Identity

What's in a Name? For Some Trans People, Everything

Trans people tell us about the process and importance behind choosing a name that aligns with their gender identity, and how adopting one can make a world of difference for their psychological wellbeing.
November 18, 2016, 6:01pm

Harrison Browne, playing for the Buffalo Beauts. Photo courtesy the NWHL

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During college, Harrison Browne slowly began asserting his gender identity. He asked his friends and hockey teammates at the University of Maine not to call him by his given name, "Hailey." He didn't connect with it anymore. It felt foreign. It felt like someone else.

"I started teetering around with other names, like Hunter," he said. "I was testing them out. Trying to see what felt right. In the end, Harrison won out."

Browne, 23, currently plays for the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women's Hockey League (NWHL). He publicly came out as transgender this October, becoming the first openly trans athlete on an American professional sports team. His story was covered everywhere from ESPN to The New York Times. And Browne said the media has been respectful of his name and pronouns—something non-trans individuals tend to take for granted or gloss over.

"Pronouns are huge. If you keep being referred to as a 'she' even though you identify as 'he,' it feels weird," he explained. "Even people who identify as 'they' or 'them.' You might not understand it, but it's important to respect those pronouns and what each individual's wishes are."

For some trans people, adopting a new name represents their first foray into the public alignment of their gender identity and gender expression. Not all trans people transition, of course, or choose to make that alignment—but for those who do, the name they choose can have far-reaching, life-changing significance.

"It's a much bigger deal than people think it is," Browne added.

The psychological good that can result from use of a new name is hard to overstate; Browne echoed the comfort and reassurance he felt when people use his. When he was announced during his first game of the 2016 NWHL season, hearing "Harrison Browne" reverberate over the loudspeaker filled him with so much joy, he said, he thought his heart might explode. It felt good. It felt right.

Jen Richards, the creator of Her Story—an Emmy-nominated new-media series that looks inside the dating lives of queer and trans women—said the name "Jen" wasn't a conscious choice so much as an organic evolution. Years ago, before she began her transition, Richards had fallen for a woman named Jen. They shared an intense connection, and it was through that connection that Richards was finally able to open up about her gender issues—something she had kept hidden from people until that point.

"For me, it's not a matter of respecting my chosen name. It is my name," Richards said. "There's no need for more discussion. And that's true for everyone. It's a chosen name only in the sense that I chose it, much in the same way our parents choose a name for us when we are born. The name I was given was a chosen name, it just wasn't my choice."

As Richards began the process of exploring her gender identity, she would often create online profiles under the name Jen; by the time she decided to come out as trans, Richards said she had become so comfortable using it that it just seemed like a natural fit.

Tiq Milan had a different experience. The writer and trans activist didn't choose a distinctive name during his transition. He simply amended it.

"I just cut my name down. I thought about changing it to something completely different, like Malcom or something like that. But I was really worried about it being such a separation for my family. So I cut it down for them. Tiq is who I am. It's a masculine form of my previous name"—Tika—"but at the same time, it's who I've always been."

Milan said he held onto "Tiq" as a way of holding onto the wholeness of himself. He didn't want to treat his trans identity as a "rebirth" and erase the person he was. But no two trans individuals approach their transition in the same way; while Tiq felt very strongly about holding onto his past, some trans people feel the opposite—that they were born in the wrong body, and need to abandon it completely by choosing a different name.

"I respect that so much," Milan said. "But for me, that's not what it was. I came out as trans when I was 26. And it was a long process. I didn't really tell my parents until I was scheduled to have my top surgery. It was a shock to them, because I know they didn't know that trans men existed. Once they accepted me as their son and got over the grieving process of their daughter, everything was good."


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"When people tell you who they are, you should just respect them no matter what," Milan continued. "And if people go out of their way to use the wrong name or the wrong pronouns, it's just an invalidation of that person's identity."

Browne agreed. "If someone refuses to call an individual by their chosen name or proper pronouns, they're just doing it out of malice," he said. "I feel it's a form of bullying, especially if someone is doing it repeatedly. There's a difference between making a slip up and doing something on purpose."

Understanding and respecting the importance of trans individuals' names and pronouns is not just necessary—it's made incredibly urgent by the election of Donald Trump, which may seriously imperil LGBTQ rights. Trans individuals in particular cannot afford the kind of invalidation and marginalization that disrespecting their names and choices may bring.

Follow Lyndsey D'Arcangelo on Twitter.