The significance of names has been on my mind a lot recently, as I’m waiting for the last steps of my legal name change and for everything to be official. A week from this coming Monday I have the court hearing that will hopefully be confirming my name change. It’s coming up so much faster than I expected it to. And then I will have the last few pieces of paper with which I will finally become myself.
I never liked my given name (from hereon out referred to as my deadname*), growing up.
Besides the name being very heavily female gendered, it is in Hebrew, and difficult for most anglophones to pronounce properly. I spent my early years at school as a litany of mispronunciations and people wondering why I couldn’t just be okay with them mangling my name into whatever they thought was best. Yet as much as I disliked it, I disliked it even more when they mangled it. I think that is because by mangling my name they gave a sure sign that they didn’t actually care about my opinions, my wants, and my needs.
Online and in person, one of the clearest earlier memories I have is of the series of other names I tried on, in an attempt to find myself. I don’t remember what they were specifically, but I remember the process. This was both in physical space and as soon as I got online in late elementary school. The latter enabled more freedom. It enabled me to have a space where no one knew I was just trying on the name and no one knew anything about me. Or as the saying goes, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.
I first started going by Rowan online when I was fourteen— or possibly fifteen. It was a while ago and my mental timeline isn’t the clearest. At that point, it wasn’t much different than any other nickname I used online; unlike the others however, it stuck. I didn’t just keep cycling through other names after that, because the name Rowan became a part of my identity.
When I was eighteen, on a whim, I introduced myself as Rowan at a gathering where most of the people present had never met me before in person. It’s the first time that I remember introducing myself and not having to explain myself ten times over and wait while people tried to grasp the concept of my name. When I got home from the gathering, I continued going by Rowan. Unlike that first weekend, though, most of the time people in my daily life deadnamed me, whether on purpose or by accident. It was a slow process to get to the time where most people knew me by my chosen name rather than my deadname, to get to a point where my deadname only haunted me through the hassle of paperwork and my mother’s occasional mistake when she was angry at me.
Jobs, school, doctor’s offices, these were the places where my deadname haunted me and followed me. I’ve spent most of my adult life arguing that the words on the piece of paper do not make something my name. Most workplaces have told me that until it’s on my license and other forms of identification, they just can’t call me by my chosen name.
Even at my current job, I have ended up going by an initialised version of my deadname instead of trying to remind people day in and day out that my name is Rowan. Rowan isn’t the name that is in the computer, so the world tells me that I can’t expect other people to call me by it.
Without the piece of paper that I will be getting from the legal name change, work— and the world as it is right now— does not afford me the dignity of choosing the name I go by, the dignity of self-definition. The dignity to move past the person I was to the person that I am now. I am lucky in that for the most part, this deadnaming is in spaces where it does not put me at risk of harm or violence, but that does not make it hurt any less to be so obviously disrespected. So perhaps it is for that reason amongst the many others that the upcoming name change feels so momentous.
This is me asserting myself, that I am exactly who I say I am.
*deadnaming is the process of referring to a trans person by their birth name as opposed to their chosen name. It comes with the implication that the name given at birth is somehow the person’s “real name” and that the name gone by now is fake, or otherwise less valid.