housing, Love eventually found an apartment to rent. Yet she said she still faces transphobia during job searches and daily life, in part because she can’t change her name. She’s learned to deal with misgendering or hearing her deadname, but the trauma builds up.

“I came to a point of being numb, after enduring it so much,” Love said. “I shouldn’t have to normalize something that actually isn’t normal.”

Legal and legislative battles

The Illinois General Assembly amended the state’s name-change rules in 1993 to require that people convicted of felonies wait two years after serving their sentences before becoming eligible to legally change their names.

Three years later, the state General Assembly increased the waiting period to a decade. The lawmakers behind the change aimed to support legislation that tracked people convicted of sex offenses, but the waiting period applied to all felonies, according to legislative transcripts.

The lifetime bans went into effect in 2007, after lawmakers passed an amendment with bipartisan support meant to stop people from changing their names to escape the sex-offender registry or to commit fraud.

Nationally, a 2020 analysis of state laws by The Marshall Project found that at least 17 states implement name-change waiting periods or bans for people with certain convictions. Efforts to change the laws are underway across the country. A lawsuit aimed at ending Texas’ waiting period was dismissed in 2021, while another judge declared that Pennsylvania’s name-change law was unconstitutional in December.

In 2019, Love and seven other trans women filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois arguing that the Illinois law infringes on their First Amendment right to self-expression and the 14th Amendment right of due process. They sued three people in their official capacities, who they said were responsible for enforcing the law: the Cook County state’s attorney; the chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County; and the presiding judge of the court’s county division, where name-change petitions are filed.

The lawsuit stalled for almost two years before a judge dismissed it March 31, on International Transgender Day of Visibility.

Judge John F. Kness ruled that the federal court lacked jurisdiction to decide on the plaintiffs’ arguments. He dismissed the suit without prejudice, meaning that the plaintiffs can still refile the case against different defendants or bring the issue to state court. Attorneys for the plaintiffs did not respond to Injustice Watch’s requests for comment following the dismissal.

Advocates said they remain hopeful that they can generate enough support from state lawmakers to amend the name-change statute. But even if they succeed, it will be too late for one of the eight plaintiffs, who died from cancer last year, according to her loved ones. Her name was Amari Garza. But legally, she can never be known that way.

A close friend of Garza’s, Tania Cordova, said before she died in 2021, Garza hoped to transform a building into a halfway house for trans people leaving prison. Even before that, Cordova said Garza would provide shelter and food to community members whenever she was able.

That’s who Garza was, Cordova said: a giver and a fighter. So when the chance came to be part of the lawsuit, Cordova said Garza didn’t just join — she also recruited people to become plaintiffs and advocates.

Cordova said it was heartbreaking that Garza never got to change her name.

“Amari and our trans ancestors actually fought to amend this [name-change law],” she said. “Now, we owe that to our ancestors, to us, and to our future generations.”

A bill languishing in the Illinois General Assembly, House Bill 2542, would end the 10-year waiting period for all people with felonies and stop lifetime bans for people with identity-theft convictions. It would also allow Illinois residents on sex-offender registries to petition a judge for a name change because of gender identity, marriage, religion, or status as a human trafficking survivor. The bill passed the Illinois House of Representatives 85-27 with bipartisan support in April 2021, but it has stalled in the state Senate.

State Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago), the bill’s chief sponsor in the Illinois Senate, said there wasn’t enough momentum from lawmakers to bring it to a vote.

“It’s amazing how many people want to feel they’re better than a Texas or Florida or Mississippi or whole host of states, but we can only be better when we do better,” Peters said. “Actions are louder than words.”

Peters said there’s a possibility that the bill could still move forward during a veto session this fall or in the lame-duck period between the November general election and January 2023, when the next General Assembly will be sworn in. Otherwise, advocates will likely have to reintroduce it in the next General Assembly.

As this issue gets fought out in court and in legislatures, trans people continue to face real consequences.

A cycle of criminalization

Max Lubbers

Lead plaintiff Reyna Ortiz stands in front of a mural at Taskforce Prevention and Community Services, which serves LGBTQ+ youth on Chicago’s West Side. She said she wants to be a “battle queen” and fight for her community’s right to change their names.

When someone walks into Taskforce Prevention and Community Services on Chicago’s West Side, Reyna Ortiz is usually the one to greet them. She directs the agency’s programs, which provide LGBTQ+ youths with legal, medical, and mental health services.

Ortiz, who is in her early 40s, said she encourages trans youths to legally change their names if they’re eligible. She wishes she’d gotten the same advice when she started going by Reyna at 13; by the time she tried to change her name legally, in her 20s, she said she’d been convicted of identity theft.

After she learned that she was banned for life from changing her name, she felt stuck. But she didn’t give up. She became the lead plaintiff on the lawsuit and is an advocate for the name-change bill. She refers to herself as a “battle queen.” (“Reyna” means queen in Spanish.)

“The repeal of the name-change law, to me, is just another battle to prove to society that we are worthy — we are worthy to live in this society, we are worthy of safety, we are worthy of not having to deal with so much shame that is pushed upon us,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz explained how trans people can get trapped in a cycle of criminalization. Because transphobia can create barriers to education, housing, and employment, particularly for people of color and immigrants, trans people may participate in underground economies, including sex work. That puts them at risk of arrest. They face name-change bans if convicted of a felony, among other restrictions.

Between a criminal record and the chance of being outed, it becomes even harder for trans people to find housing or a place to work, she said.

“You fall into the cycle where you get in trouble, and then you need money, and you have to pay a lawyer, and now you’re a felon,” Ortiz said. “It’s systemically trying to kill you and erase you out of society.”

Love said she sometimes feels stuck in this cycle too. Love must wait about four more years to change her name, unless the lawsuit succeeds or a bill amending the statute is passed. Once the paperwork is done, she said she wants to pursue an education. After that, she hopes that she can get a steadier job.

But before all that, Love said the first thing she’ll do after her name change is simple: celebrate.

“If I was to die today or tomorrow, I wouldn’t actually go down with the name of who I appear to be,” Love said. “That will be the top moment — just really being that person that can say, ‘I’m Eisha Love.’”