*Tips for Trans Teens*: What's a Legal Name Change All About?

I decided to legally change my name shortly after I began gender therapy, with the prospect of being prescribed testosterone at least another half year away. In transition, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about when to change your name (if you decide to change it at all), as opposed to a legal genderchange, which does require a certain chronology (at least in Massachusetts). To change my name, all I had to do was pick one, file the appropriate paperwork at probate court, pay the exorbitant fee (~$200), and wait the 5 weeks to receive my official name change document in the mail. Unlike others I know, I did not have to announce the change in the newspaper or even appear before a judge; all I had to write was that the change was “personal”/”name I use daily” and I received the stamp of approval. I got the impression that as long as the change wasn’t in service of evading a past crime, the state didn’t really care why I wanted it.

The minute I received my official name change document in the mail is where the fun began . With this piece of paper in hand, I suddenly felt the power, duty, and burden of having to inform everyone from my school to my bank to my job to my utility companies. As soon as the name change order was stamped into being, my former name ceased to be “real” and the new one was “who” I was … yet the old name persisted on everything I had touched up until now.This left me feeling in a sort of limbo where everything felt false, down to even the perfunctory level of giving my name to the barista for my daily coffee. Unless I went to everyone individually and changed it. (I acknowledge that this sense of
“falseness” was a personal — and actually somewhat unexpected — reaction, and not everyone who doesn’t immediately switch over to using their new name after a legal change is somehow deceptive. Moreover it was a personal feeling of not being true to myself, rather than feeling I owed it to everyone else to not “trick” them — none of their business, in my opinion!)

However, to go to everyone and announce my name change was, in a sense, to announce my transition.

 

Not that the nice lady at my bank necessarily assumed that this signaled that I was on a gender transition journey, but my new distinctly male-sound name would raise some eyebrows. I felt a somewhat political urge to explain anyways, even though most people would make a professional attempt to be nonchalant about it —  a way of sending the message that gender transition didn’t need to be awkwardly danced around in everyday interactions. I ended up assessing it on a case-by-case basis, with telling my landlords via note-with-my-rent-check being the most nervewracking. In some instances I haven’t even got around to mentioning it, particularly in over-the-phone services (i.e. cable, electricity, etc.) where the only indication of who’s on the other line is my high, pre-testosterone voice. Does not taking every opportunity to change my name and explain myself make me a coward or a transperson refusing to be the open book that society expects us to be about our personal lives and bodies? Jury’s still out on that one.

In certain places — for instance, my work as a server and bartender — I couldn’t just announce a name change without explaining more to my curious coworkers, who literally have to refer to me by name a 100 times a night, not to mention my name being emblazoned on every kitchen ticket and receipt I print up (you never really notice this until you have to!). I thought, in those first moments after I had completed the legal change, that I could and would keep going a wile with the old name until I was realistically closer to receiving hormones. But once I had it, I almost felt like a kid with a special gift that they just had to show everyone. Or at least to everyone safe — and when it comes to coworkers/peers in our generation, I feel protected by the general youth attitude that everything’s “cool” as long as you’re being yourself and not hurting anyone.

In retrospect, I see that I didn’t think ahead to how the name change would “force my hand” in coming out as trans to the myriad people in my daily life … though I am still waiting to tell my super-macho barber until he is literally trimming my beard for me. But I don’t necessarily regret legally changing my name so early in my legal-social-medical transition process. It gave my coworkers and school administrators time to really adjust to the idea that I would be changing and started the conversation about my gender pronouns, which is another work-in-progress. But I also sense, now 6 months after my new name became law, a question behind their sometimes exaggerated attempt to use my new name: when is your body going to follow? It’s really, once again, none of their business, and only the truly adventurous (or perhaps “rude” is the word?) venture to ask about when I’ll begin testosterone. But that socialized part of me trained to please does get anxious during such interactions. My only response to this subtle questioning gaze is to keep it private, when part of me wonders whether I should be super vocal about it to demystify and destigmatize the hoops we transpeople jump through to get what’s ours. Coming out to yourself as trans is half the struggle and the victory, but each step you take seems to bring a whole new way to come out. My legal name change put into motion a process that I’m doing my best to approach with dignity and joy.

 

An earlier version of this appeared on Tips for Trans Men. Posted here with permission.