Name change granted for trans woman with criminal record

A Philadelphia judge last week granted the name-change petition of a trans woman convicted of felonies, despite a state law restricting such name changes. On Dec. 7, Common Pleas Judge Sierra Thomas Street granted the name-change petition of Monae Alvarado, without elaborating on her reasoning.

Prior to the ruling, Alvarado had been required to use her given name due to a decade-old conviction for two felonies, burglary and conspiracy. According to a state law, she wouldn’t be eligible to change her given name until 2028 — which would be two years after she completed her term of probation.

The state Attorney General’s Office was notified of the petition and no one from the office objected to Alvarado’s name change during the two-hour zoom hearing.

A spokesperson for state Attorney General Josh Shapiro issued this statement after the hearing: “The Office of Attorney General had no required role in this case and, therefore, cannot offer comment on the proceedings. As [Shapiro] has said previously, he understands that being required to live with a name that doesn’t represent who you really are creates a myriad of hardships.”

During the Dec. 7 hearing, Alvarado described the harm caused by the law. “At my job, a few people have found out my [first] name is different,” Alvarado testified. “So they start asking why I want to be called Monae and it’s exhausting. It’s unnecessary. It causes me anxiety.”

Alvarado was represented by attorneys at Trangender Legal Defense & Education Fund along with attorneys at Reed Smith Law Firm, based in Pittsburgh.

Ayden I. Scheim, an epidemiologist and expert witness, testified that legal name changes are a critical part of gender affirmation treatment for trans individuals.

After the hearing, Luke E. Debevec, an attorney for Alvarado, praised Thomas Street’s ruling. “This was the result we asked from the judge and we’re very happy about it,” Debevec told PGN.

Debevec added: “Reed Smith is proud to continue working with the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund to challenge an unjust statute [in Pennsylvaia] that prevents people from being recognized by their true names.”

Gabriel Arkles, senior counsel at TLDEF, issued this statement: “Pennsylvania’s [name-change] law is cruel and unnecessary. It robs people of the right to define who they are and protect their privacy. Many other states allow people with criminal convictions to change their names, as does Pennsylvania when it comes to marriage-related name changes. Court-ordered name changes do not interfere with the state’s ability to keep track of people, and they can literally save the lives of transgender people.”

Akles added: “I’m elated that Monae will finally be able to change her name. We’re going to do everything in our power to make sure that this senseless law doesn’t pose a barrier to any other transgender people living their authentic lives.”

M. Patrick Yingling, an attorney at Reed Smith, issued this statement: “We presented arguments and expert testimony to demonstrate the unconstitutionality of the current statute and we are pleased that the judge granted our petition. We believe that the felony bar does not withstand constitutional scrutiny. The impact on people like Monae — who have legitimate reasons for seeking a name change but are banned from obtaining one — is just devastating.” 

The state law at issue forbids name-change petitions for persons convicted of serious felonies and for persons still on probation or parole due to a felony conviction. It was enacted in 1998 by the state legislature. The serious felonies include murder, voluntary manslaughter, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, aggravated indecent assault, robbery, aggravated assault, arson, and kidnapping.

Pennsylvania residents convicted of less serious felonies must wait at least two years after completing their sentence before seeking a name change in Common Pleas Court, according to the state law. Any past criminal history would be updated with the new name.

In July 2020, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court rejected a petition from three trans women to strike down the law. The 10-page ruling was handed down July 29, 2020, by Judges Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter, Patricia A. McCullough and Michael H. Wojcik.

The three-judge panel didn’t rule on the merits of the case. Instead, the panel ruled that the women’s attorneys hadn’t sued the proper parties. Thus, the panel dismissed the case. “We express no opinion on the potential merits of a future suit against proper parties,” the panel wrote.  The panel didn’t specify the proper party to be sued.

The parties sued were the Pennsylvania Department of State, then-Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathryn Boockvar and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Advocates say the law violates trans people’s right to privacy, their right to control their name and their right to avoid compelled speech by the government. State officials, however, say the law helps prevent fraud and other crimes, according to court papers.

If the ban were declared unconstitutional, trans name-change petitioners still would be required to attend a hearing and demonstrate to a Common Pleas Court judge that they’re acting in good faith. The law requires such a hearing and that provision wasn’t challenged.

Thomas Street had no comment for this story.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, the Keystone Press and the Pennsylvania Press Club.