Ask a Transwoman: Etiquette & Power of Names – Handling the Uncomfortable

Trans PeopleLorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Trans Woman" Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan
Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times' "Ask A Transwoman" Columnist.  Photo: David Meehan

Lorelei Erisis, The Rainbow Times’ “Ask A Transwoman” Columnist.
Photo: David Meehan

By: Lorelei Erisis*/TRT Columnist–

Hi Lorelei,

I had this happen to me in Boston last week. I had a woman who I hadn’t seen in over 20 years come up to me and say, in a very loud tone and in a very public place, my former legal name. In response I politely and calmly informed her that was no longer my legal name. Yet she responded by “I’m not calling you by that (my current legal name).” Not wishing to cause a scene in the middle of such a public place I left.

Later that day I had the misfortune to run into this person again, and again they kept calling me by my former name. I calmly pulled out my ID and was prepared to show her. Her response was “I don’t want to see it and I’m still going to call you by that name.” I responded in a sharp tone that she had no right to call me by that name. In return, she walked off in a huff.

Was there a better way to handle a situation like that? How do you deal with people who won’t call you by the name you currently have, despite whatever proof that it is your legal name? And how would you handle the same situation?

Admittedly Curious, —Kari

First of all Kari, I’m sorry that happened to you. It was rude and quite unacceptable. I also think you handled it remarkably well.

Unfortunately, this is something that most trans people have to deal with more than we’d like to. In fact, it is something I have found that pretty much anyone who has occasion to change their name has to deal with, not just trans people.

Working, as I have, with all manner of artists, activists, sex workers and others who have had reasons to adopt new names and sometimes entirely new identities, I hear a lot of the same themes that trans people have to deal with. People who know, or who somehow find out your old name, will often insist on using it instead of your preferred newer name. They seem to feel that it makes them somehow special, or gives them some power over you, and to some extent that is true, if by “special” you mean, “a big jerk.”

And yes, names certainly do have power, which is why some cultures allow a person to choose their own name when they reach adulthood, often as part of an accompanying ritual. Names can shape who we are and how we are perceived.

Let me tell you, my old boy name, “Mac,” was no treat. To the day I changed it, people thought that calling me “Big Mac” like the hamburger, was about the funniest thing they’d ever thought of. The “Big Mac” jingle (“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese … ”) still makes me twitch when I hear it, and surprisingly for such a simple, short name, no one could ever get it right. I was called, Matt, Max, Pat, Nick, pretty much anything but Mac. It was just unusual enough to set me apart from the get go.

So, when I started using Lorelei, which, curiously, people seem to have a much easier time with, I was happy for the change quite beyond it fitting my proper gender. Though that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a struggle to get people to start using it.

Socially speaking, I found that strangers and new acquaintances had the easiest time and the people who’ve known me the longest, the hardest time.

This is how I tend to deal with these situations. First thing to do is really sussing out intention. Is a person simply using my old name out of long habit, or out of some inane sense of privilege or power play? The former I am a lot more patient with, the latter, not so much.

And of course when discussing the past, things get really, really dicey. This is where even the most well-intentioned people have the hardest time.

With most folks, when they use my old name I will usually deal with it the way I deal with pronoun mistakes. In the beginning, I’ll generally give the well-intentioned ones a couple of passes before I speak up. Then, whenever they use the wrong name, I simply and quickly correct them and encourage the conversation to move on. I will continue to do this, simply, quickly and politely, until it becomes annoying and starts throwing the flow of the conversation out of joint. Much like the way my English major mother used to sweetly but firmly correct my grammar mid-sentence (and still does!).

This is where I find peer pressure to be sometimes quite useful. By staying very cool, polite and sweet about my corrections, I basically make the person who is misnaming me (or misgendering me), start to seem like kind of a jerk (or insert stronger, less journalistically professional language here …). And especially if the other people in the room (or the organization or group of friends/family) are using the correct name (and/or pronoun) for me, then that’s when peer pressure really does a lot of the heavy lifting. It flips the tables and makes the misnamer the odd one out.

Sometimes though, even that doesn’t work. Occasionally I’ll get a bureaucrat or some such that simply refuses to use my new name and will not be corrected. Those people will always be out there and often nothing we can do will change them. In those cases, I simply grit my teeth after it becomes clear no amount of correction will help, and as soon as possible, I will simply do as you did; walk away and write them off.

I also find that really loud, really angry punk rock helps too. But maybe that’s just me.

Slainte!

*Lorelei Erisis is Miss Trans New England 2009. Send your questions about trans issues to her at: loreleierisis@gmail.com.

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4 Comments on "Ask a Transwoman: Etiquette & Power of Names – Handling the Uncomfortable"

  1. For those people who refuse to call you with your legal name, no matter what you do, I have a suggestion for handling those jerks.

    If you encounter such person, you don’t have to leave – this give that person the most pover on you.

    Instead, my suggestion is to say to such person – If you continue to ignore respect ing me, than I will be forced to invent names for you, the same as you do it to me now – Do we understand each other ?

    If the person stil doesn’t understand, then choose a name that will be humiliating for that person, like a female name for a male person, and call that person with this name, like “Hi XXX, how are you ?”.

    Continue doing this as long that person refuse to change his or her rude manners.

    In this way you set a power over that person, and you don’t have to leave.

    • Ronit: In general, I personally agree with your advice and it’s how I sometimes have handled these situations myself. But then, I’m not exactly shy or retiring in my personal interactions.
      The problem is, responding in such a manner is going to quickly escalate emotions and if you aren’t the sort of person that is prepared to deal cooly and smoothly with that sort of thing, it’s not necessarily going to be useful or even all that satisfying. Hence the advice to simply remove yourself.

  2. Should think long and hard about why you haven’t seen that person in 20 years…probably for good reason. If they had cared that much they would of kept in touch and would be respectful of you and your feelings.

    • True enough. Though I do have to say that there are plenty of folks I have reconnected with myself, especially in this Facebook, social media connected age, with whom I simply lost contact.

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