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Public notices of name changes ‘outed’ many transgender Mainers. A new law will change that

Christine Caulfield at her home in Yarmouth, Maine.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
Maine Public
Christine Caulfield at her home in Yarmouth, Maine.

Christine Caulfield, now 65, came out as transgender in 2007. As a Marine Corps veteran, a teacher, and a married parent of two, she worried about how it might affect her life and family.

Her wife was supportive, and they began telling close friends and family. Eventually Caulfield came out to others in her community and at work. But she said when she was ready to formally change her name in 2018, the public notice requirement meant she had to publish her name change in the local paper, and that created problems, particularly in her wife’s professional life.

“That caused an awful lot of reconsideration, questioning, turmoil in our relationship, turmoil at work. She lost clients who were transphobic or homophobic, and it was just a mess,” Caulfield said. “And we never would have gone through that if it hadn't been published.”

Gov. Janet Mills signed into law LD 1900 in early April, which eliminates the requirement that name changes be published.

“This is a critical issue in our community. So many of us have to cope with name changes and making that process easier is going to have a big impact,” said Quinn Gormley, the executive director of Maine TransNet, a transgender advocacy nonprofit that lobbied for the passage of the bill.

Gormley said the previous law created a financial challenge for many transgender Mainers, as they would have to pay the paper for the advertising space for the public notice. And, she said, there’s a safety risk in publicly ‘outing’ someone, as it could threaten their housing, employment or physical safety.

Previously, Mainers could ask a probate court for an exemption from the public notice, but they would have to prove that they were in immediate fear for their safety. That standard of evidence could be cumbersome for a lot of people, including transgender Mainers and survivors of domestic abuse, said Rep. Erin Sheehan, D-Biddeford, who sponsored the bill.

“Some people might feel if they don't have, for example, a protection from abuse order, that they won't be able to establish that [evidence]. So, it can be really chilling for folks,” Sheehan said.

“A lot of the safety risks, particularly that trans people have, they’re more abstract. We don't know who's going to be nasty. And so it's difficult to prove that to a court,” Gormley said.

During deliberations on the house floor in late March, some lawmakers brought up concerns around how LD 1900 might open the door to fraud. Sheehan said the new legislation addresses this by requiring universal adoption of background checks and an affidavit form, which will screen for fraudulent activity such an avoidance of legal obligations, bankruptcy proceedings and debt collection.

“My hope is that Mainers can approach their probate courts with a greater degree of confidence that their privacy will be protected,” Sheehan said. “I look forward to the law making it much easier for folks to live their truth.”

In a signing ceremony on Wednesday, Gov. Janet Mills announced the passage of LD 1900, in addition to two other bills that were priority legislation for Maine’s LGBTQ+ policy coalition. LD 1804 provides consistency throughout the Maine Revised Statutes around the definition of “domestic partner.” And LD 1786 makes the nondiscrimination provisions throughout the statutes consistent in prohibiting discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical or mental disability, religion, ancestry or national origin, age or familial status.

“I think passing a trans affirming bill in our current political climate is no small act,” Gormley said, referring to several recent bills introduced across the country that range from banning transgender girls from participating in youth sports, to limiting transgender individuals’ abilities to receive gender-affirming health care. “To hear from our elected officials in our state that they support our community and understand our needs while our communities are being targeted and attacked in so many other states — it’s powerful.”

As a former teacher, Caulfield said when she heard that LD 1900 passed, she immediately thought about transgender youth in the state, some of whom were her former students. She said the passage of this bill will make it easier for them to navigate the system and come out on their own terms.

“It gives them the confidence to transition and to change names without it being part of public discussion,” Caulfield said. “The more we can do to raise awareness in the public's mind about the impact on trans Mainers, I think the more we're accepted in society at large.”