Trying to hide how scared he was, Rowan Feldhaus clenched his fist underneath the table and waited on the judge.
Feldhaus, 24, wanted nothing more than his name-change hearing in February to go smoothly.
He wanted the judge to accept him for he who he was, as his family and friends did. He especially wanted a painless hearing because the process had already made him feel more vulnerable than he ever had since coming out as transgender last summer.
“To come a few feet away from someone who has such an impact on your life like that, it’s scary,” Feldhaus said.
But the frictionless hearing he’d been hoping for in Columbia County Superior court didn’t happen.
In February, Judge J. David Roper refused to change Feldhaus’s name from Rebeccah Elizabeth to Rowan Elijah. Roper said the name choice, specifically the name Elijah, was too masculine and could be misleading and potentially dangerous.
In June, Feldhaus and his lawyers appealed the decision, saying Roper overstepped his authority. Feldhaus is currently waiting for his next day in court, which could take until next year, he said.
Late last month, Roper announced his plans to retire next February. He declined to comment for this article.
Since its filing, the unprecedented dispute has gained widespread attention in the LGBT community, national media and legal circles.
Jamie Roberts, a lawyer as well as transgender activist and woman, said in 15 years of practicing law, she’s never seen anything like this.
The current Coweta public defender used to represent people like Feldhaus in the private sector and said name changes are routine. That this became a problem is a reflection of a heightened trend in transgender discrimination, she said.
“The judge took a kernel of law and blew it up into something that I’m almost positive never entered the mind of the legislators when they passed that statue,” Roberts said.
Lambda Legal, which represents Feldhaus, made similar assertions in its brief to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
Requiring Feldhaus to choose a gender-neutral name is not rooted in law, said Beth Littrell, a senior attorney with Lambda Legal.
“That’s discrimination plain and simple,” Littrell said.
But others see it differently.
“I have a concern along the lines of anything that makes it not black and white, male or female,” said Tanya Ditty, state director of the faith-based organization Concerned Women for America.
For her, a name change could disguise a person’s true gender, which could threaten others’ safety and privacy.
Feldhaus said he never imagined his case would receive this much attention and at first, he didn’t want it to.
He came out to his family less than a year before the hearing. He hadn’t changed his Facebook information until September and was still acquainting people with the new him.
Feldhaus presented documentation of his transformation to the court, including proof he was undergoing hormone treatments. The judge’s rejection was stunning and demoralizing, and Feldhaus knew that challenging the decision would leave him open to even more disappointment.
After the denial, he said, he wanted to compromise with Roper and end it there.
“But I told myself it wasn’t about me,” Feldhaus said. “It was about everyone else that is going through this or will go through this.”
The ACLU, which filed an additional brief in Feldhaus’ appeal, is also litigating name-change cases in Delaware and Florida, said Ria Tabacco Mar, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project. However, Mar said the judge’s reasoning in the Feldhaus case is almost explicitly discriminatory.
While the reactions Feldhaus has received are “about 99 percent” positive, he said, disparaging remarks abound on social media.
Those anonymous broadsides are par for the course, but Feldhaus finds the personal attacks to be frightening.
A week after his name change was denied, for example, Feldhaus’ mother found a note on her car.
“It was targeted at me and my family saying, ‘Get your freak out of here,’” he said. “‘You’re not welcome here, but nobody’s brave enough to tell you face to face.’”
On days like that, Feldhaus said he has to remind himself quitting isn’t the answer.
“I continue thinking like that to push forward,” he said.
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the reactions to this case show the transgender community won’t stay silent.
“I do believe that there’s enough publicity around this that it will give other judges pause in the future,” Graham said.
As for Feldhaus, he ultimately wants what he started this journey for — his name.
He acknowledges that the future contains many uncertainties but says appealing his name change and becoming so public about his transformation have strengthened his confidence.
He used to worry about which friends and family would reject him, but now he understands that being himself is more important.
“It’s like, no,” he said. “You gained someone that’s more true to themselves than ever, that’s not hiding anything anymore.”
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