Transgender man appeals rejection of legal name change

ATLANTA (AP) — A transgender man in Georgia is appealing a judge's refusal to grant his legal name change.

Columbia County Superior Court Judge J. David Roper in March rejected a name change petition from the transgender man seeking to legally change his name from Rebeccah Elizabeth Feldhaus to Rowan Elijah Feldhaus. LGBT-rights group Lambda Legal on Thursday appealed the denial.

"The question presented is whether a female has the salutatory right to change her name to a traditionally and obviously male name," the judge wrote. "The court concludes that she does not have such right."

Feldhaus, 24, is a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve and works in guest services at an Augusta-area hotel. He has been diagnosed with and is being treated for gender dysphoria, which is characterized by stress stemming from conflict between one's gender identity and assigned sex at birth, the appeal says. He is receiving hormone treatments, lives as a man, and his friends, family and co-workers call him Rowan.

He never felt comfortable with his given name, mostly because he didn't feel like he was in the body he was supposed to be in, he said.

About a year and a half ago, one of his best friends, who was a bit tipsy at the time, said that if Feldhaus was a guy, he could see him as a Rowan. It was right at the moment when Feldhaus was coming out to friends and family and struggling to find a name that felt comfortable and that name just clicked, he told The Associated Press by phone.

"It was a very grounding moment," he said.

He chose Elijah as a middle name because it sounds similar to his given middle name.

The judge's decision made him feel "insulted and objectified," he said.

Roper said he does not approve of changing a name for someone who is anatomically one sex to a name that is obviously used for the opposite sex. He said it can be misleading for the public and can be dangerous if people don't know whether they're dealing with a man or a woman, according to a transcript of a February hearing on Feldhaus' petition.

But Roper said he recognized that Feldhaus is not going to stop presenting himself as male and that this could present problems for people who have to interact with him. For that reason, in spite of his own disapproval, he would allow a change to a gender-neutral name, he said.

"I will allow a gender-neutral name change that will benefit the general public because I don't want them to have to go through the embarrassing issue of trying to figure out what to do with you when you present, in your appearance today, with a female name, particularly if you had on a uniform and you were dressed like a man," Roper said, according to the transcript.

For that reason, Roper said he would approve a change to Rowan because it is sufficiently gender neutral, but he rejected Feldhaus' chosen middle name, Elijah, because it is clearly a man's name.

The Georgia law governing name changes does not deal with transgender name changes and there is no appellate court decision on the issue, Roper wrote in his order denying the change. But he noted that the law does not allow a name change "with a view to deprive another fraudulently of any right under the law."

"Name changes which allow a person to assume the role of a person of the opposite sex are, in effect, a type of fraud on the general public," Roper wrote. "Such name changes also offend the sensibilities and mores of a substantial portion of the citizens of this state."

Feldhaus' attorneys argue that Roper abused his discretion when he denied the name change petition because the denial was arbitrary and based on insufficient and improper reasons rather than being based on evidence of fraud or improper motive. The legal discretion accorded to judges is not an invitation to rule based on private opinions, the appeal says.