What’s in a name? When you’re transgender, basically everything

Our names aren't always the first things to come to mind when we think of our identities. It's something we're born with, but not something that comes naturally. We're given names not because they're important to us, but because they're important to those around us.

But what happens if you feel like you have the wrong name? What if the thing that everyone calls you is akin to an insult?

My name is Heather. I like my name – quite a bit, actually. Not because I lucked out and happened to be named something I've always liked the sound of, but because that's the name I chose for myself. The name I was born with mostly acts as a thorn in my side nowadays, reminding me that I wasn't always seen the way I am now.

So what's the process of finding a new name that's associated with the gender with which you identify? It's very, very different depending on the individual, and stories can range from liking the sound of the name to having some deep history or connection with it, but sometimes it can be more even more complicated. Sometimes the idea that you're choosing your own name, not one that was given to you from birth, is a point of fear when it comes to transitioning.

You might really like a name, but by choosing it, you worry about being judged in some way. Maybe it's "too feminine" or "too masculine." Maybe it sounds too fictional and nobody will take you seriously because of it, or maybe it's just "not in style."

As much as I would love to say that anyone should be able to choose any name they want without needing to worry, our society, unfortunately, doesn't make enough space for individuality. Anyone can have fun, quirky personalities (not too quirky, of course), but we draw the line at names that don't fit our standard. So right off the bat, we have a fear of not being taken seriously.

And this fear wouldn't even be an issue if it wasn't for the greatest fear of all: the legal system. Changing your name from one that's associated with one gender to a name that's associated with another really rubs some judges the wrong way and apparently reminds them of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective where the villain was a man disguised as a woman. I have to imagine they think to themselves something along the lines of "That's not happening on my watch!"

The reality, of course, is that transgender individuals just want the recognition to be who they are with a name that doesn't constantly attract suspicion and strange looks. No woman, for example, whether cis or trans, wants to go through the humiliating process of showing someone their ID that says that their sex is "M" and their name is clearly one given exclusively to men. Not only is it not fun in the slightest for anyone, but it can also cause complications with suspicions of identity theft and can create real problems when all the person is trying to do is go about their lives in peace.

And speaking of those pesky "M" and "F" markers on IDs, passports, birth certificates, etc. can be just as, if not more important than the recognition of one's own name. It's the verification that you are officially recognized as the gender you identify as, which can be an incredible feeling made only more incredible by the fact that it often takes a monumental effort and overcoming that can feel like a miracle, or at least a weight off of one's shoulders.

And what about friends, family, co-workers? How long of a grace period do the people in someone's life require before "common mistake" becomes "willful ignorance" or worse? For friends, it should be as soon as the individual in question wants it. If they intentionally refuse to change the name or pronouns they use for a transgender friend, then they're not being a friend. If they make a mistake occasionally, it shouldn't be seen as "aggressive" or "annoying" to point it out to that friend.

It should be the same for co-workers, but that can sometimes include someone's job on the line. In those situations, some people feel they simply can't make a fuss about it, either because they don't have the assurance of anyone backing you up, or they just don't want the hassle.

Family is different, so much so that it seems dwarf the other two categories. You can always get new friends. You can at least hope to get a new job. But your family, the one that raised you and the one that named you in the first place, will almost always have a hard time changing the vocabulary that they've known your entire life, the thing that you always were to them in their eyes.

For parents especially, it can be a transition in itself on their part, and while it's never as difficult as the one their child will go through, it's also never easy.

When I first came out to my parents, I already had enough of being seen and gendered the way I was, as is the case for most trans people. I wanted a change, and I wanted it at that very moment without any regards to how my parents felt about it or the time that they needed to process it. I didn't have that time to give them. I was at the end of my rope.

Looking back on it and seeing how much progress they've made towards using a different name and different pronouns than what they're used to, I’m thankful despite how fed up I once was. I was lucky. Not everyone gets that.

I've known people who were kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves because they came out as transgender or simply couldn't hide it anymore. I've known people who left their homes solely because they couldn't live in a hostile environment brought upon by their parents or loved ones actively misgendering them even later into their transition, among other forms of maliciousness.

This isn't something that anyone has power over, except for the person it directly effects, but as misinformation about what it means to be transgender still persists to this day, we continue to see more cases of discrimination in the form of something as simple as names and pronouns – whether the situation be domestic, casual, or professional. Nobody else has the rights to your identity, but it can often very much feel like it.

So once again, my name is Heather. I prefer "she" and "her" pronouns. Easy, right?

Heather Maloney is a writer, editor, and creative thinker from Atlanta with a vested interest in gender and sexuality. Photo by Robin Rayne Nelson/Zuma

A version of this article originally appeared in Q Magazine. Read the whole issue below.