Out With The Old, In With The New: My Relationship With My Birth Name
May 12, 2017 Jamey Alea 4 Comments
I don’t hear my birth name very often anymore. Shedding the burden of carrying my birth name with me seemed unattainable when I was just beginning the journey of changing it. A birth name might be just a short word—mine was only 6 letters!—but it can be a surprisingly heavy load to bear. For a long time, it was a painful experience every time I heard it. I thought it would be that way forever. However, I’ve found that as time passes, my birth name is less of a burden and more of an oddity, like a remnant of an almost forgotten dream. I feel detached from it now, like it’s referring to a completely different person. And it’s a great feeling.
Changing one’s name is a huge milestone in a transgender person’s life. I’m very hesitant to label anything as a universally shared experience by everyone in the transgender community because everybody’s journey of gender exploration and expression is very unique. Trans issues are very different for trans men, trans women, and non-binary folks—and even within those categories, different people may have drastically different roadmaps depending on how they want to transition (or not transition, as the case may be)! However, choosing a new name is probably one of the most commonly shared experiences. In my experience, most (though not all) trans people eventually want to transition to a name that better expresses how they see themself and how they want others to see them.
Deciding on a new name is a coming of age experience at its very core, even for people like myself who don’t do it until later in life. It’s incredibly empowering to be able to decide what name fits you best. It feels like being reborn into the person you want to be, and being in control of your existence, your fate, and your future. In fact, it’s such a meaningful life event to me that I literally celebrate the day of my name change every year as sort of a second birthday.
However, before I could get to all those great feelings I just waxed poetic about, I had to wade through a lot of other less great feelings first: anxiety, indecision, self-consciousness. When I first came out as non-binary, I told people I wasn’t planning on changing my name. But then, I found myself becoming less and less comfortable with the way that name fit me, mirroring my discomfort with my body and my pronouns. A name is a big deal, representing both one’s internal sense of self and their projection of self out into the rest of the world. Besides, have you ever thought about how often you have to hear or look at your own name in an average day? Spoiler alert: It’s a lot, and when you have a name that doesn’t feel comfortable to you, it’s a near constant reminder of that discomfort.
In those early days, I felt very worried about what other people would think. Would they think I was weird for changing it, especially after I had said I wasn’t going to? Would I be seen as that loser who chooses their own nickname and tries to force everyone else to use it? Would people even ever use my new name, or would I be stuck in a weird halfway state with two different names forever? Even introducing myself to new people with my new name caused anxiety to pulse through me. I was weirdly sure that even strangers would somehow be able to sense my uneasiness and question the legitimacy of my name.
I was lucky because I knew exactly what name felt right to me on the first try, but I’ve had friends who have had to try several different names before settling on one that fit them. Figuring out a new name that suits you often requires experimentation, since it’s really hard to know if it feels right until you hear other people using it. This only amplifies the anxieties because then you’re either still stuck with a name that’s not quite right or you feel like the annoying kid who keeps changing their name, like everyone else is thinking, “Why don’t they just pick one already?” I experienced some of that anxiety when I just started spelling it “Jamey” instead of “Jamie,” even though changing the preferred spelling of a shortened version of one’s name is a really normal thing that you definitely don’t have to be trans to do.
The name change process is strange because there are two very distinct paths that have to be traversed—the social name change and the legal name change. While the paperwork and the time spent at the County Clerk’s office admittedly felt daunting at the beginning, the social repercussions actually ended up being more turbulent for me. As it turns out, I’m far from the first person in New York state to submit a name change petition—In the eyes of the law, I was pretty much business as usual.
My family and friends were a different story, as many of them weren’t familiar with anyone else who had changed their first name. Navigating my own emotions regarding it was hard enough, but then I suddenly had to navigate the emotions of all these other people in my life, too. Some people expressed anxiety, because they were worried about their ability to get used to it. Some people expressed sadness or grief, because they felt like they were losing someone that they once knew. While these are totally understandable feelings, I didn’t understand why they were being thrust upon me when I was the one who was going through a big change. For me, changing my name was one of the things I have done in my life that was most purely for and about me, almost a celebration of who I truly am. Every time someone made a comment about how my name change affected them, it stung a little more.
Despite this, I was very fortunate that most of my friends were very supportive and immediately started calling me Jamey—and yes, it felt really great to be called by my new name! But I didn’t just want to be called Jamey; I wanted to be Jamey. I wanted everyone to focus less on remembering to call me by my new name and more on knowing me by the right name, who I really am. It was important to me that people think about me by that name, the same way I think about myself. Someone using the right name but acting like they’re humoring me doesn’t really feel any better than someone using the wrong name. Rather, it just brings back all those old insecurities about people looking at me like an outcast. A milestone moment in my life was the first time someone accidentally called me by my birth name and I saw a look of unrecognition in my fiance’s face, as it took him a few moments to even realize who they were talking about. That was the moment I realized he was really seeing me for who I was.
My birth name is fading into obscurity. It’s gone from my driver’s license, my work email, and even my birth certificate! It’s gone from the mouths of my old friends who were once familiar with it, and it doesn’t even exist in the minds of my newer friends who are blissfully unaware of it. The realization that most of the people in my life don’t even know my birth name is a great feeling. I’m thankful for each person who has never heard it before—and I’m even more thankful for all the people who do know it but have chosen, with me, to forget it. Occasionally I still encounter it—perhaps from distant relatives who aren’t familiar, perhaps on an errant envelope that gets delivered to my mailbox—and it can still feel jarring, painful, and bizarre all wrapped up into one. But more frequently these days, I hear my new name and I’m struck with a sense of pride. This is my name. I chose it, I made it my own and I’m living with it, in this beautiful life I created for myself.
(This article was originally published on My Kid Is Gay.)