*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.

"But How Do You Know You're a Man?": On Trans People, Narrative, & Trust

When I do "Trans 101" workshops for adolescent audiences, I sometimes simplify my transition into an explanation that I think they'll grasp: When I was born, the doctor looked at my body and declared that I was a person who would grow to become a woman. But I eventually knew in my head and in my heart that I'd grow to become a man. And I have done so, with some effort and assistance.

In these words I'm addressing an unspoken question that lingers in the air: But how do you know you're a man?

I've been meditating on this query lately, and I keep coming to the same counter-question: How does any male-identified person know he is a man? And does my answer really diverge greatly from how many men, trans or cisgender, would answer?

Transgender people are often said to have a "narrative" to their lives; we're encouraged to see our journey toward recognizing our gender as a story with an articulable pattern. The truth is, though, that everyone's gender is a story; it's just that trans folks are more likely to be -- perhaps I could say "are given the gift of having to be" -- aware of it.

The story of becoming a man, a woman, or a person of any other gender often follows aspects of that most instinctual of story arcs: the hero's journey. For instance, my personal narrative was one of effort in seeking a transformative goal (a quest), assistance (tools provided by medicine, law, and intangible emotional support), and mentorship by those who went before me (guides).

And my manhood was ultimately achieved through what could be considered rites of passage -- which is to say a similar structure to communal cultural tales of how one achieves cisgender manhood. It's simply some details that vary.

I do see one key difference in how all this plays out, however: Trans men make this invisible process disconcertingly visible by flipping the variables. While a cisgender man may be born with certain inherent potentials to physically embody a manhood that others will acknowledge socially, he's not necessarily imbued with the demanding drive, the internal compass, the awareness of the systems and tropes he's drawing on, and the deep gratitude concerning the specific man he'll be.

It's quite possible to reach cisgender manhood externally (for instance, by reaching a certain age or displaying changes in voice, facial hair, etc.) long before one reaches an internal sense of his own unique self -- and, further, before one reaches a sense of how hard he'll fight to be that self, no matter the costs or resistance. For trans men it's often much the opposite case.

Manhood is an accomplishment, an internal need and quest, for both cis and trans men. (The same could be said of cis and trans women in regard to womanhood, of course.) When we acknowledge this, the necessity and intelligibilty of questions like "But how do you know?" fades away.

Ultimately, seeing this will help dismantle one of the structuring cultural approaches to transgender people: mistrust. Mistrust that we know it's the right time for us to transition. Mistrust that we won't eventually regret transition. Mistrust that one's sexual orientation won't suddenly change by sleeping with us. Mistrust that when we say we're men, women, neither or both, we really, truly are.

I'll end this meditation with a response I sometimes give to that mistrust: Socially, we're all taught when we're young that just because there's something we don't like or wouldn't do, it doesn't mean it can't be fun or useful or important to someone else. As childcare-worker friends delightfully put it, "we don't yuck someone else's yum!"

As children, we learn a vital truth: To be decent to others we share communal space with, we must look internally and adjust our own instinctual "I personally wouldn't do that, so it must be wrong!" response. At the same moment, we're trusting that those around us are also sparing us from their judgments. This is something we as cisgender and transgender adults would do well to remember and enact.

In so doing, we won't simply be living lives of disingenuousness. This process actually changes us, helps us grow, opens our minds to ways life can be lived differently. It's part of maturing. It's part of building what we all need as humans: strong communities, families, and senses of self.


Originally published on Huffington Post. Re-posted here with permission.

*Tips for Trans Teens*: 3 Ways to Build Mental & Emotional Strength

My son was only 6-years-old when I heard the horrifying statistic: Transgender people are currently the population with the highest risk of suicide. I looked at James, my beautiful boy, and I was scared. As a mother, what could I do? What resources could I find to keep my boy safe from self-harm? 

There was no denying James was a boy in a "girl"’s body: he had been telling us since he was 2. It just took us a few more years for us to really believe it. Now he was 6, and nobody used the pronoun “she” anymore; strangers we met had no idea there was anything but a boy under those clothes. I wanted to do everything in my power to make James strong in his heart and happy with his boy self.

As the mother of a trans boy, I knew in my heart that I needed to do something to reduce the risk of self-harm before he hit puberty, when life is extra difficult both mentally and emotionally. I knew I would need to do much more than just the surface stuff, the haircuts and clothes.  Here's some helpful steps I figured out along the way:


1. Search for the right therapist

I figured if he started therapy young, it would help him be comfortable talking about personal issues.  Therapy could give him a vocabulary he might need to express or make a stand for himself. 

We were fortunate to find a transgender FTM therapist and author, Reid Vanderburgh.  We met with him a few times, and for long-term work he recommended we work with the therapists at the Sexual Minority Youth Resource Center (SMYRC). With SMYRC we could use our state health insurance and would have access to more resources. 

In James’s journey with mental healthcare, I always felt it was important he keep a positive attitude towards therapy. I allowed him to self-regulate: if he lost interest, we would stop for a while until he decided he should go back again.


2. Find other trans families for support

Another great thing Reid Vanderburgh did for us back then was to direct us to a small network of families who had transgender children around the same age. So the second thing we did was join a network of families with trans members.

The group was started by one mom who was, like me, concerned for the future mental strength of her 5-year-old FTM (female-to-male) trans child. This mother reached out to every resource and person she could find (including Reid Vanderburgh) and planted the seed. She planted this seed of an idea, put out her email as a contact, and families came from as far as 30 miles away to be a part of this group. 

For about six years, anywhere from four to eight families would join in BBQs and holiday parties hosted by one of the families or summer picnics at various parks.  The children all played together.  We all wanted them to know they were not alone in this world, to know that they were just as “normal” as anybody else.

The added bonus was that the gatherings also gave the parents a chance to compare notes on hormone therapies, doctors, legal documentation for name and gender changes, school documentation issues and more.


3. Look for a trans role models or mentors

The third thing I did was find James a mentor. One thing I couldn’t help thinking about was that when he hit puberty, his mom would be the last person he would want to talk to about personal or sexual issues.

A friend of mine had been a "big brother" with Big Brother, Big Sister and I kept thinking how cool it would be if my boy (who was 8 at the time), could have a transgender FTM big brother. I asked the SMYRC therapist if there was any way to reach out to the community and find a pool of possible FTM applicants. She was very supportive and even contacted Big Brother, Big Sister for us.

They assigned us a Big Brother, Big Sister worker who screened the applicants, ran background checks and did the match. They found the perfect match and for the past six years a strong bond has developed. My son's “Big Brother” has become a significant support person in his life.


Now James is a young teen. He is a solid and joyous individual who works hard in school, has lots of friends, a beautiful girlfriend, and participates in numerous physical and artistic activities.

But the teen years have not all been this wonderful; we had a bad scare last winter. Not long after his 14th birthday James got extremely depressed, became suicidal in his thoughts, and even made attempts to harm himself. What saved him and pulled him through to the other side was a combination of everything we could access.

We immediately got him back into therapy at SMYRC. James’s “Big” made a point to spend more time with him, and I found ways to keep him busy with classes and activities he enjoyed. I know now there is no sure way to completely eliminate the risk of self-harm, but we can soften the fall and create support systems that can help bring us back standing stronger and taller than ever.  

We can do this for ourselves and the ones we love; we just need to know that support is out there. If we look for it we will find it. The mom who started the Trans Family Network showed me that we all have the power to create the support and community we need if we just plant the seed.

Once we figure out what we need, we all have the power to get it, even if what we need is of our own creation. 


Photo courtesy of Flickr.