Content notes: transphobia, transmisogyny, transition process, family ostracization.
Robyn is a parent, educator and writer living in New England. Her writing tends to focus on issues of gender, food justice, sports culture and queer parenting. She manages an urban farm project for a living and loves to laugh, learn, share and smile with her wife and beautiful toddler. You can find her on twitter (@1brobyn).
A Personal Naming History
“Hi, I am about to purchase a ticket on your website and have a random question…I know that TSA will not allow me to board if my ID doesn’t match the name on my ticket, but I’m kind of in a weird situation. I am in the middle of this legal name change right now and am not actually sure which name to put on the ticket, though I would like to have it under my new name. Is there any way to switch the name with the airline after I purchase it?…Ok, I understand. I hope to have my updated ID by then, but I have no guarantee that it will arrive in time…Well, the flight is three months from now and I’ve been told that the process should definitely be wrapped up by then…Yes, I understand the risk in using the new name, thanks for your help.”
The day before I made this phone call, I filed my name change paperwork at the county probate court. I was told that a legal document would arrive by mail in 2 to 3 weeks. Once I had this document, I would have to plot a course through multiple agencies.
First would be a trip to the Social Security office for a new card, which would be in my hands 5 to 7 days later. Then, I would take that card to my local RMV for a new driver’s license and wait another 10 to 14 days. Once completed, in order, these steps would enable me to board that plane with all of my IDs aligned.
Four weeks went by with no word regarding the name change. I began to get nervous. In week five, I started calling the court, only to be abruptly transferred to a nameless voicemail box that wasn’t accepting new messages. Weeks six, seven & eight followed a similar pattern. By week nine, I had resigned myself to having to cancel the flight and absorb the cancellation fees.
After ten weeks, the document finally arrived. After originally thinking that 3 months would be plenty of time, I had to scramble to secure all of the necessary IDs only days before our scheduled flight.
But in a bizarre twist, it turned out that no one actually boarded our flight. A blizzard shut down the airport, forcing the cancellation of the flight and our trip.
Changing my first name was not merely about legal status. It represented the realization of a more intimate understanding of myself. See, I’m trans*, and I changed my first name to align with my gender identity. I identify as transgender, as a trans woman, and as a woman. It was crucial for me to have this reflected in my name.
Even as part of the trans* community, I maintain certain privileges as a white, married person. I’m working on checking these privileges and am constantly learning how to be a better ally. As a trans* person, however, I regularly find that I experience social situations at a more heightened level of awareness than many of my cisgender friends. For me, there are complexities within the minutiae of society’s gender binary. I get better at managing this reality every day, while still knowing that a single, seemingly minor affront to my identity might set me back.
The legal name change process can be very challenging to navigate; for me, the situation was only compounded by the stress of travel. On top of the initial steps completed in time for the flight that never was, I’ve contacted the State Dept of Vital Records to update my birth certificate, applied for a new passport, corrected my health insurance and acquired new debit and credit cards. The list goes on.
With every phone call, email or office visit, I never know what to expect. Sometimes, staffers says “sure,” and other times I am met with judgment or resistance. Sometimes I am able to send one email and other times I must fax multiple forms. Sometimes gender matters, and other times it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s infuriating and other times it’s awkwardly hilarious. I hear the line ‘Well, I have never gotten that question before’ more than I ever expected to in my lifetime. Sometimes, I’m even embarrassed by my own behavior, like when I entered “tips on how to take a good driver’s license picture” into the search engine and proceeded to watch a recommended video for pointers.
The business side of transition continues. At last check, I still had dozens of updates that I hope to make. I try to take care of these in small doses, when I have the time and energy. I’ve also come to the realization that my name and gender trail is long and complex, to be found in numerous manila folders, databases and pockets of the internet. I might not ever completely update my name and gender marker in all of these locations. This is unfortunate, but it’s not something I will allow myself to be consumed by.
Like many folks, I’ve adopted nicknames and variations of my birth name over the years. I generally liked my birth name and went through phases of preferring either the full version or choosing to use one of its two most frequent abbreviations. It was a common and easy name for daily use. Also, there was a historical and cultural significance to it since I shared this name with a certain famous Scottish poet, a fact people often wanted to talk about at length.
Yet over time, I found myself balancing the daily, social usage of this birth name with a private, chosen name. This chosen name connected me to, what was then, a hidden gender identity. For a time, I was able to balance this dual name reality. My name identities were operating parallel to each other, juxtaposing an ease of ‘the way it’s always been’ with that of a more difficult and deeper relation to self that existed within.
As my true gender identity broke through, it became very difficult to still connect with my birth name. It was no longer easier to use and became a liability in my efforts towards personal authenticity. I became more comfortable sharing my gender with others and began to use my chosen name, Robyn, in social settings.
There have been numerous challenges for me during my gender transition, but I’m fortunate that it has evolved within a supportive community, which is not the case for many trans* individuals. One aspect of my transition that has been mostly positive has been the switch to Robyn.
I often find myself being overly apologetic and accommodating when others slip. “It’s ok, I mess up, too” is a constant refrain. Outside of the occasional awkwardness, friends and most family members are very supportive, particularly after I’ve shared how the name change is intimately tied to my gender identity. At work, the situation has gone smoothly. My coworkers are extremely professional and have quickly adapted to my new name and gender pronouns.
If there has been a major challenge, it’s been my relationship with family members who have refused to acknowledge or have struggled to cope with my name change. The cause of their struggle seemed to be that Robyn and her gender represented a rejection of a mutual past, breaking away from collective memories and the person they thought they knew.
My efforts to support them in their struggles have been in vain so far, though I know acceptance is ultimately their own challenge to overcome. I hope that we can revive our relationships in the future. Now, I must keep the focus and energy both on myself and with the loving community that has chosen to journey alongside me.
As I move forward, I’m intrigued by the relationship between my evolving transition and my personal history. Robyn is a constant reminder of who I am and who I am becoming. I want to feel the empowerment of living genuinely while also accepting my past. I want to speak openly about my birth name and be comfortable engaging the complexity of my gender. Right now, though, it’s hard. I still cringe when people use my old name or male pronouns. It happens less and less now, but it’s painful, even when done innocently.
Still, I long for a more peaceful understanding of myself through my naming history. I want to be able to explain who ‘Robert’ was and is to my child. I want to be comfortable in sharing how special and unique his ‘Dede’ is. I am not there yet, but I’m hopeful. The power of my own quest for authenticity may be my greatest lesson to impart as a parent.
Let’s Talk About Names: Marna is the previous post in the series.