I was happy to see that Juliet Jacques’ latest this morning was devoted to the name change process. It’s a bigger deal during transition than most people realize. It also raises more challenges than most non-trans people appreciate.
My experience with changing my name hasn’t been identical to Juliet’s. Aside from the specific idiosyncrasies of her British NHS experience, I’ve learned that different trans people to approach this topic in different ways. Juliet’s approach was not identical to my own, but she does hit upon a few notes which resonate with my own experience.
“Although it wasn’t chosen in honour of any family member or tradition, I knew my parents would find my renunciation of the name they gave me incredibly difficult. I wished I’d had a name like Alex that didn’t have to change, or even something that could be easily ‘feminised’ – the nearest I found to my birth name was ‘Greta’, which was a non-starter. The best compromise I could find was to retain my initials…”
I felt myself in a very similar bind. I knew my parents were proud of the name they had given me. It had personal, sentimental, and family legacy value to them. I had often heard them describe the many reasons they decided upon my name. I briefly grasped onto the notion that I might change to the name my parents had told me they would have given me had I been born a girl. But we had named our first daughter a variation upon the same name so that was quickly ruled out.
My other problem was that there was simply no way to make my given name remotely feminine. It wasn’t an ambiguously gendered name like “Chris,” or “Lee.” There was no feminine version of it, like “Ken” and Kendra” or “Julian” and “Julia.” There weren’t even any feminine approximations I could find. So, like Juliet, I attempted to keep faithful to the spirit of my old name by retaining my initials.
“These practical irritations paled beside the social and psychological aspects. Having carried two names in my head for most of my life, switching between them at will, I’d not realised that most people find it incredibly hard to dislodge the first name they attach to someone – and that the longer they’ve known it, the harder it becomes. I tried to be forgiving when people used my old name, remembering that many people just aren’t good with names full stop.”
Here we get into one of those areas where trans people have problems relating to non-trans people. I now understand that it’s difficult for many people to adjust to my name change, but I don’t honestly understand why. When I tell people my name is now “Diana,” some of them struggle with it profoundly, like I’m telling them to imagine that I am now a bicycle or a refrigerator. The old name isn’t just a name to them, it’s their word for describing the entity that is me in some deeper sense.
To me the old name is wrong for a similar reason. I know that the old name was never truly my name because it implied a gender identity which was never true. That’s one of the reasons I – along with pretty much every trans person I know – place as much emotional significance on changing my name as I place on other transition milestones – including the ones which non-trans people seem to consider far more significant (e.g. having “THE surgery” as it is widely known in non-trans circles). Changing my name is about setting right something which has always felt wrong.
“When discussing the present or the future, Juliet felt perfect. When my friends or I talked about my pre-transitional past, it didn’t. Inserting my new name into anecdotes felt strangely Orwellian, and implausible when talking about my schooldays, but it seemed less right to use my old name, especially around people who’d never heard it. I dealt with this by censoring such references whenever possible, but the bittersweet sense that I’d made a break in my life really hit home. My family and friends’ worst fear had been that I would no longer be the same person, and it was my change of name more than anything that prompted them to express it. Once several friends had asked if their memories of me became redundant with my old name, I questioned myself: was I still the same person? How much did I want to be?”
Yikes, is this ever a big issue. And it’s an area I find myself vacillating back and forth about when other people ask me about it.
If I’m Diana now, does that mean I was always Diana, and so people should refer to me by that name even when talking about long-ago events? Or is it okay to call me by my old name when talking about old events which occurred when I was still going by that name? I see good reasons for both approaches, but they both feels like no-win scenarios. Wrong in different ways, but still wrong. Language, meet gender dysphoria.
But I also realize that such memories are not exclusively mine. Many of them are shared with other people. How they think about my name in them them plays directly into their notion of who I am.
I sometimes play this stuff off as unimportant when others ask me about it, but I actually think such things do matter. As an old anthropology geek, I’m conscious of notions like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which suggest the words people use influence their notions of reality.
I want people to understand that I am not changing my mind about who I am, but that I’m finally dropping the pretense that I was ever truly male. My gender isn’t changing, it was simply misidentified and I am now in the process of correcting it. Will using my old name trap them in a view of reality which prevents their ability to embrace this notion? I have a feeling it doesn’t help.
Anyway, my basic point is that changing names for a trans person is a hugely significant act full of emotional and existential importance. It’s nice to see that reflected in mainstream articles like Juliet’s.
And on a side note, I’m filing the legal paperwork at the end of this week to make my own name change “official.” It’s kind of a big deal to me.