Reversal: Transgender name change permitted; trial court admonished for disrespect

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A transgender man denied a motion to privately change his name and gender on his birth certificate won a reversal from the Indiana Court of Appeals, which admonished a trial court for denying the man’s petition and treating him disrespectfully.

R.E., an individual assigned female at birth who identifies as a male, filed his name and gender marker change petitions in 2019. He also filed a request to waive the publication of his name change in the newspaper and to seal the case under Indiana Administrative Rule 9(G).

The Newton Circuit Court denied his requests, however, ruling that R.E. “failed to set forth sufficient evidence to meet even a minimal threshold of proof that her [sic] gender has actually been changed from female to male.”

But the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed in R.E.’s favor on appeal in Name Chage Of: R.E., 19A-MI-02562, finding that the trial court used an erroneous legal standard in determining R.E.’s petition to change gender marker.

The appellate court initially noted that it was “apparent from the proceedings before the trial court that that court would not grant R.E.’s petition to change the gender marker on his birth certificate based on R.E.’s testimony alone but instead wanted some form of medical evidence that R.E. had actually undergone a physical sex change.” However, in a footnote, the appellate court pointed out that “at three different points in the trial court proceedings, the court rejected R.E.’s medical evidence, each time for a different reason.”

It therefore found no question that R.E. met the threshold that his request was made in good faith and not for fraudulent or unlawful purpose, the only requirement R.E. had to show in order to obtain the change to gender marker on his birth certificate.

“The trial court’s insistence that R.E. could not meet his burden on his petition without medical evidence of an actual physical change to R.E.’s body, that R.E.’s ‘gender has actually been changed from female to male,’ is contrary to law. No such evidence or enhanced burden of proof is required to grant R.E.’s petition,” Judge Edward Najam wrote for the appellate court. “The trial court was actually aware of our opinion in (In re Petition for Change of Birth Certificate, 22 N.E.3d 707 (Ind. Ct. App. 2014)), as R.E. explicitly cited it to the court on multiple occasions. The trial court had no discretion to simply disregard our opinions.”

It therefore found the trial court erred as a matter of law in requiring R.E. to produce medical evidence of an actual physical change to his body and remanded with instructions for the trial court to grant R.E.’s petition without further delay.

Additionally, it found the trial court unreasonably refused to seal R.E.’s court records against the appellate court’s “unambiguous precedent” in In re A.L., 81 N.E.3d 283 (Ind. Ct. App. 2017) and In re the Name Change of M.E.B., 126 N.E.3d 932, 936 (Ind. Ct. App. 2019).

“Here, the trial court made the same errors that we reversed in In re A.L. and in In re M.E.B. when the court demanded that R.E. present some evidence of actual or imminent harm from the publication of his petition and the open court proceedings. Administrative Rule 9 requires no such evidence,” the appellate court wrote, reversing and remanding with instructions that R.E.’s case remain sealed.

Lastly, the appellate court found R.E. was treated inappropriately and without the respect expected from judicial officers when the trial court did not use R.E.’s preferred pronoun of “he/his.”

“Unfortunately, this is not the first such occasion we have had to publicly admonish one of our trial courts for such derision,” Najam admonished. “The court refused to use R.E.’s preferred pronoun, not only making it a point to use the incorrect pronoun ‘she’ but also unacceptably referring to R.E. as ‘it’ and ‘whichever.’ The trial court also ridiculed R.E.’s appearance, comparing R.E. to an ‘aunt that has a significant amount of facial hair.’

“All parties in Indiana’s trial courts deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. The trial court’s treatment of R.E. here was disrespectful and inappropriate,” the appellate court wrote. “As we said in In re M.E.B., ‘[w]e would hope that the trial courts of this state would show far greater respect (as well as objectivity and impartiality) to all litigants appearing before them.’”

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