Seventeen-year-old Willow Heron had been living on her own in Nelson for about a year, but still needed her mother’s signature when she decided to change her name.
By Vivien Beduya for Re: News
She says she moved out at 16 because her mother wasn’t “super supportive” of her being transgender.
As part of her transition, she wanted to legally change her name to Willow but current legislation requires her parents’ permission to do so.
When she asked for her mum’s signature, she says her mother denied her from doing so unless it was on her terms.
“She tried to withhold that from me and told me that I wasn’t ready.”
She assumed that as an independent youth, she would have rights as her own legal guardian, but found this was not possible.
Under the current law, 16 to 17-year-olds need to have both of their parents’ signatures to change their legal names, except for those in a marriage or de facto relationship.
“I haven’t been at home for close to a year now, yet I still need my mum’s sign-off [to change my name]?” she says.
This is what sparked Willow’s petition to lower the required age to legally change your own name to 16.
“The law kind of didn’t make sense that you had medical autonomy at 16, you can update your gender markers at 16, but you’re unable to change your own name.”
Importance of youth autonomy
Also a member of Make It 16, the campaign to lower the voting age to 16, Willow says youth autonomy is really important.
She says that she just wants consistency across the board.
“We have autonomy except in this area.”
While Willow only needs her mother’s signature because her father passed away when she was younger, she says requiring signatures from both parents could also be problematic.
“[It is] negatively impacting people who might already be socially dispositioned either socio-economically, or if they come from a conservative or religious background preventing them to be respected,” she says.
Dando, the Taranaki Schools Coordinator from InsideOUT, a national charity that provides services for rainbow and takatāpui communities, agrees.
They say many rainbow rangatahi don’t live at home and have no relationships with their legal guardians.
“It is unfair because our rangatahi would be put in impossible situations if their parents’ signatures are mandatory to change their names,” they say.
Dando says that rainbow rangatahi go through “intense consideration” when they want to legally change their names.
“They have the knowledge and experience to change their names.”
They also say rangatahi need to have a voice when it comes to making policies and legislation that will affect them.
Gender-affirming markers important to wellbeing
Dando says InsideOUT strongly supports Willow’s petition because of the impact it will have on the wellbeing of trans youth and takatāpui.
They say being able to affirm trans youths’ identities by changing their names in legal documents can also decrease the risk of them being outed or misgendered by others.
A recent New Zealand study has looked at the importance of gender-affirming markers on the IDs of transgender and nonbinary people.
The study found that trans and nonbinary participants who didn’t have gender affirming markers on their IDs had greater odds of suicidal ideation and experienced higher psychological distress.
Advocates say that lowering the required age to change your own name would coincide with people being able to change their sex on birth certificates without having to provide proof of medical procedure from June next year.
Claire Black, chief executive of OutLine, an all-ages rainbow mental health organisation, says if the petition is successful, it will also help protect the privacy of transgender and nonbinary people.
“It will put the power back into people’s hands with what information they are willing to share,” Black says.
“The instances of being deadnamed, misgendered, although may seem small, can have a cumulative effect on their wellbeing.”
Name change can also impact ethnic communities
PhD Linguistics student Sidney Gig-Jan Wong is a second generation immigrant with roots in Hong Kong.
He says being able to affirm your name in any facet, whether it be race or gender, is important.
Growing up in Lower Hutt, he says he felt like he had to hide behind his Western name to assimilate.
As an adult, he has embraced his Cantonese middle name, Gig-Jan, and uses it especially in academic spaces.
“For ethnic communities, the prevailing knowledge is to assimilate and change our names to a Western one so it’s easier to pronounce,” the 28-year-old says.
Another reason for adopting a Western name is because of potential name and accent discrimination from employers.
“Ethnic communities could also face discrimination in getting jobs because their name doesn’t sound like ‘they belonged in Aotearoa’,” he says.
But Sidney also says there’s a bigger sense of cultural reclamation in his generation.
In other ethnic cultures, like Cantonese, names can be fluid.
“Our names can be changed depending on the context - pet names, how our elders call us, or what we’re called in academe,” he says.
“We just want to celebrate our existence.”