A lot of people ask, ‘Why do we need labels?’ ” says actor Rebecca Root, star of the BBC2 sitcom Boy Meets Girl. “But everybody calls themselves something. Some people describe themselves as gender-fluid or non-binary or gender variant or whatever — but they still have a name. It really is the ultimate label.”
Within just five hours of the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover going public, the hashtag #CallMeCaitlyn had been featured in more than 150,000 tweets. Jenner’s physical appearance certainly caught the public’s eye, but it was her name that resonated around the world. And while the manner in which she introduced her new identity is pretty exceptional, the name-changing process for many trans people is one often carried out in the public eye, irrespective of intention.
“It is just a really personal thing, but of course in the curious world of the transitioning individual, the very personal often has to be very public,” says Root. “A lot of people don’t consider the name. People who are not trans think of possible surgeries…and they think about what’s beneath the visible physical changes. But it is a big deal. It’s that moment when you announce yourself to the world in your new identity.”
Root’s own name change may not have been as sensational an affair as Jenner’s, but sitting in her solicitor’s office, having just signed a statutory declaration making it official, will always be a “flashbulb memory” for her. As will the moment she revealed her new name to her parents, something she feels can often be a source of anxiety for trans people.
“It is quite a significant stage,” she says. “My parents are brilliant, and they’ve never been anything other than supportive. But my mum, when I told them that I changed my name, she said instantly without skipping a beat, ‘Right, Rebecca, would you like a cup of tea?’ I suppose she wanted to use it straight away without thinking about it.”
Though Root can’t recall where she drew inspiration for the name Rebecca, other than its being a name she’d always admired, the origins of her middle name are more poignant. In her family, middle names always held a familial connection; wanting to maintain the tradition, she chose the middle name Maureen, an homage to her late aunt. “I wanted to commemorate her,” she recalls. “I remember I wrote to her family, my cousins, asking if they had any objections to my taking her name. They were very pleased.”
Jett Chapman, an IT consultant in Nevada, also brought his family into the naming process. At a time when his mother in particular was anxious about his transition, it proved the perfect opportunity to reassure and educate them about his journey.
“My parents wanted to play a role in it because [they] were extremely supportive of my transition,” he says. “Everybody wrote down the names that they liked or what they were going to name me had I been born biologically male. I even got my grandma in on it, which was really shocking to me because she’s the most judgmental conservative. I saw another part of my family through it, which I was happy about.”
In the end, the decision was his alone, and in 2006 he adopted the name Jett, the first definitive move in a transition he’d been planning for some time. “I went in it with a mission,” says Chapman. “I had it all lined up how I was going to do it, and nothing was going to stop me. It was exciting because my name was the first step in my identity of who I have always felt I am. It was sort of like looking in the mirror and saying, OK, things are starting to work out.”
As a youngster, Chapman would often lie about his first name and introduce himself to new people as Trent. When he finally did change his name, a psychological burden lifted. At last he felt he was truly himself. “When I went to introduce myself I felt like I wasn’t lying anymore. I was being more honest,” he says. “It was just awesome writing my name out and getting used to everybody calling me by my new name.”
In the United States, the official name-changing procedure varies from state to state; many require people to attend a court hearing, and in almost every state there are filing fees and a cumbersome legal process, one that’s often difficult to navigate without the assistance of an attorney. While Chapman describes his own experiences as a formality, at the time of his transition, he was living in the state of California, where until recently it was a requirement that he publish his gender and name change in the classifieds section of his local newspaper.
“I would have people walk up to me…and be like, ‘Congratulations, I’m very happy for you,’ ” he remembers. “Everybody knew anyway, so I’m glad I was able to do it in that town. Maybe in a larger town it would’ve been easier because it would’ve been more anonymous.”
For Emily Tomaine, a chemist in Pennsylvania, legally changing her name was an arduous task, one that took several months and multiple trips to the courts. The situation was complicated by the fact that too few officials possessed the knowledge relevant to transitioning individuals’ cases.
“You have to go through a petition…after that whole process, it took me probably three or four months in between to go through that name-change process,” she says. “I went to court, I ended up having a big hearing, and I ended up having four lawyers there and other people in the room, who basically get called up to present your case and all the documents. They review it and then they stamp it. Basically it’s official after the submission. And that was kind of like that cementing the process.”
With her identity now established, Tomaine fought back tears in the courtroom. Buoyant and positive, she now had the momentum to finally make her transition public at work, signifying the point at which she no longer felt she was living a “half life.”
The legal process for changing one’s first name is arguably more drawn out and difficult to navigate than it needs to be. What’s certain, though, for Tomaine, Chapman, and Root is the affirmative impact having their true identity officially recognized has had on their well-being.
“When I finalized it, it was huge,” Tomaine she says. “It was just like that moment of anxiety, the fear, the worry, the wanting to have that completed so you feel like you’re moving forward…all of that just came over me. I was in my car for like half an hour or 45 minutes of just emotion and tears. I basically just went out with friends afterward that night and we all celebrated.”