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The phrase “legal name” appears everywhere. And wherever it appears, it seems to come with an assumption that it picks out one, clear such name for each person. So, do “legal” names as the phrase is commonly understood really exist? As far as federal and most state law is concerned, it turns out the answer is a clear no.
This article seeks to highlight the legal, moral, and philosophical wrongness of the notion that people have one uniquely identifying legal name. To do that, we survey the status of names in various legal domains, highlighting that legal consensus tends to be that there is no one “correct legal name” for individuals (if anything, people often have many “legal” names). We argue this common notion that every person has a single, clearly defined “legal” name is a kind of collective delusion we all seem to share (emerging somewhere in the late twentieth century), but is not grounded in legal or social reality. To address this harmful delusion, we present a series of ready-to-cite conclusions about the current state of the law and introduce a normative framework for how institutions and individuals ought to choose between people’s various legal names. Engaging with legal theory, feminist philosophy, and philosophy of language, we discuss the social function of names and argue that names enable people to communicate important social information about themselves—which can include their gender, religion, and familial relations. Thus, we conclude by arguing that individuals and legal institutions have a normative responsibility to respect peoples’ preferred legal names, thereby allowing them to authentically represent these facets of their social identities.