Catherine Merchant, a transgender woman from the Panhandle, was denied a name change by a state judge. Three years later, with the help of the ACLU of Florida, she won in her fight to have her legal name reflect who she is. This is her story in her own words:
A name is a very special thing, just a set of words that refer to you more personally than anything else, but I imagine most people go through their whole lives without ever giving their name any real thought. For most, it just isn't something to be concerned about one way or the other.Your name is used hundreds of times, every single day, everywhere you go. It is one of those things you just absorb into your being, one more fact about you.
But what if you found out your name isn't really yours? What if every time someone used your name, it simply felt wrong, like people were consistently confusing you with someone else? Or even worse, like they were denying you your true identity?
This is my life. I am transgender, which means that the name my mother selected for me at birth has never really been mine. From day one, the name felt wrong, felt like it shouldn't have been given to me, and was a source of distress for my entire life.
Fortunately, our country allows for an individual to change their name effectively for any reason they want. Like most trans people, I selected a name that was actually mine, that actually described me and who I am, and in 2013 I filed with the state of Florida to have it changed to reflect my true identity.
Apart from cases where an individual is trying to change their name for fraudulent purposes, effectively no name change petition is ever denied, but mine was. A judge decreed that allowing my name change would mean the state is effectively supporting my transition, which he evidently could not do.
You hear all about the so-called 'bathroom bills' being considered (and sometimes, passed) all over the country, like the ones in North Carolina and Mississippi, and that was this judge's reasoning for denying me: that giving me my name would mean the state officially supporting me when I did things like use the bathroom that reflects my true gender identity.
For this reason, I was denied my name, my identity, my peace of mind.
Being denied my name, my identity, not just by a single person but effectively by the entire government was one of the most crushing moments of my entire life. I have never been able to escape society telling me that I am not actually a woman, that I don't really belong, but I hoped that finally having my chosen name become my legal name would help put some of that to rest, and instead I had a representative of the government confirm that I don't belong. That’s why I asked the ACLU of Florida to help me challenge the court’s decision.
Trans people all over the world have to deal with things like this, with having their identity denied and challenged all over, in big ways and in small. It's so much more than just words. Refusing to acknowledge someone's chosen name, pronouns, or gender is refusing to acknowledge their identity, their self; it's refusing to acknowledge them as a person, it's telling them that they don't matter.
No longer. Today, after three years of legal battles, I can stand proud and tell you that I am exactly who I am.
My name is Catherine Lain Merchant, and that means more than most people will ever understand.