Wisconsin, Illinois sued over transgender name-change laws

Attorneys sued Wisconsin and Illinois Wednesday over laws that forbid transgender individuals from changing their names if they have certain criminal convictions.

Both federal lawsuits argue that the states are violating free speech rights and are preventing people from expressing how they identify themselves.

"The impact on their lives is severe. This is an issue of equality and equal participation in society," said Lark Mulligan, an attorney who filed the Illinois lawsuit. Mulligan, who is a transgender woman, noted "all the times that people are forced to use their IDs just to access basic services - applying for public benefits, applying for school, applying for a job or an apartment, anything like that."

Cook County, Illinois, and Kenosha County, Wisconsin, are listed as defendants in the lawsuits, which say eight transgender women in Illinois and one transgender woman in Wisconsin encounter an array of challenges in their daily lives. The suits cited instances in which transgender individuals failed to get food stamps because their chosen name is not on their ID, or times when they were ridiculed in public places after showing identification that didn't reflect their gender and chosen name.

The lawsuits seek to stop the states from enforcing their laws.

Cook County State's Attorney Kimbery Foxx's office said it hadn't seen the lawsuit yet and doesn't comment on pending litigation. Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley didn't immediately respond to a call and email seeking comment. Both prosecutors are named in the lawsuit because they would be the ones enforcing their state's laws if any of the named plaintiffs changed their names.

In Wisconsin, registered sex offenders are forbidden to change their names and face up to six years in prison if they do.

The plaintiff in the Wisconsin case was born Kenneth Krebs but has been going by Karen Krebs since she came out as transgender in 1999, the lawsuit states. She's a registered sex offender because of a 1992 conviction and can't change her name.

"This causes confusion and raises questions whenever Plaintiff applies for a job, interacts with medical professionals, or seeks to manage her personal finances," the lawsuit states.

Krebs' attorney, Adele Nicholas, said her client is not trying to hide her past or conceal her identity. In fact, Nicholas said Krebs reports herself to the sex offender registry as both Kenneth Krebs and Karen Krebs so people can find her. She would continue to use both names in the registry if she's allowed to change her name, Nicholas said.

Thirteen states don't require disclosure of criminal history for name changes, according to an article in the DePaul Law Review. Twenty-eight states and Washington, D.C., require criminal background checks, but don't automatically bar name changes. Illinois is among nine states with more restrictive laws.

In Illinois, people must wait 10 years after completing their sentence to be able to change their names. Other states have permanent bars.

Attorneys in the cases say these lawsuits are among the first to be litigated. A case in Indiana challenged a similar law there, but it wasn't decided on its merits because the court found the plaintiffs didn't name the proper defendant, Nicholas said.