Legislators in at least two states are discussing bills allowing transgender people to keep documentation of a name change out of public record.
A bill in Washington would allow gender expression and identity as reasons to seal a future petition for a name change, and a California bill would require the sealing of petitions by minors to change their name and gender on identifying documents.
The Associated Press said advocates warn that transgender people can be susceptible to cyberbullying and physical violence if name-change petitions aren't sealed and previous names are available in public records.
At the moment, only victims of domestic violence can have name changes easily sealed in Washington. Other states, including California, extend the same service to victims of human trafficking, stalking and sexual assault.
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Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen is sponsoring the Washington legislation, which passed the Senate this month with bipartisan support and is expected to pass in the House. The bill is modeled on current laws in New York and Oregon and would also provide privacy to refugees, emancipated minors and those who have been granted asylum.
"This seemed to me like a simple action that could go a long way in making transgender people a lot safer in our state," Pedersen said.
University of Washington graduate student Maia Xiao, who has changed her name, wrote to Pedersen last summer urging reform after records of a transgender friend's name change were published in an online forum and led to "relentless harassment, including hate mail."
The same internet forum Xiao said her friend experienced harassment on came under fire last year for doxxing trans people and maliciously publishing personal information. The forum has also been linked to suicides, The AP reported.
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The California bill, introduced in January and has not yet been scheduled for a hearing, would require the state to seal any petition filed by a person under 18 for a change to name, gender and/or sex. Documents from a petitioner's court proceedings would also be sealed.
Katie Moehlig, executive director of the San Diego nonprofit TransFamily Support Services, approached Democratic California Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Chris Ward with the idea after she became aware that the records can be easily found and shared. Moehlig said students she advises told her that this is a trend happening in middle or high school.
"Somebody’s gender identity is an innate piece about them — it’s intimate," she said, adding that many families don't know these records are public. "They deserve the right to the privacy around their identity."
Ward, also the vice chair of the California Legislative LGBTQ Caucus, said he hopes the bill will reduce the risk of bullying for "gender-noncomforming children."
"I want them to certainly be comfortable," Ward said, "and free to be themselves."
San Diego lawyer Clarice Barrelet, who has an 11-year-old transgender son, told The AP that simply plugging her child's name into a search engine reveals the gender change. Barrelet said she thinks those records should be sealed to protect the privacy of children and adults.
Some law enforcement officers have expressed concern with the bills, stating they could possibly allow a criminal to request a name change to escape accountability.
"This is not the intent of the bill, and such cases would be rare, but there needs to be procedures in place to prevent it," Jennifer Wallace, executive director of the Washington Association of County Officials, said to The AP.
The Washington bill would allow courts to unseal a name change file if law enforcement officials had reasonable suspicions.
Sex offenders and incarcerated people would still be ineligible for a sealed name change.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.