Internalizing Name Changes

As most of you know by now, I was not christened Helen Boyd; it is not my legal name, although Helen is my legal middle name. But I’ve come to be known as Helen Boyd, & so when I arrived at Lawrence to teach for only a term, in the winter of 2008, I didn’t think twice about people calling me Helen. I was just ending a year of book tour where being Helen was a normal state of affairs.

Since then, however, we seem to have moved to this Wisconsin town, and the people who met me as Helen still call me Helen, & they introduce me to their friends & fellow faculty as Helen. The name plate on my door says Helen Boyd Kramer. Sometimes, in places where I regularly present a credit card, say at my salon, it’s a little jarring to be called Gail, and even more jarring when one of my friends who calls me Helen is with me, and yet it’s still odd to me that I’m not Gail.

So I’m wondering, trans folk & others who have changed your names, when do you internalize a name change? I find I call myself Gail when I’m talking to myself (and I assume I am (1) not the only one who talks to myself, and (2) not the only one who uses a name when I do).

Then I wonder if it matters much, since my name change has nothing to do with gender.

Where I think it matters is how it intersects with other aspects me that go unrecognized here – like my history of heterosexuality, for starters, and sometimes even my trans-partnerness (since it’s not like we’re out as a trans couple when we talk to our dry cleaners, say).

7 Replies to “Internalizing Name Changes”

  1. I came up with the name Cindi when I was online on Compuserve in the 1980’s. Many people are now familiar with online personae, and there are parallels to what I experienced. The difference was that Cindi – my online persona – was associated with an identity I had been repressing.

    I found that, as I used Cindi when living as female, it was fairly easy. It was a matter of gradually dropping the pretense of being male, of thinking about the appropriate male response. So Cindi was easily associated with how I saw myself and the old name remained associated with the character I had constructed over two decades to fit societal norms.

  2. It’s an interesting question that I hadn’t really thought about consciously but have noticed in passing from time to time. I think what you describe matches my own experience: the main thing that established a name for me isn’t having chosen it, or shared it, but having people use it. Once I’m in an environment where people consistently call me by a name that’s what my identity becomes.

    There seem to be two exceptions: one when people use a name (or nickname) that I’m trying to discourage that definitely irks me rather than shifting my identity. The other is when different people use different names for completely valid reasons, which confuses matters – like I can’t settle on a solid identity as a result. I’m curious how people who have nicknames reconcile this confusion or if it occurs for them at all.

    When talking to myself I generally don’t address myself by name, so I can’t relate on that front. The closest I get is the name I introduce myself under, which doesn’t reflect the name I relate most to at any given time but rather the name I’d like to relate to. It takes a full circle of people using that name for me to really start feeling it.

  3. I have this problem in that what I consider to be my adult name – Wren – is not my given name, so the given name is what’s legal and on all my accounts and tax forms and whatnot. I introduce myself as Wren, coworkers and friends call me Wren, but family members and a few friends that have known me since childhood refuse to switch. It feels somewhat like they don’t respect that I have grown into a different person than I was as a child (no, I’m not trans, but have undergone some major changes in other ways), or that they still think of me as a child. When account reps call me by the legal name it irks me but I’m not going to explain to every poor customer service rep not to call me what’s on the account. I’ve tossed around the idea of changing – or at least adding – Wren to my legal name so at least that part would mesh. Is it really as big of a pain as I’ve heard it is to do this, for anyone who has gone through the process?

    Culturally speaking, adult name changes is common historically in most of my ancestral cultures – Canadian Indian and Celtic – but not in modern times. People don’t even seem to be familiar with the practice anymore. Whenever I’ve tried to explain it in this way, which is how it feels to me – childhood name vs. adult name – I get blank stares. Half the time I don’t bother and just end up saying “it’s a nickname” to save myself the frustration. But that irks me, too. It’s NOT a nickname. It’s who I am. And I really wish people could just respect that without needing a “why”.

  4. I came up with my current name by accident, and I immediately knew it fit. That said, I’m still more likely to turn my head when I hear my birth name, probably out of habit (I feel conditioned!).

    It’s funny that you mentioned naming yourself in your head — I knew that my old name was “wrong” when I realized that other people do call themselves by name when talking to themselves. But even after changing my name, I don’t name myself much in my head. When I do, I use my new name, and it’s kind of a reassuring thing — reaffirming my identity in tough times.

    Sometimes, though, I feel detached from all names and I start seeing the whole idea of having (being) a name as pretty wacky: are those few syllables supposed to represent me as a person? On the other hand, when I can identify with a name, it’s so rooting — like those few letters are holding me firmly on Earth.

  5. I often refer to myself by name when I’m talking to myself. And ironically it took all of a millisecond to stop using the old name and switch to my name. Then again for the 40 some years I was stuck with that other name I really didn’t relate to it really well, and I had more nicknames than Carter had little liver pills. I wasn’t connected to it at all. When I talked to myself I never in those days used my name.

    Finding MY name when it was time was basically a vision quest, so when it came together it was mine, me, who I am.

    I went from having a standing policy of allowing people to call me anything but late for dinner, to having a very small handful nicknames, and of course my own real name. So for me, it was easy. I finally had a name of my own. So it was really easy. Oddly enough, my brother asked me this same question a bunch of years back because he thought it was amazing I’d made the switch so easily.

    I’d say that having something you feel connected to and can relate to is important. Sounds like you have that under control. Then of course comes the paperwork if you decide to streamline the process so that all your paperwork and life syncs up.

  6. With regard to the old name, I think I lost connection to it immediately. It’s hard to remember now, because a split with family and (later) friends and a (positive) career change now mean that everyone I know and interact with have known me only as Mercedes. But I remember the old name being very jarring, even at the beginning of transition — but in a way that felt disconnected. I think there was never really a sense of [old boy name] being “me.”

    I can relate a bit more now, since Mercedes is my middle name. I use it all the time, with the exceptions of work (to insulate my job from my activism) and rare bits of personal business (i.e. going to the doctor). My partner also uses my first name as a pet name, otherwise that’s it (although it does give me an option to slip into obscurity or relative stealth at some time in the future if I desire to do so). WRT work, there’s a kind of switching of gears that happens — my identity doesn’t change, but the sense of surroundings does.

  7. I tried a couple other names, but Véronique was my gut-level choice. It’s the name I’d given my Second Life avatar, and over time I realized it was really my name as well. I never liked my given name, so it wasn’t hard to get away from it, but it didn’t happen instantly. It helped that I was in an environment where no one used it. At this point, I no longer react to my old name, but it’s still in my head, since it was my name (whether I liked it or not) for so many years.

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