Another challenge for transgender people: choosing a new name

By Caitlin Gibson

When choosing her name, Misty Plowright scanned most-popular baby name lists from around the time she was born - and avoided those at the top. Photo / Misty Plowright for Congress
When choosing her name, Misty Plowright scanned most-popular baby name lists from around the time she was born - and avoided those at the top. Photo / Misty Plowright for Congress

Some pore through baby-name books. Or think back to favorite movie stars or characters from fiction. Many turn to a family tree, hunting for inspiration among beloved relatives and long-lost ancestors.

For a transgender person in transition, the act of choosing a new name often isn't that different from naming a new baby.

Except, of course, that they're naming themselves.

"It's one of the hardest things in life, choosing your own name," Caitlyn Jenner told Vanity Fair last year. The Olympian formerly known as Bruce ultimately picked "Caitlyn," simply because she'd liked it for a long time.

Misty Plowright started her search by scouring the Social Security Administration's website for lists of the most popular baby names in the early to mid-'80s - she was born in 1983.

"I didn't want anything too close to the top of the list," she says. "I also wanted something that would kind of blend in. Not the most common, but common enough."

The 33-year-old IT consultant from Colorado grappled with a couple of options until the very last minute, as she sat in her car outside her lawyer's office. Finally she settled on Misty - "Most people know a Misty or two" - and it was under that name that she made history last month when she won the Democratic primary for a US House seat. Coincidentally, she shared that moment with another transgender woman who won her own congressional primary that same day, but in Utah.

Her name? Misty Snow.

Plowright says she's spoken to other trans people who went through a similar process, hunting through lists of names in search of the one that feels just right - a name that stands out, but not too much.

"It's a little mind-boggling, the lengths that a lot of trans people go to just to blend in," she says.

Caitlyn Jenner says choosing your own name is one of the hardest things in life. Photo / AP
Caitlyn Jenner says choosing your own name is one of the hardest things in life. Photo / AP

Like secretive soon-to-be-parents, some trans men and women won't breathe a word about the names they're considering until they're ready to publicly announce one. Others openly solicit input from friends or family - even asking their parents what they might have named a baby of the opposite sex. There are people who choose a name quickly and never look back, and those who keep changing their minds and agonizing over possible options for weeks or months.

Keeping a similar-sounding name or the same initials is a priority for some. Others use the moment to separate completely from family history - changing their last names as well as their first.

"It's an intensely personal process," says Victoria Rodríguez-Roldán, director of America's National LGBTQ Task Force's Trans and Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project. However a trans person decides to choose a new name, she says, it is a particularly meaningful step in the transition. It can also be a challenging one: Not all trans people have the financial resources or guidance to navigate the process of legally changing their names.

"It is a huge part of trans people being validated," she says. "It's an integral part of becoming who they are as an identity, and it is also in many ways a privilege only available to those with the means."

Male model Ben Melzer told the Telegraph that he asked his family to help name him. "In my opinion, parents should always name their child, so I went to them and asked, 'If I had been born a boy, how would you have called me?' " he said. "She said Benjamin was a nice name, that she'd liked that at the time, so did my father, so that is how I became Ben."

Laverne Cox, the transgender actress from Orange Is the New Black, was born with the middle name "Laverne," which is why she chose it as a new first name. Chaz Bono, the son of Sonny Bono and Cher, picked a name that resembled the one he'd been given at birth, Chastity, and chose a middle name, Salvatore, that was his late father's real name.

MSNBC host Janet Mock wrote in her memoir, Redefining Realness, that her name was inspired by childhood friends who told her that she resembled Janet Jackson and nicknamed her "Baby Janet."

"There's power in naming yourself, in proclaiming to the world that this is who you are," Mock wrote. "Wielding this power is often a difficult step for many trans people, because it's also a very visible one."

For celebrities like Bono or Jenner, who transitioned in the public eye, escaping their past identity is impossible. But for many other trans people, their previous name is never to be shared or spoken. Some refer to it not as their birth name, but as their "dead name."

"For many trans people, that name was never who they are," Rodríguez-Roldán says. "It's insulting or degrading for people to refuse to address them by the name they choose. So you have terms like 'dead name' to describe that, to show the strength of how they feel about it."

Kye Allums came out as a transgender man while playing women's basketball in college. Among the most powerful moments in that process, he said, was when he saw his name changed on the George Washington University basketball roster in 2010.

"A name is just a bunch of letters, but the letters make up a word and the words that make up my name have so many more emotions behind them," Allums told Outsports.com at the time. "My old name, that's just not me. When I hear Kye, everything feels OK, everything is right."

- Washington Post

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