As far as federal, most state, and any other source of American law is concerned – as several courts in the early 20th Center put it: there is no such thing as a legal name.
Yet, the phrase ‘legal name’ appears everywhere, often beside threats of the penalties of perjury if you give something other than your legal name. For example, transgender people often hear ‘well, this has to say your “Legal Name”’, as an explanation for why they must be referred to by their dead-name. One would assume, given the widespread use, surely must be a clear, unambiguous name that constitutes a person’s ‘legal name’ – as well as ‘legal’ reasons an organization insists on using that name, right? Well. Not so much.
Thus, this Article seeks to highlight the (legal, moral, and philosophical) wrongness of that notion. We begin by explaining the practical significance of this mistake (the mistake being something like, ‘legal name means XYZ and only XYZ’, where ‘XYZ’ means ‘name on [usually one and only one of: birth certificate/social security card/driver’s license/name change order]’). Then, we survey the ‘legal’ status of names in various legal domains, highlighting that legal consensus tends to be that there is no one ‘correct legal name’ for individuals (if anything, people often have many ‘legal’ names). We then frame the wrongheaded notion that a person has a single clearly defined ‘legal name’ as a harmful, collective delusion.
So how do we rid ourselves of this delusion? We present a series of ready-to-cite conclusions about the current state of the law and introduce a normative framework for how institutions and individuals ought to choose between people’s various legal names when referring to them. Specifically, we introduce what we call the ‘Preference Norm’, according to we should defer to the legal name someone prefers absent some existent superseding legal reason not to. We argue that violating this norm in many cases constitutes a gross violation of someone’s dignity. We conclude by proposing a series of concrete legal suggestions which are meant capture the spirit of the Preference Norm.
Green, J Remy and Baker, Austin A, There is No Such Thing as a ‘Legal Name’: A Strange, Shared Delusion (April 25, 2021).