By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist–
If you were talking to someone and in the conversation they referenced your old birth/boy name (several times), what would you do? How would you feel? How bad would it creep you out? Stalker/weirdo maybe?
— Lady Fox
Ahhh, names! Identity can be such a minefield, most especially for transpeople, but also for anyone who is trying to change who they are in the world. We might argue about labels like trans, or cis or gay or straight or conservative or liberal all day. Our honorifics — Mr., Mrs., Ms., Madam, Sir — may be cause for contention. But our names imply whole reams of information about who we are, whether accurate or not, in an abbreviated form. A veritable databomb.
Many people keep the same name from birth to death. But even cisgender people often have occasion to change their names. In this culture and others, spouses still regularly take different last names when they get married. Heck, my mom has had at least three different last names over the course of her life.
Also, people will sometimes change their name in response to some life-changing event. I have an aunt who adopted an entirely new first name when her husband died. And I’ve known others, especially when I was living in Hollywood, who took new names to go along with new lives. Some who simply took new names because the ones they were using were already taken by another member of the Screen Actors Guild!
People also change their names for cultural reasons. I can’t tell you how many folks I’ve met from other countries who have told me their name was “Sam” or “Sara” because they had grown tired of hearing their original names mangled in the mouths of monolinguistic English speakers.
As for myself, I’ve worn a number of different names. When I was still pretending to be a boy it was “Mac,” “Reverend Mac,” and another that only ever existed on official documents! When I finally decided to transition, I tried out several names, including “Gennipher (Gen) X,” before I settled on Lorelei.
In the tradition of self-naming found in many cultures when a child reaches adulthood, I also adopted the name “Erisis.” It was a nod of respect to my Goddesses Eris and Isis and a distinctive way to assert my new identity.
So with all that as background, onto the specifics of the question. Unfortunately, the sort of misnaming mentioned happens to transpeople pretty regularly. Mine included, especially because I have chosen not to sever the continuity between my new life as Lorelei and my old life as “Mac.”
I still have my family and many of my old friends. But it means there has been a pretty drastic learning curve for the people around me. In general, I try not to be offended when someone close to me slips up and calls me the name they knew me by for most of my life. I will politely correct them and move on. Much as I do when I’m misgendered.
People become easily stuck in their ways and often find change hard to adapt to. And of course it’s also worth taking into account that people who have known you a long time may have no problem calling you by your new name in the present tense, but get mixed up when speaking of the past. However, the socially polite thing is to call a person by their chosen name.
If it continues to be a problem, I will explain to them how difficult it is for me, and painful, to be called by that old name. How it reminds everyone in hearing range that I am transgender, instead of simply a woman. After that point, if I’m really frustrated or feeling upset about it, I will simply not respond to that old name. Or I will correct them at every single usage, which tends to bring any conversation crashing down until they get it right.
Also, as I’ve mentioned before in this column, I’ll let peer-pressure do a lot of the heavy lifting. If everyone in the room is calling me Lorelei, the one person calling me by my old name is going to start looking like a douchebag pretty quickly.
But that’s with friends and family. With others it can be different. If somebody starts calling me by my other name(s) without having known me previously or only having known of me, it tends to piss me off fast. This can happen for all kinds of reasons. Frequently it’s some officious jerk who refuses to call me anything but the name they have on a form or their computer screen.
It is often done as some sort of power play. It’s a secret they know about us, a way to belittle us or disempower us and/or an assertion of authority or status. I’ve even heard stories of this happening among our own trans-spectrum community—“outing” each other for whatever reasons.
This, above all, will not do. It is more than upsetting. It is childish, disrespectful and even inhumane. Sadly, it is often not some easy-to-dismiss stalker or weirdo who does this misnaming. It is the people who should know better, who should be helping us, not hurting us. That is what I find creepy.
And to those people, the ones who use our old names intentionally, who make the most token effort to correct themselves. We should give no quarter. Make it clear to them that this is not OK. And if they will not stop, prune the twigs away and toss them on the woodpile!
* Lorelei Erisis, former Miss Trans New England, can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.