Making a Name for Themselves
56 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2021
Date Written: April 9, 2021
The United States finds itself at a moment of reckoning with the past. Despite historical progress, Black Americans, women, immigrants, and LGBTQ communities continue to face pervasive societal injustices. Social media and popular calls for reform have only amplified these voices. From #TimesUp to #SayTheirNames, communities are joining together to demand legal reforms for generations of systemic abuse. Through new technologies today’s movements for change are able to organize for reforms in a way never before seen. Though the platforms are new, the problems are not. Racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and xenophobia all continue to pervade U.S. society.
An area of law that touches on each of these struggles for social change has received little scholarly attention. It is the law of name change. This article tracks how name change law has served as a vehicle for liberation by oppressed peoples. Women, African Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ individuals have all turned to the law of name change to assert their individual rights. Yet, as the legal name change process moved away from informal practice and toward judicial regulation, the opportunity for governmental intervention has often served to neutralize the emancipatory effect of the common law of name changes. Today, the common law of name change is still good law but is undermined by a judicial process that reflects systemic biases against oppressed groups. By exploring the law and its history, the article argues for a name change system that promotes a more robust application of common law while deemphasizing the gatekeeping role played by judges. In so doing, it also illustrates the case for understanding the American law of name change as a uniquely progressive legal doctrine in the movement for civil rights and liberation.
“My name was Isabella; but when I left the house of bondage, I left everything behind. I wa'n't goin' to keep nothin' of Egypt on me, an' so I went to the Lord an' asked him to give me a new name.”
- Sojourner Truth
Keywords: name change law, civil rights, common law, comparative law, legal history, critical legal studies, critical race theory, feminist jurisprudence, LGBTQ studies, immigration
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