In what the court characterized as a matter of “first impression in this state,” New Jersey Superior Court Judge Marcia Silva granted a transgender teenager a change of name from Veronica to Trevor on March 17. “At the parties’ request,” wrote Judge Silva, “this court has used the parties’ real names. It was also Trevor’s desire that his name be used in this opinion.” The opinion was approved for publication on June 28. The case is Sacklow v. Betts, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 85, 2017 WL 2797437 (Middlesex County).
While this may have been a case of first impression in New Jersey in terms of published court opinions, Trevor is not the first transgender minor to get a court-approved name change. Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy from Virginia whose lawsuit against his school district to gain appropriate restroom access is still pending before the federal appeals court in Richmond even though he recently graduated from Gloucester County High School, received a legal name change, as have some other transgender teens who are involved in litigation against their schools.
The case was originally contested. Trevor’s parents were divorced in 2011 and have joint custody, although Trevor lives with his mother, Janet Sacklow. His father, Richard Betts, consented to Trevor beginning hormone treatments in 2014, first to suppress menstruation and then, in 2016, testosterone to begin masculinizing his body. However, Richard was opposed to the name change. Janet filed the petition seeking the name change on Trevor’s behalf on September 12, 2016, naming Richard as the defendant. He did not drop his opposition until after he heard Trevor testify during a hearing on March 7.
The biggest issue for Judge Silva was whether the court had any judgment to exercise in this case once the consent of both parents had been obtained. When an adult petitions for a name change, New Jersey law dictates that the court should grant the change unless there is some public interest in denying it, usually based on a finding that it is being done to perpetrate a fraud on creditors or to avoid criminal prosecution. Unless one of those complicating factors is present, the court is normally not required to make any finding as to whether the name change is in the best interest of the applicant.
A quarter-century ago, in the case of Matter of Eck, 245 N.J. Super. 220 (App. Div. 1991), a New Jersey trial judge refused to grant a transgender adult’s petition for a name change, holding that “it is inherently fraudulent for a person who is physically a male to assume an obviously ‘female’ name for the sole purpose of representing himself to future employers and society as a female.” The Appellate Division reversed this ruling, stating that “a person has a right to a name change whether he or she has undergone or intends to undergo a sex change through surgery, has received hormonal injections to induce physical change, is a transvestite, or simply wants to change from a traditional ‘male’ first name to one traditionally ‘female’ or vice versa.” In other words, where an adult is concerned, the court has limited discretion to deny a name change, and in New Jersey, at least since 1991, it has been established that a name change to accord with gender identity is not deemed fraudulent as such.
The issue for minors is different, Judge Silva explained. There is a statute governing name changes for minors that has some factual inquiries as prerequisites similar to those governing adults, which did not seem to apply in Trevor’s case. “It is uncontested,” wrote Silva, “that Trevor is not doing this with the purpose to defraud creditors or avoid criminal prosecution nor has Trevor ever been involved with the criminal justice system.”
But most name change petitions for minors involve situations where the parents are divorcing and the mother, who may have primary residential custody, is planning to assume her maiden name and wants her child to have the same last name as her. In such cases, where the father may be opposed, the court has to referee the situation by figuring out whether it is in the child’s best interest for a change of surname, and in a 1995 case a New Jersey court set out a list of factors to consider in such a case. Of course, the decision to change a given name to reflect gender identity presents different issues, but Judge Silva concluded that in light of the court’s role as a guardian of the interests of children (referred to in the law as parens patriae) “the best interest of the child standard should apply,” while acknowledging that although the cases involving surnames “provide some guidance to this court, they do not fully address whether the proposed name change is in Trevor’s best interest.”
Judge Silva specified the following factors that she would consider in Trevor’s case: his age, how long he has used the name Trevor, “any potential anxiety, embarrassment or discomfort that may result from the child having a name he or she believes does not match his or her outward appearance and gender identity,” the history of Trevor’s medical or mental health counseling, the name by which he is known in his family, school and community, his preference and motivation for seeking the name change, and whether his parents have given consent.
In this case, the court concluded that all these factors supported a finding that it was in Trevor’s best interest to approve the name change. Trevor had been considered a “quintessential tomboy” by his parents due to his lack of interest in typical girl activities as a youth, and they noticed when he entered the sixth grade “a change in his behavior” that led them to seek counseling for him, first with a child study team at school and then with a clinical social worker. Ultimately Trevor announced his male gender identity to his parents and his desire to be called Trevor. His gender dysphoria was diagnosed by a psychologist who continues to work with him through his transition. Trevor testified that “the only people that still call him Veronica are his father, his stepmother and step-siblings” and that “he feels that the name [Trevor] better represents who he is and the gender with which he identifies.”
While noting the “constant changes that have occurred in the legal landscape as it relates to gender identity, sexual orientation and similar issues,” Silva wrote, “the issue of whether a transgender minor child should be permitted to change his or her name to better match his or her gender identity is a novel one for this court.” She pointed out that if Trevor had waited until his 18th birthday, the issue would be simpler. Parental approval would not be required. “However, children are unable to make such decisions on their own unless they have been emancipated.”
Judge Silva observed that the legislature has declared that the state “has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth” and, she wrote, “recognizing the importance of a name change is one of the ways to help protect the well-being of a transgender minor child. The name change allows the transgender minor child to begin to fully transition into their chosen gender and possibly prevent them from facing harassment and embarrassment from being forced to use a legal name that may no longer match his or her gender identity.”
One practical reason why Trevor wanted the change now was because, as he was about to turn 17, he would be applying for a driver’s license and applying to colleges. He was planning this summer to travel to China and would be getting a passport. It was important, now that he is living as a boy, for him to be able to get these official documents with an appropriate name matching his identity, and a legal name change was needed to use this name on official documents. Judge Silva counted this motivation in favor of granting the application.
The judge concluded, “Trevor has undergone hormone therapy and presents as a young man with facial hair, a muscular build, a head full of male-textured hair, and a deeper voice. To force him to legally keep the feminine name ‘Veronica’ would not be in his best interest. Therefore, plaintiff’s motion to legally change Veronica’s name to Trevor is granted.” Trevor was not seeking to change his surname, and will henceforth be known as Trevor Adam Betts.
Often transgender people seek an exemption from the legal requirement that court-ordered name changes be published in a newspaper of public record, but Trevor was not seeking such an exemption. “Given the parties’ request that their real names be used in this decision, and the fact that Trevor is the subject of a documentary, this court does not find it necessary to protect his identity and thus will order plaintiff to comply with the publication and filing requirements.”
Trevor and his mother were represented in this proceeding by Jennifer Weisberg Millner of the firm Fox Rothschild LLP.