LGBT+

Trans and Genderqueer People on the Awkwardness of Changing Names

"Hearing the barista call my new name out was a safe way to test it with strangers."

by Laura Borrowdale
20 February 2017, 11:52pm

For most of us, the name we're given, however embarrassing we might find it on the playground, at least matches our gender assigned at birth. My mother, too awkward to explain she had merely dressed her daughter in blue, renamed me David for an afternoon as a baby. But for the rest of my life, my name and my gender have been stable. It's been useful. My name gives a fair idea about me—my age, my ethnicity, my gender. As Ray, a queer poet who is in the process of changing their name, says "names carry heaps of weight in the current world". 

If I wanted to change my name, it would have been very easy as I've been married. In fact the NZ Government website states "you don't have to do anything special" if you want to change your name at the point of marriage or civil union, other than simply signing the certificate. That same marriage certificate doubles as proof of your new name, and there's no additional cost. And you can switch back whenever you like, with no paperwork or cost.

But there is a burden placed on people whose identities change for other reasons. The cost for anyone changing their name is surprisingly little—$130. Then comes the cost of having your driver's license reissued, your new passport, bank cards etc, and if you're changing them to match your gender identity, you'll need to pay for a new birth certificate to prove it. This is not a requirement for a married man or woman.

And there are some places where birth names and genders simply cannot be changed. The Ministry of Education collects data on students' gender as assigned to them at birth, rather than the gender with which they identify. Oliver Rabbett, was still sent official school documents under his birth name, even after a legal gender and name change, accompanied by a reissued birth certificate and passport.

Even if a name can be legally changed, and recognised, there are still the awkward social barriers that these people are expected to jump through.

George. Image supplied.

George, who describes herself as "coming from a family of name changers", has discovered that one of the most awkward parts of her name change has been her father's reaction. Despite other close family being supportive, her father was hurt and confused by what he saw as her rejection of the name he'd chosen for her as a baby. George reacted, saying "But it's not about you, it's about me." George has changed her name to fit a growing understanding of herself as a queer person, but this is not one that has come with a visible outward change. 

In contrast, Oliver, who began to physically transition before his name change, found that it was accepted more easily as people could see the changing name match a changing body. 

Oliver. Image supplied.

It's not always just getting others to accept a new name that is problematic though. It can be hard to adapt to a new name, even one you've chosen for yourself. Oliver describes hearing his name as "foreign", and Ray still slips up, occasionally using their old, feminine name. "There's an expectation that I should be ok with others slipping up, but if I do, then it feels as though my name is less legitimate," says Ray.

For both of them, there was a trial period with the new name, trying to figure out if it was 'the one'. For Ray, it involved ordering coffee under their new name. Hearing the barista call it out was a safe way to test it with strangers. Oliver laughs that he chose his because he used to have a budgie called Oliver and felt familiar with it. But he came to it after experimenting with different versions of his birth name, Ashley, none of which felt right.

This is similar to the place where Steph Burt has ended up. The Harvard university professor, who has recently been teaching at Canterbury University, uses three names; Steph in person, Stephanie as a preference or if they are presenting as feminine, and Stephen, their birth name, for formal, published work, as they say that a "full legal and social transition isn't worth the opportunity cost". For them, this blend of names works well, encapsulating the different facets of their identity as they see Steph as "a name with two genders, like me", while still acknowledging the work and reputation they had established prior to coming out with their gender identity.

And for all the difficulty trans people have naming themselves and claiming their names, people around them demand this privilege easily. A friend of George's refused to accept her name change, even in the face of her distress, saying "Oh, but I'll never get used to it." During his transition, before his voice had lowered, Oliver was renamed by an outraged customer who couldn't believe his parents would call him something that so clearly didn't fit his feminine-sounding voice. Rather than explain, he struggled along with them, as they described his name as disgusting, and finished with, "I'll just call you Olive, shall I? That's much nicer."

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Tonight at Whammy Bar in Auckland we launch season two of GAYCATION with a live panel discussion where we'll be talking more about identity. RSVP here for VICELAND Talks Gender and Sexual Identity: Who Am I and Who Cares?