Sunday, 12 July 2015

What's in a name?

I changed my name a few weeks ago. Thought I'd share a few tips on how to handle the situation if you're going to interact with me, or with someone else you know who's changed their name.

What to do?

  • Use my new name.

    Not only in my presence, but also when referring to me in my absence. This should really be a no-brainer, but apparently it needs pointing out.

    I guess to most people their name is a pretty neutral thing. This is very likely not the case for people who have had reason to change theirs. I not only have bad associations with my deadname (i.e. old name), I have positive associations with my real name (i.e. new name). Using the name I have chosen for myself is a huge validation. Every time I hear someone call me by my proper name I feel seen and legitimate. It's like people are saying that they approve of my existence, and that my own view of my identity is in accordance with theirs. If you've never experienced anything like an identity crisis I guess you'll just have to trust me when I say that I cannot emphasise enough what an enormous relief this is. How others treat you will unavoidably have an impact on your self-esteem. I've never felt so much like me than since I changed my name.

  • If someone else uses my deadname, correct them.

    Not only in my presence, but also when others refer to me in my absence. This saves me a ton of mental energy by not having to take the proverbial fight time and again. It also helps boost my self-confidence in situations where I don't have the courage to stand up for myself. By doing this you are making it clear that you are on my side.

    Note however that this might not be applicable to people who haven't made their name changes official in all circles and situations. The safest thing is to ask, in private, in what spaces they would like their name change to be known.

What not to do?

  • Don't use my deadname.

    If you do it by accident: It's okay to mess up. Everyone will, in the beginning. If you accidentally use the wrong name, just say sorry, correct yourself, and move on. Don't make a huge thing out of apologising. Really, it's no big deal. Just practice, and try to do better next time. It will come naturally with time and practice. Eventually my deadname will be the one sounding strange and wrong.

    If you do it on purpose: Seriously. Just don't. When you do, it's like you're invalidating my existence. Don't be an asshole.

  • Don't ask "But what's your real name?"

    It goes without saying that if someone asks you to use a specific name when referring to them, that name is their real name. It doesn't matter whether or not it's printed on their passport or whether their parents gave it to them at birth, that's not what makes it legit in most contexts. People using it is what makes a name real and legitimate. Questioning whether someone's name is real or not is kinda like demanding that they pull down their pants so you can investigate their genitalia; rude and irrelevant if you're not their doctor. "I'm just curious" is not a valid excuse.

  • Don't say things like "You'll always be [insert deadname here] to me."

    Oh, come on. This is essentially saying "I'm never going to accept you for who you are! Why do you have to be such a bother and try to change my comfortably delusional world-view?"

  • Don't remind me how difficult it's going to be for you to call me by my new name, and how much you're going to fuck up.

    Tell me something I didn't know! Of course it's going to be difficult, and of course you're going to fuck up. That's all right, I'm not gonna hate you for it. Just do your best, and it'll come more naturally with time. Hearing people say this merely drives the point home that my identity is a huge inconvenience to everyone around me. I struggle enough with feelings of being a burden as it is, so please keep your struggle with remembering names to yourself.

  • Don't ask "But isn't that a boy's/girl's name?"

    Did I invite you to discuss my gender identity? NO. This is a rude question. What you could do instead is ask me what pronoun I prefer (in my case it's they).

  • Don't ask "So when are you going to go all the way [with your sex change]?"

    Again, did I invite you to discuss my gender identity? No, so don't be rude. By the way, a name change doesn't necessarily imply transsexuality. Furthermore, transsexuality doesn't necessarily imply a wish to alter one's body/hormones/haircut/clothes/pronoun/hamsters. There's room for a lot of complexity, and if I don't personally bring up the subject, I probably don't want to discuss it with you at this point.

  • Don't make fun of my name.

    For someone who might have spent a lot of time being uncomfortable with their name, this could be a sensitive subject. This applies both to jokes alluding to the deadname and the real name. Furthermore, I am allowed to make jokes about my own name. You shouldn't see this as an invitation to do the same. If you know me well it might be a different matter, but be cautious. Better safe than disrespectful.

  • Don't avoid interacting with me because you're afraid of not treating me right.

    Let me be the judge of which spaces are safe for me. Having friends abandoning me will not make me feel more supported at this critical point in my life. Don't get angry or become a martyr if I correct you, just accept that this is a part of the learning process and that this new way of treating me with respect takes an active effort of mind-shifting to get used to. It will get easier for you, but if you're having trouble adapting then please don't vent it with me. I'm having a hard enough time standing up for myself without having to be reminded of how much of a nuisance I'm being to people around me.

In conlusion:

  • When someone tells you that they've changed their name, there is essentially only one appropriate response: "Okay, thanks for telling me." This lets them know that you appreciate them being honest about their identity with you and is an unspoken pledge to do your best when it comes to respecting it. Think before you question someone, and remember that actions speak louder than words when it comes to respecting someone. Saying "I accept you" means nothing if you can't be bothered to alter your behaviour so that they will feel seen. It really isn't too much to ask.

Why am I writing this? Mostly because I'm too socially awkward to tell it to people in person. I still struggle with mustering even the courage to correct someone when they use the wrong name, so I expect it will be a while before I'm confident enough to be this eloquent in casual conversation.

It deserves mentioning that since I came out with my name change (it's not a secret anywhere at this point) I was met by an abundance of validation and a lack of questioning that made me rejoice in the mostly safe space of friends I had apparently gathered around me. There were however a few instances of the 'don't's mentioned above which I in retrospect felt the need to address. I understand that in most cases there is no malicious intent behind any of those questions or behaviours, but you have to understand that nerves can and will be hit anyway. The impact of your words weighs heavier than your good intentions.

Also, this might help some fellow name-changer getting treated with a tad more respect, so why not. As usual, feel free to share this with whoever might need it, and feedback is always welcome.

Love and respect,