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Names do matter

May 22, 2009

I’ve started speaking with my principal about changing my name next year; she seems to be worried about the legal implications, so I’ve been looking for legal precedents. There is a lot of new trans-related legislation, but the laws that apply to trans students aren’t valid in my city, and the ones that do belong to my city aren’t specifically about schools. Actually, there is one very important law that I could use, which refers to underage trans students, but I couldn’t find much information about it; I think I’ll need a lawyer’s help.

The principal also wants my parents’ consent, which I’m not sure I can get. I’ll try, but I don’t think it should be necessary; I’ll be 18, after all, and even if my parents have some power over me until I’m 21 (depending on the situation), my well-being at school should be more important. In the meantime, I’ve been signing my letters to the principal with my male name, asking for permission to organize queer activities, and she’s been sending me the permissions with my female name. It makes sense because the bureaucracy wouldn’t find my male self in the system, but I’m going to continue signing that way.

A few weeks ago I signed up for a career counseling group at school using my female name; I knew they would check to see if I existed in the system and I was afraid the school might call my parents if they realized what was going on. This group started today, but I really did not want to go voluntarily to a place where I would be called by my birth name. Until the last minute, though, I hadn’t decided whether to go or not: it could prove very useful, and it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t go because my identity.

The friends that were present at that moment did not understand why I made such a big deal out of this; one of them argued that she didn’t like her middle name either, but she didn’t fuss so much about it. I sincerely told her that if her name bothered her so much, she should change it too. The point isn’t to compare our sufferings; that doesn’t lead anywhere. I believe we should all aim to be as happy as possible, no matter how small or large our complaints.

I’m tired of hearing that worrying over names is silly. I’m sick of internalizing the feeling that it’s foolish to care so much about a minor detail. It is not minor, nor a detail: I heard a trans woman talk about friends of hers, also trans, who wouldn’t go to the hospital until they were very sick, in order to avoid the humiliation of being called by their birth names; not to mention the discrimination they suffered (there are laws now that protect trans people in public hospitals). No one would risk their life like that if it weren’t so painful and violent to be called by the wrong name.

I ended up going to the career counseling group; it was awful. I decided that my Whole Future was worth being treated as female for an hour, but I hadn’t considered that we would have to introduce ourselves; when it was my turn, I got defensive and probably sounded hostile (oops) when I said I would rather not introduce myself. The counselor was not comprehensive at all and finally forced me to say my name; I couldn’t flee without making a scene. I wanted to run to the bathroom to cry while she went on and on about having to use your name whether you like it or not, especially within institutions where it’s legally needed. I obviously won’t ever go back, but I still think that’s unfair. And I’m more certain than ever that names are not foolish at all.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. luke permalink
    May 23, 2009 9:01 am

    Names are surely a difficult thing to avoid. I’ve since changed my name legally, but even hearing my birth name (even when it’s not someone slipping up, but when someone is referring to someone else) makes me sick. I think it may be difficult, initially, for people who don’t question names (or sex or gender for that matter) to understand where we are coming from and what we see and feel behind our names (and labels). Sorry to hear the counselor treated you so poorly. Is it possible to go by a nickname? I used to go by a gender neutral nickname of my birth name and I found this to be a bit more tolerable than my birth name and it was close enough to my birth name that people didn’t question it.

  2. May 24, 2009 11:58 am

    this is an excellent post. you are so brave. i don’t understand why there’s so much red tape involved in you being called your chosen name. my best friend in college wanted to change her name. she refused to be called her birth name because her parents abandoned her, and she hated that the only thing they gave her was a name. even before she had it legally changed, everyone respected her wishes to be called by her chosen name, no questions asked.

    sadly, you may need a lawyer because this is discrimination.

  3. May 24, 2009 7:16 pm

    i’d second luke’s thought. lots of people have nicknames, including yours truly. saying ‘i go by X but prefer to be called Y’ can be an effective way of dealing with these types of situations, though of course plenty of people will be jerks anyway.

    i just spent the weekend with my (birth) family, who alternated between using my girl/given name (a lot) and actually being snarky about my (more masculine) nickname. it was miserable. names do matter, no doubt about it. good luck with this & all the rest of it.

  4. genderkid permalink*
    May 24, 2009 7:35 pm

    Thanks for all your support. I tried introducing myself by my nickname, but the counselor was very particular about using “real” names (is it a real name if I never use it?). I thought teen counselors would be more sensible about students’ feelings; maybe a future project should be raising awareness among the counseling staff.

    My heart’s with all of you who also have name issues (although we aren’t the one with issues; it’s the people who won’t understand).

  5. May 25, 2009 10:57 pm

    That counsellor was a giant jerk. It’s perfectly legitimate to use a name that is not your birth name for professional reasons.

  6. May 26, 2009 7:08 am

    Yeah, names are a big deal, and I feel for you. It really sucks that people are being so awful about it. All I can say is that hopefully it will get better when you get a little older (I know, that’s not really very helpful is it) since 18 is pretty much a magic number. Best of luck.

  7. May 26, 2009 7:30 pm

    names can SUCK… i have been running into that issue alot lately, I started using my birthname at work and now it is SO hard to switch, and I have totally been the person to avoid introducing themselves because i dont even know what name to use…

    • May 26, 2009 7:48 pm

      I’ve been doing that too; avoiding introductions as far as possible. It’s annoying because that means I participate a lot less in classes and talks if schoolmates or family are present. Sometimes I think it isn’t worth the hassle and I participate anyway, and then I’m reminded of how hard it stings to be called by my old name. (from your latest blog post, is seems like you’ve been going through a similar situation at events)

  8. karak permalink
    May 29, 2009 6:14 am

    I”ve known other people to run into problems with names and identity (not trans, though, they were adoptees).

    If you want my advice, you can try to circumnavigate the system by only using your first two initials when introducing yourself or signing something, like B.H. Obama, and then add, but I go by “chosen name”.

    That said, people are rude as hell when they insist on using your “real” name. You have a “real” name, you just told them what it was.

    if you do want to change your name, though, do it while you are under the age of 18. It is easier for minors to change their name than legal adults. My mom bought a pre-set of name change paperwork, filled it out, and got it notarized in about three days when I changed my name as a child (it was my last name, though).

  9. Dylan permalink
    June 13, 2009 5:32 pm

    I think naming is really important when you are just becoming comfortable with who you are, are trying to figure out who you are, or are grappling with different feelings about your identity. For me, there were times when I hated my birth names and times when I liked male pronouns more than female ones, but now, settled into my identity more and affirmed of it by those around me, I feel less picky about what I’m called. A name is truly just a name… you are who you are no matter what anyone calls you, but still, I’ve been in your place and understand your feelings. I am just saying… even if you always face this struggle, it may not bother you as much one day as it does now.

    Also, I think you should be able to be called whatever name you want at school. People do it all the time. Maybe you shouldn’t make it a trans thing… just says something like…. “My name is Jessica, but I prefer Jake”…. people have different names than their legal name every day.

  10. gunk permalink
    June 14, 2009 3:07 am

    hi genderkid, i’ve been reading your blog for the past week or so and it’s really awesome, you’re a talented writer and have some cool stuff to say.

    i wanted to comment on this post because i’m currently in the middle of a name change, and it’s at an awkward stage for me because a lot of my friends refer to me by my old name, and introduce me to people as my old name. i’m not trans, but am coming out as genderqueer, and would prefer a more gender-neutral name than my given name. i’m also tentative about “telling people off” for calling me by my old name – i don’t want to alienate my friends (really i need to sit down with a few people and explain why i’d prefer a different name, it’s something i intend to fix and i know i can do that).

    anyway, just wanted to offer some support in that i can understand a little of what you’re going through. it sounds like you’re being very brave, and you definitely shouldn’t be forced to make those kinds of compromises, especially by a counselor, even if they are just a careers counselor. is it possible to talk to them about why this is so important to you? nobody should make you feel bad about yourself for being who you are – like you said, there are laws against discrimination and you deserve better. stick to your guns and stay strong!

    • June 14, 2009 11:56 am

      Hi, gunk,
      You seem to be at a point similar to where I was a few months ago, although I was lucky because my friends gave me a gender-neutral nickname –on their own– a couple of years back.

      I’m glad that you’re going to take steps towards including your friends in your new identity. I was afraid of alienating them, too, but your plan –explaining your feelings– sounds like a good idea.

      About this counselor — I ended up ditching the whole program. I don’t feel it’s fair that I had to do that, but it was just too hostile an environment. I am going to try to change that for the future, though: I’d like to talk to someone about making the counseling department more trans-friendly.

      Thanks for the support and for stopping by! I wish you the best with your friends.

  11. Jem permalink
    August 5, 2009 2:02 am

    I agree with fellow commentor karak above I think that maybe you may want to try using your two (if you have two-I know some people don’t have middle names)first initials. I am not trans or gender-queer (I am bi) ,but I like to use my first two intials with aquintences/on my mailbox/etc..It makes me feel safer, being female, and it helps distance myself from people that I don’t know very well(or may not want to know).

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