I don’t hear my birth name very often anymore. A birth name might be just a short word—mine was only 6 letters!—but it can be a surprisingly heavy load to bear. For a long time, it was a painful experience every time I heard it. I thought it would be that way forever. However, I’ve found that as time passes, my birth name is less of a burden and more of an oddity, like a remnant of an almost forgotten dream. I feel detached from it now, like it’s referring to a completely different person. And it’s a great feeling.
Changing one’s name is a huge milestone in a transgender person’s life. I’m very hesitant to label anything as a universally shared experience by everyone in the transgender community because everybody’s journey of gender exploration and expression is very unique. However, in my experience, most (though not all) trans people eventually want to transition to a name that better expresses how they see themself and how they want others to see them.
Deciding on a new name is a coming of age experience at its very core, even for people like myself who don’t do it until later in life. It’s incredibly empowering to be able to decide what name fits you best. It feels like being reborn into the person you want to be, and being in control of your existence, your fate, and your future. In fact, it’s such a meaningful life event to me that I literally celebrate the day of my name change every year as sort of a second birthday.
However, before I could get to all those great feelings, I had to wade through a lot of other less great feelings first: anxiety, indecision, self-consciousness. When I first came out as non-binary, I told people I wasn’t planning on changing my name. But then, I found myself becoming less and less comfortable with the way that name fit me, mirroring my discomfort with my body and my pronouns.
In those early days, I felt very worried about what other people would think. Would they think I was weird for changing it, especially after I had said I wasn’t going to? Would I be seen as that loser who chooses their own nickname and tries to force everyone else to use it? Would people even ever use my new name, or would I be stuck in a weird halfway state with two different names forever? Figuring out a new name that suits you often requires experimentation, since it’s really hard to know if it feels right until you hear other people using it. This only amplifies the anxieties because then you’re either still stuck with a name that’s not quite right or you feel like the annoying kid who keeps changing their name, like everyone else is thinking, “Why don’t they just pick one already?” I was lucky because I knew exactly what name felt right to me on the first try, but I’ve had friends who have had to try several different names before settling on one that fit them.
The name change process is strange because there are two very distinct paths that have to be traversed—the social name change and the legal name change. While the paperwork and the time spent at the County Clerk’s office admittedly felt daunting at the beginning, the social repercussions actually ended up being more turbulent for me. As it turns out, I’m far from the first person in New York state to submit a name change petition—In the eyes of the law, I was pretty much business as usual.
My family and friends were a different story, as many of them weren’t familiar with anyone else who had changed their first name. Some people expressed anxiety, because they were worried about their ability to get used to it. Some people expressed sadness or grief, because they felt like they were losing someone that they once knew. While these are totally understandable feelings, I didn’t understand why they were being thrust upon me when I was the one who was going through a big change. For me, changing my name was one of the things I have done in my life that was most purely for and about me, almost a celebration of who I truly am. Every time someone made a comment about how my name change affected them, it stung a little more.
Despite this, I was very fortunate that most of my friends were very supportive and immediately started calling me Jamey—and yes, it felt really great to be called by my new name! But I didn’t just want to be called Jamey; I wanted to be Jamey. I wanted everyone to focus less on remembering to call me by my new name and more on knowing me by the right name, who I really am. A milestone moment in my life was the first time someone accidentally called me by my birth name and I saw a look of unrecognition in my fiance’s face, as it took him a few moments to realize who they were talking about. That was the moment I realized he was really seeing me for who I was.
Now, my birth name is fading into obscurity. It’s gone from my driver’s license, my work email, and even my birth certificate! It’s gone from the mouths of my old friends who were once familiar with it, and it doesn’t even exist in the minds of my newer friends who are blissfully unaware of it. Occasionally I still encounter it from people who don’t know any better and it can still feel jarring, painful, and bizarre all wrapped up into one. But more frequently these days, I hear my new name and I’m struck with a sense of pride. This is my name. I chose it, I made it my own and I’m living with it, in this beautiful life I created for myself.
Jamey is a non-binary adventurer from Buffalo, NY who wishes they were immortal so they’d have time to visit every coffeeshop in the world. They spend most of their time writing code for Agrilyst (an agtech startup in Brooklyn), doing public speaking & advocacy on the transgender experience, making zines, and thinking about Star Wars. More of their work, pictures of their cats and selfies can be found at www.jameybash.com or on twitter at @jameybash.