We have mashed up two old essays about the name that I changed to and have posted them here, but now I want to talk about the nuts and bolts and about the social implications of changing one’s name as I have viewed the process up close, once when I did it in 2000 and once when my husband did it in 2017.
First I will say that I believe that one’s name is the most private thing you will ever display publicly, and as such it is nobody else’s business in any way. So while you are always free to entertain the opinions of trusted loved ones and associates–and that includes your spouse–ultimately the decision is yours to make. When my husband changed his surname to my surname, he would have preferred to spell it “Le Fey,” with a space, rather than “LeFey” because he had already seen how often I got called “Mr. Leffy” or “Mr. Leafy,” thanks to the fact that a) computers don’t always distinguish case and b) some people are too lazy to spell the name correctly even if I tell them how. But I already had 17 years of spelling it without a space, so for the sake of consistency he decided to leave it out. There was no making on my part; I lobbied for consistency, but ultimately the decision was his. Had he decided to spell the name differently I might have complained for the rest of our lives about the inconsistency being inconvenient now and then, but I would have had to live with it. It was his decision to make.
My late parents had been calling me Khrysso for at least four years before I made the name change legal–I know because I just recently saw how Mom had inscribed a book she and Dad had given me as a gift back then. Still, I found out later, Mom had confided in my best friend that she wished I had waited until they had died to make the change. That would have meant an additional 14 years of living inauthentically; I have no regrets at all about the timing I chose, because I wanted the name I felt most identified with to appear on my graduate-school diploma. Your parents are the ones who gave you your birth-name, and it is understandable that they may wish that you would live forever with the decision that they made when you were a newborn. But your name is the most private thing you will ever display publicly. It’s private what you decide to do with it, no matter how good the reasons might have been for your parents’ choice of your birth-name.
As for others in your family, they may have opinions, and those opinions may be interesting, and their perspectives may provide valuable insight that you may like to consider, but they don’t count.
The issues that surround cisgender people (such as I) regarding name-changes have a lot in common with some issues that surround transgender people, especially since most transgender people–all the ones that I know that I know–change their names when they change their sexual identities. Your decisions about your identity may make people very uncomfortable, but you are not here to make anybody comfortable. Make people comfortable may be something that you decide to do from time to time, maybe, if you are in a helping profession, for example, a lot of the time, but it is not who you are; it’s not your raison d’être. People’s comfort with your identity is none of your business. Everybody decides how comfortable they choose to be, and your agency in the process is irrelevant. Your raison d’être is to make yourself as comfortable as you can; nobody else can or will do it for you.
If you are in really supportive relationships, the people whose support you depend on most will support you in your name-change whether it makes sense to them or not.
I had a friend who once told me that she had never liked my new name. Guess what? She didn’t die my friend. What the #%*& business was it of mine how much she liked my name, and why did I need to know that she didn’t? It was extremely intrusive of her to notify me of that, and if anybody does that to you, they have a problem with boundaries–but it is not your problem.
It doesn’t matter how weird your name is if you settle on it and if it makes sense to you and if you feel comfortable with it. I recommend sitting with it for a while to make sure you like it and it fits. I, for example, suggested when my husband decided to change his name, that one might not prefer a rhyming name (Grey LeFey), but he felt comfortable with it, and now nobody gives it a second thought. Some names, like shoes, may need to be grown into; some may fit comfortably from the start. Until you make it legal, you can always change it with few repercussions.
The process of changing one’s name varies from state to state. It usually involves meeting with a judge and publishing at least one announcement in the newspaper. It may take weeks before the process is complete. By the time I had my new Social Security card in hand several months had passed since my appearance at the courthouse, and I had spent about $100, including placing ads and getting my new driver’s license and paying for extra copies of the court document.
Changing one’s name has a long, long history of spiritual significance. When I was in theological school, probably half the people I knew had different names than they’d been given at birth, not including married names. But married names are just one kind of name-change that rarely raises an eyebrow in our culture.
When I told my father that I was going to change my entire name, first, middle, and last, he said, “But Wagner is a perfectly honorable name.” Of course it was, and I never said it wasn’t. But he hadn’t given it a second thought when my sister got married and changed her name from Wagner. I’m still a member of the Wagner clan, and I will dispute anyone who suggests that it isn’t so.
What judges usually want to know when you appear in court to legalize a name change is if you’re trying to duck out of any debts. As the judge said to me, “You still owe money to everybody you owe money to, and everybody who owes you money still owes you money.” Changing your name doesn’t have many external implications compared to the internal implications. If you feel sure that you need to do it, then by all means, go for it. If you don’t feel sure, save yourself the trouble. But if we’re having this discussion, I suspect that you already feel sure.