Issues associated with change of name and gender – mostly in the UK

Name change: the issues

I have of late been feeling a little guilty. The uninvited guest: the ghost at the banquet. More prosaically, the pourer of cold water.

For while others have been growing excited about the minutiae of name change – deed polls, statutory declarations, the works – i have been sat grudgingly at the back of the room pointing out the downside to this approach.

The issue is pretty straightforward. If you want to change your name, then UK Trans Info is as good a place to go for information as any – and significantly better than most. But should you? Should you compromise principles, bowing to demands that are debatably lawful, certainly a nuisance, just to assuage the insecurities of the heteronormative corporation?

Decisions, decisions. We cannot all be eternal activists. Some, i know, just want to get on with their lives and if that means compromise, so be it. In other areas, compromise is what i passionately believe in and it would be hypocritical for me to demand a purity of action in others that i would never advocate for myself.
Still, here it is in a nutshell. If you want to change your name and haven’t the energy to add one more battle to an already embattled life, make haste to UK Trans Info, avoiding, if you can, the worst commercial exploiters as you do so. If, on the other hand, you want to understand the issue and maybe make a stand of your own, read on.

The trouble with name change

Name Change 101 states: in the UK you can use any name you wish, absent fraudulent intent, and there is no legal requirement for any documentation whatsoever when it comes to making a change. So why do organisations want deed polls and the like?

The answer – the bad one – is expounded in greater depth within the Identity blog. The bottom line seems to be that organisations want an audit trail to log changes that have happened – and over time, they have confused audit trail with concepts such as “proof” (documentation is not proof: it is evidence) and “security” (a deed poll is a demonstrably insecure means of changing details).

As a practice it is growing, year on year, from next to zero two decades ago, to the point where every least society and knitting circle appears now to be demanding documentation before any change can take place.

1. Deed polls and the like are not necessary. They really aren’t, for the reasons given above. They certainly are not necessary for a range of basic transactional amendments – such as changing your name on a bill or an account.

2. Deed polls and stat decs are arguably unlawful. Where a business sets a condition that will disproportionately affect one group of customers, defined by a protected characteristic such as gender, then that is indirect discrimination. The defence allowed in law is that the approach taken is both reasonable and necessary as a means to achieve its objective.

The first line of defence is usually misunderstanding of the Equality Act: “Its the same condition for everyone”. Yes: it’s not direct discrimination. But that simply proves they don’t understand the indirect variety.

Second is some vague appeal to “security”. Only it’s not a very good way to ensure security. It underscores a lack of faith in the security thy use to allow people to transfer large sums of money. And – the killer! – it does very little to protect from genuine fraudsters.

3. It’s a commercial moneyspinner. Businesses offering to “do you a deed poll” have expanded rapidly – pretty much all since 2000. The cost of getting a deed poll through a third party has expanded from a trivial (?) fiver to, in many instances, somewhere between £30 and £50 for the entire package.

4. The direction of travel is a dangerous one.
Repeat after me:

“there is no legal requirement for any documentation whatsoever when it comes to making a change of name”

Yet the mantra at the customer interface is increasingly a claim that deed poll or similar is “required”. They mean, of course, that it is required by an organisation’s procedures. But over time, that is eliding, slowly, surely, into a mistaken and growing belief that there is some legal basis for this demand. There isn’t.

Fast forward another decade or so, to a time when the demand for a poll is all but universal and get ready for the logical next step: legislation to make it so. Because once this becomes universal practice, the temptation to make name dependent on some degree of state rubber stamping will be overwhelming.

For a community that elsewhere is campaigning against the idea that to assert one’s gender requires state sanctioned approval, this feels very much like own goal: the trans community endorsing a development that will in time come back to bite it.

In fact, this tendency toward official names is already having an impact, in Facebook’s demand that people use only their “authentic” name. Against this, a varied assortment of minorities are uniting around the #mynameis campaign: we should be supporting these and not undermining a worthy cause by taking the easier path.

Resistance is futile?

Not yet it isn’t. There are many ways a determined individual can still stick a well-deserved spoke in the wheels. Moving the banks on this issue may be near impossible today. But to change your name on a bill, or on the books of some local volunteer group is ludicrous and should be exposed as such.

5. Question the demand. When an organisation asks for documentation, ask why. Don’t be satisfied by the usual cliche, such as “security”. Make them explain why a particular set of documents achieves a particular aim. Offer alternatives: a signed letter; a statement of truth.

Complain: to the organisation making demand; to their trade body. Do not go quietly, and maybe, over time, some businesses will begin to notice.

6. Use the Law. Because the demand for an “official” document is likely unlawful. If it creates a detriment (either in terms of additional time and effort, or money spent), organisations must show it is necessary, and that there are no reasonable alternatives.

Individuals can initiate discrimination claims for a small court fee: many organisations won’t even bother to defend these. Prove that they are wrong.

7. Don’t compound the insult. Deed polls, especially, are governed by very little explicit law. Although they claim to be an irrevocable change of name, as one major deed poll organisation carefully explains, they in no way require you to stick to that name, even after they have been executed.

There is no absolute requirement to know your witnesses, to have multiple witnesses, for them to be present singly or together when you sign the document. Yet gradually these conditions are seeping into the name change culture. Again, be very slow to endorse these conditions because, over time, what may now be presented as nice to have seems likely to mutate into solid lines, making the entire process just that little bit more complicated.

8. Engage with the enemy.
Often the demand is part of a system that has just grown organically without anyone asking awkward questions such as “why?” People are campaigning on this issue, speaking to individual companies and trade bodies. If we can show why the practice is flawed or, better still, if we can promote sensible alternatives, we may yet make progress.

* * * * * * * *

In the end, it is up to the individual. Negotiating the bureaucratic twists and turns that can accompany transition is hard enough without adding further detours to the journey. So take the path that best suits you. But if, along the way, you feel motivated to dig your heels in, that is your right. It is small activism: but in the end, large change only comes about through the adding together of multiple small activisms.

Your name. Your decision.


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