As I have written in previous blogs, there are people who choose to change their name for a variety of reasons. Some people select a new name for entertainment and commercial purposes, such as pennames, pseudonyms or even mononyms; some for political purposes in response to oppression and racial stereotyping; and others to ensure success in employment or education. Then there are socially sanctioned name changes associated with adoption, marriage or religious conversions. Finally, there are name changes born of traumatic experiences that demand a symbolic cut or break from one’s past, such as the children who have suffered in severely abusive family situations, or children of political dictators and despots.
Most of us accept our proper name as a donato (gift) or given from our parents, a moniker over which we have no control. While we may have visceral reactions to our name due to our associations or the psychological underpinnings of our given name, (“I love being called Germaine – it reminds me of that feminist writer” or “I hate being called Bertrand – it’s so old-fashioned), rarely do most of us actually consider a formal name change. As we develop, and over time, we tend to appropriate our name and make it a psychic space with which we are comfortable. While some of us may try to encourage friends and colleagues to refer to us by a nickname or modified version of our name, notably in high school or in social groups, we do not generally take the next step to formally request a change.
So what happens when your given name no longer represents or fits the person you have become? What if the birth name is no longer an appropriate symbolic representation of who you are? Or even more dramatically, what if your name no longer fits your gender? In a very interesting recent CBC radio broadcast of Out in the Open, host Piya Chattopadhyay, in one segment of the show, interviewed two transgendered individuals. Having never met in person, Dominic and Samson exchanged ideas by a phone conversation that was aired live.
It was informative to hear the discussion about the names these two young men chose for themselves. Dominic asked his parents what they would have named their infant had the biological sex been male and they offered him two alternatives. He decided that he liked one, Dominic, and so kept that one. He also decided to maintain his birth name as a middle name, feeling that he could not simply “erase this name” as it was an acknowledgement of his past. By contrast, Samson, chose a name based on the biblical story of Samson and Delilah that also coincided with the lyrics of a favourite song which included the lines, “the Bible didn’t mention us/ the history books forgot us.” You can listen to the episode, entitled “In the Name of” here.
Names are never random. Whether assigned to us at birth or whether changed at a later time, there is nothing neutral about the name we carry. In speaking about their freely adopted names, both these young men claimed that parents ascribe names to their newborns on the basis of a pre-supposed notion of who they “think they are” or who “they are supposed to be.” Both Dominic and Samson highlight the significance of the need to feel connected to a name, a name that would represent “an authentic path.” Even more radically, they feel that children require (psychic) space to inform the world of who they are.
While no one would disagree that names are granted to newborns on the basis of parental fantasies and desires, hopes and dreams (or simply name preferences) in the absence of a living being, it is also the case that most of us come to inhabit our name in a way that comes to feel compatible with who we are. I argue in my recent book on names that the name is a house into which we are born, and that this symbolic designation, both the given first name and the inherited surname, is one we must appropriate for ourselves and transform into a metaphorical home.
In the case of these two young men, the decision to transgender has already been the first choice made in the direction of an “authentic” self (to use the words of Dominic) and a claiming, by a biological transformation, of their preferred sexual identities. It is not surprising that it would have been necessary for them to select a name that represented not only their new biological sex but also their newly constructed gender.
I am reminded once again of the power of names, so cherished by our ancestors, who conferred names on newborns through elaborate rituals with the hopes of ensuring that the voice of their destiny, inscribed in a name, would be heard and fulfilled.