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I’ve always been fascinated by names. I still remember a day in second grade when we had a “Choose your name” day and everyone wore name tags with their desired name, and we all used those for a day. I chose “Eve” for reasons I can’t remember. In Catholic school, picking the name of the woman allegedly responsible for tempting Adam into sin probably wasn’t a good idea, but no one stopped me.
Now, names are more important and interesting to me than ever, since most of my friends and I go by names other than those we were given at birth. There are a lot of reasons why people change their names, but in this article, I’m going to focus on those of us who change our names because we are transgender and/or nonbinary.
In present day American culture, most people keep their birth names as their legal and commonly used name throughout their life. The biggest exceptions are nicknames, often imparted by someone else rather than self-chosen, and surname changes upon marriage. The idea of selecting a new first name for oneself isn’t unheard of, but it is unusual.
Despite that, names are extremely important in our society. We often don’t think about it, but our names come up all the time. We see and hear our names every day - at work, in our emails, when we pick up our coffee at Starbucks, when we use our credit cards or fill out paperwork. If you have a name you’re comfortable with, you don’t think about it much, but if for one reason or another your name doesn’t quite fit, its repeated use over months and years—even decades—can rub you raw.
Most, though not all, names in American English are considered to be gendered. As such, most transgender and nonbinary people end up using a different name than their given name at some point in their life, to better fit their identity.
Many transgender people refer to the name they no longer use as their birth name or “dead name.” “Dead name” can also be used as a verb; to “dead name” someone is to refer to them by their former name against that person’s will. While many transgender people change their legal name to their chosen name, not everyone has the resources or desire to do so, which means one’s legal name might still be considered a dead name. And really, unless you’re doing their taxes, there’s no reason you need to know someone’s legal name.
A person’s desired name is more important than their legal name. After all, if you had a friend named “Margaret” who hated being called Margaret and preferred the name Meg, which would be more important: the name your friend liked and used consistently, or the name on her driver’s license? Similarly, respecting a trans person’s name is vital to respecting them as a person even if it’s not their legal name.
The act of choosing a name is an empowering one. It is redefining a core aspect of one's self, what one is called and how one is identified to the world, in accordance with one's own identity. For transgender people, for example, picking a new name allows one to choose an identifier that fits with one's desired gender and presentation. For others, it might signal a new stage in one's life.
Some transgender people pick names similar to their birth names. My parents gave me a name that started with L, which is why I picked another L name for myself. I chose Lore because it was somewhat close to my birth name, but also for the connotations of what lore means as a noun. It doesn't hurt that it's also a subtle Star Trek reference!
On the other hand, some folks pick names very different from their birth name, like a friend of mine who went from “Lauren” to “Jack.” There are a lot of reasons for this, from not being able to find any similar names that are suitable (there aren’t a ton of distinctly male names that start with “L”, and even those that do, such as “Laurence” can easily be misheard as a feminine name) to simply stumbling across a name that one likes. Additionally, sometimes chosen names can be quite different than given names such as being a common family name. In Jack’s case, many men on his father’s side had names that started with “J.”
Choosing to keep a name can also be a powerful choice. Some transgender people may keep their names, or just change the spelling, especially if they already have ambiguous or androgynous names. When getting married, many women choose to keep their last names, defying the less universal but still common practice of taking a husband's last name. Similarly, sometimes trans people keep their given name even if it doesn’t fit usual social gender expectations. Keeping a name when circumstances or custom encourage or allow changing it can also be powerful, since it entails owning a name and keeping it.
Names are powerful and personal, and for most of us play a role in our day to day lives. While consistency and clarity are important for both practical and communication reasons, it’s vital to recognize that some people, especially transgender folks, may not use their birth name or legal name. Respect people’s desires about their name usage, whether it’s to use or avoid a particular nickname, or to use a different name altogether. They have to hear and see their own name the most, so it’s up to them what name they should have!
I’ve drawn heavily on my own experiences here, but I’d love to hear from my xojane friends (regardless of gender!): Have you ever picked a new name for yourself? Do you use a nickname? Have you ever changed your legal name? Or maybe you like your given name and have kept it your whole life? Share your experiences in the comments!
Image credit: Quinn Dombrowski/CC