A Mississippi state legislator introduced a bill this week seeking to prohibit incarcerated people from changing their names, as well as barring minors from legally changing their gender or name.
If passed, Mississippi would join at least nine states that have prohibitions against those convicted of felonies from changing their name while in prison. Most lift the restriction once the individual's sentence has been completed, or a number of years afterward, but a few states — including Florida and Iowa — forbid anyone with a past felony conviction from changing their name.
Under the Mississippi legislation, titled the “Real You Act of 2022,” an incarcerated person would not be able to petition for a name change. State officials would not be permitted to grant one unless filed by a district attorney, a county sheriff, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections or a department chaplain on behalf of the imprisoned individual.
Leaving such a decision up to individual senior law enforcement officials strips uniformity out of the process and makes it easy to introduce biases, said Olivia Hunt, senior policy counsel at the National Center for Transgender Equality.
“They can pick and choose who gets to have a name change under this new law, which means that it ultimately comes down to how much they like the person or how much they like whether or not that person happens to be transgender,” she said.
Legislation restricting name changes for incarcerated folks usually arise from concerns over identity fraud or confusion. But some states with similar restrictions allow name changes if the individual notifies relevant authorities and registries of the change.
And with modern data systems, Hunt said there’s “no question” a state’s corrections department would know how to keep track of its prisoners regardless.
“There’s no meaningful risk of fraud or confusion coming out of this,” Hunt said. “This is trying to expand the scope of punishment beyond what is intended when somebody is convicted of a crime.”
Another section of the bill says minors cannot file a gender transition petition — nor can their parent, guardian or representative — without letters of support from a licensed physician, a licensed psychiatrist and a chancery clerk; the clerk must also conduct an in-person interview with the minor.
The petition would include a legally recognized gender change and, according to the bill, could also include a legal name change.
These provisions strike Carl Charles, an attorney at the New York-based LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal, as out of the ordinary for bills like this. Letters of support from medical professionals are typically required only to undergo gender-affirming medical care.
A state mandating letters from two medical professionals to update a gender marker or legal name is “incredibly uncommon,” he said.
Updating legal documents like birth certificates can be complex on its own, which Charles said prevents many minors from completing the process before turning 18. Coupled with the Real You Act, however, families would have to not only find doctors willing to provide letters of support, but also be able to afford such a service.
What’s more unusual, he said, is to require the approval of a chancery clerk, a profession that does not require any medical background or expertise.
“I’m sorry, but what on earth could a chancery clerk possibly know about a transgender minor’s gender, or need to know?” he said. “And there’s no guidance here, which is really disturbing because a young person could show up to a chancery clerk, and that chancery clerk could ask them all kinds of personal, offensive questions, and the young person would feel a great deal of pressure to answer.”
State Sen. Chad McMahan, the Republican who introduced the act, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
If his bill were to pass in Mississippi, a number of legal challenges would likely arise, experts said, as has occurred in other states that have rolled out similar laws.
For Charles, one aspect of the proposed legislation stands out as “particularly cruel”: its name.
“It is certainly really pointed in the sense that trans people as a group have long been countering the myth and the stereotype and, frankly, the interpersonal violence that they are lying about who they are,” he said. “So for a Mississippi state legislator to name this the ‘Real You Act of 2022’ adds insult to injury.”