CHICAGO — Reyna Ortiz hopes that one day soon she will be able to show her ID when required without creating confusion because the card has a man’s name on it.
A transgender woman, Ortiz has attempted to legally change her name to match her female identity but has been unable to do so because of an Illinois law that prevents name changes by anyone convicted of identity theft.
Ortiz was convicted on that charge about 20 years ago after she says she committed fraud in an effort to pay for gender-affirming surgery.
Legislation now on Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk would loosen restrictions for people with past felony convictions who want to legally change their names. The measure passed in the Illinois Senate during the lame-duck session earlier this month, with five Democrats voting no, after being approved with bipartisan support in the House in 2021.
A sometimes contentious debate preceded the Jan. 10 vote in the Senate, with opponents arguing the bill would allow felons to escape scrutiny and commit more crimes.
Supporters countered that the measure is intended to protect victims of human trafficking, as well as help those in the transgender community like Ortiz.
“Every time I pull my ID out people are like, ‘you’re a man?’ I’m a woman. I live as a woman. I look like a woman. I’m a transgender woman,” said Ortiz, 42, who lives in Chicago’s western suburbs. “There’s so many trans women walking around with IDs that don’t match their gender identity and that opens us up to various degrees of systemic discrimination.”
Illinois residents are already allowed to put the gender they identify with on IDs issued through the secretary of state’s office, a spokesman said.
The bill removes a lifetime ban on name changes for people who have been convicted of identity theft, as well as for those on state registries for convictions on offenses including murder, arson and various sex crimes. For all other felonies, the bill lifts a 10-year waiting period from the completion of a sentence for people to change their names.
Judges would have ultimate say over approving name changes for people convicted of felonies that had been subject to the lifetime ban, and the measure would allow county prosecutors to object to those name-change petitions. In those cases, the petitioners would have to convince judges that they want to change their name because they’re transgender, were victims of human trafficking, for religious reasons or because they got married.
Getting the bill through the General Assembly took more than five years, according to Khadine Bennett, the director of advocacy and intergovernmental affairs for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, which pushed for the legislation. The argument for the bill that ultimately passed focused on people who felt their lives could be in danger without an official identity change.
“We were really focused on the folks who, it’s a need, it’s like a life-or-death need because of fears of abusive partners or their trafficker finding them again,” Bennett said. “Or it’s a need because in order to do that, they could potentially face being outed and harmed. They can face losing jobs. They can face not being able to rent or find a place to live.”
During the floor debate on the final day of the legislature’s lame-duck session, Democratic state Sen. Bill Cunningham of Chicago, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, stressed the process would include input from prosecutors and judicial discretion.
“You can’t just go into the county clerk’s office and fill out paperwork to change your name if you qualify under these new provisions,” Cunningham said.
Under the bill, if a judge approves a name change for someone on a sex offender or other criminal registry that person has to re-register within three to 10 days, depending on the crime, under both names. The former and current names would then appear on the registry, Cunningham said.
Opponents raised concerns about sex offenders being eligible to change their names without victims being notified.
“If it was only those who had been sex trafficked, I could get on board with this bill,” said GOP state Sen. Terri Bryant of Murphysboro. “But it isn’t.”
State Sen. Chapin Rose, a Republican from Mahomet, spoke of the lengthy and expensive process he and his wife went through to get their daughter’s name changed in court to alleviate confusion about the pronunciation of her name.
“This is crazy. You put law-abiding citizens through heck, yet we’re going to change the name of the sex offenders,” Rose said. “It’s just nuts.”
State Sen. Steve McClure, a Republican from Springfield and a former Sangamon County assistant state’s attorney, raised a concern that the bill allows “criminals that are dangerous to change their names.”
Cunningham said Illinois has “one of the most restrictive” laws on name-changing and there’s only about a dozen other states “that restrict name-changing the way we do.”
“There are very few people, I think, who are going to change their name for surreptitious reasons who are going to go (to) a judge and say, ‘judge, here I am. I want to change my name,’” Cunningham said. “If someone is up to no good, someone is looking to engage in criminal conduct by somehow changing their identity, they’re not going to go into court and draw attention to that.”
“I really think many of these fears being articulated are overblown,” he said.
In an interview last week, Cunningham said that during his time as a press secretary for the Cook County sheriff’s office there was an effort to reduce the female population at the county jail. Many of the women facing prostitution charges had at one point been victims of human trafficking, he said.
“The problem they often ran into is when they had their case adjudicated and went back into society, the person who trafficked them in the first place would track them down and find them, and draw them back into a life of abuse and crime,” Cunningham said.
“And one of the things they talked about doing was changing their name so they’d be harder to track down,” he said.
Ortiz said she transitioned from being male to female when she was 13, dropped her legal name (which she didn’t want to disclose) and took the name Reyna. Two years later she got involved in the sex trade.
“It was 1995. I was in Cicero, Little Village, Pilsen as a beautiful, androgynous person in a gang-infested city,” she said. “Men sexualized me and I learned to (be a) prostitute. … And what forced me into prostitution was poverty, you know, and ignorance and all those things.”
In her early 20s, Ortiz committed fraud and identity theft, she said, so that she could pay for gender-affirming surgery.
“There was very, very little assistance for trans people in the ’90s and the early 2000s. You were a prostitute. You were a fraud queen. You were a beautician. You were all these kinds of things. … And these surgeries are not discounted. You know, you have to come up with $12,000 if you need something,” said Ortiz.
More than 10 years after completing a 30-month probation sentence, Ortiz said she sought legal help to get her name changed at the Daley Center. She answered a number of questions, including about her past criminal record. When she told a staffer that she was convicted of identity theft, she found out that she couldn’t legally change her name in Illinois.
“And I had to mourn the fact that I would live with my legal name … for the rest of my life.”
Ortiz has helped push to change the law for herself and others, becoming involved in the legislation now on Pritzker’s desk four and a half years ago.
“I committed a crime. I was a young prostitute … But I paid my debt to this society. I paid it,” Ortiz said. “So does that mean that I will have to be punished for the rest of my life?”