Taking on a new name is one of the most important steps in transition. But naming oneself is a strange activity. Most people inherit their names and take them for granted–that’s just what they’ve always been called. How on earth does a grown person choose a new name for themself? Here are some ideas about how to select a new moniker.
1. Narrow it down. With zillions of names out there in the world, it’s pretty tough to settle on one. So a good place to start is by narrowing the field. Think about what’s important to you in a name, and come up with a few criteria. Some trans people want a name with a certain meaning, a name from their religious tradition, a family name, a name that was common the year they were born, or a name that is unique or unconventional.
When I was changing my name, I chose two criteria that helped narrow it down. I decided I wanted to keep my initials–so my new first and middle names would start with the same letters as my given first and middle names. I also decided I wanted to keep the format in terms of the significance of my names. My first name is a Hebrew name, and my middle name was given to honor a dear friend of my mother’s who died. So I knew I wanted a Hebrew male name beginning with the letter R and then a male name beginning with the letter P (not my real initials but you get the idea).
This was so helpful. Instead of wading through thousands and thousands of possibilities, I was dealing with a much smaller field. I came up with a rather short list of male Hebrew names beginning with R and quickly settled on one that fit. My mom suggested a male name beginning with P to be my new middle name, and I really liked it, so I went with that.
If you know a few things you want in a name, you can cut down the options from nearly infinite to a manageable range.
2. Try it out. Find some safe spaces to try on your new name and see how it feels. This could be at home with your partner, with a few close friends, in one organization you belong to, or on the internet. It’s a good idea to test-drive the name, see if it feels right, and get a taste of what it will be like to be called that name for the rest of your life. Don’t be afraid to try out a few different options.
3. What does the name say? Give some thought to what the name will communicate to others. For example, I have a very ethnically marked first name. People are often confused at first, many people mispronounce it, and I constantly get comments like “So are you Jewish?” and “What does your name mean?” This is totally fine by me–but it’s important to consider how this new name will affect your experience of the world. Do you care about having a name others find easy to spell and pronounce? How do you feel about what the name might say about your ethnic, racial or religious background?
Another thing to consider is what a name suggests about your age. We’re in the odd position of naming ourselves at the age of 20, 30, 50 or beyond–decades after our first name was selected. So we make our choice in a different cultural climate than our parents did. Do you care about whether your name creates any kind of anachronism?
4. Just pick something. There is no one true perfect name. There are a range of names that fit, some better than others. At the end of the day, you just have to pick one. A name is like a pair of jeans–you break it in over time. We grow into our names; they shape us and we shape them. We’ve probably all known a few people who share the same name, yet wear it very differently. Over time, you’ll grow into your name and your name will grow on you.
So take your time, think it through, try on different names. But at some point, give yourself permission to just choose one. Trust yourself to make a good call. Allow the name to settle in over time.
5. Have fun with the paperwork. A legal name change is a pretty serious pain in the ass. Depending on where you live, your name change may involve numerous packets of paperwork, hundreds of dollars in fees, notices in legal papers, appearances before a judge, and updating records at your job, school, bank, with various government agencies, etc.
In my state, I picked up a packet from the courthouse to fill out, took out an ad in a legal notices paper, and appeared once before a judge. Then, I took my name change order to the Social Security office, MVD, bank, university, and so on. All in all it cost about $150 for the name change itself, plus the costs to get a new ID. Google the process in your jurisdiction to find details.
Give yourself rewards and incentives to make this process enjoyable. If you’re intimated by the paperwork, break it into very small chunks and do a tiny bit each day, followed by something you enjoy. Acknowledge your progress along the way. When you’re finally finished, celebrate! A new name is a happy occasion and a major accomplishment
Readers–how did you settle on a new name? If you’re currently changing your name, what’s challenging about the process?
I finally got my birth certificate amended. I’d been putting off dealing with it and finally sent in the papers a couple weeks ago. It arrived in the mail, shiny and official. I was born in Massachusetts, and I’d read online that I could expect a birth certificate with my birth name and assigned sex crossed out, and the correct name and sex written in. But when it came it was complete and perfect, just my name and the word male, no nonsense. Opening that envelope had a real thud of finality to it–the very last piece of paper to get changed.
I’m jumping directly into another legal transition of sorts and changing my name again. Alma and I have put a lot of thought into what to do with our last names now that we are married. I’ve decided to take hers. I’m pretty excited about it. I really wanted us to share a name; she is very attached to hers, and I’m not that attached to mine; and we’re not that into hyphenation for a few reasons. Any why shouldn’t a guy take his wife’s name?
So soon I will have changed every single name from what I was born with–first, middle, and last. I’ve managed to keep the same initials, SLB. Taking her name also allows me to make a gesture of cultural solidarity, as she has a very ethnically marked name. She’s converting to Judaism; taking her name is kinda as close as I can get to “converting” to be Chicano.
I’m finally getting ready to seriously pursue a hysterectomy. It’s been a long emotional process–I hope to give it a proper treatment in a post soon. At this point, I feel at ease with my body and my circumstances, and I want the surgery. I’m hoping to get it this summer.
Between these things I’m feeling like my transition is really ending, maybe over. My paperwork is all changed; I’m getting ready for my last surgery; the big changes in my life now aren’t about my transition; shame’s appearances get rarer and rarer. It’s a good feeling, a spacious absence, very quiet.