Our story, part 4: What’s in a name?

Drawings of Veronica, who has long black hair in three hairstyles and is wearing a red top, and Derek, who has very short hair and a full beard and is wearing a blue shirt
It’s been a year – Veronica’s hair grew a lot and mine disappeared – so I’ve been sketching!

Image description: drawings of Veronica, who has long black hair in three hairstyles and is wearing a red top, and Derek, who has very short hair and a full beard and is wearing a blue shirt

All details shared with Veronica’s permission

When Veronica and I met in 2013, she introduced herself with a different name*. It was a non-gendered name that she’d chosen several years earlier when she realised that the name she’d grown up with wasn’t right for her. We didn’t really talk about it much: I only knew her by the name she gave me and I had no reason or interest in knowing a name she didn’t use or identify with.

Before she moved from the U.S. to Europe, the two of us took a trip to Florida, where she’d spent a large part of her childhood. She still had some contact with her father at the time so met him and his wife for dinner. While Veronica was in the loo, he made a point of not only calling her by her deadname, but defiantly telling me she would always be [deadname] to him, no matter what she was calling herself now.

It was such a shocking moment that I was left speechless. I wish I’d been able to at least tell him how ignorant his comment was, if not explain that it could have damaged our still relatively young relationship. He didn’t know if I was the type to take major offence at the existence of such a “secret” from their partner’s past. And it wasn’t his “secret” to share.

Later, Veronica and I talked about it. She was unsurprised by his arrogant behaviour. What’s more, she said that when she’d changed her name, there were plenty of family members who weren’t on board with the change. That was particularly galling because many of her family had nicknames that got used all the time. What was so different about her decision to change her name?

I didn’t care about that older name: I’d met plenty of other people with chosen names and nicknames. When I was in my teens and twenties, the idea of knowing someone’s “original” name was exciting and I recall with considerable shame laughing at someone behind their back when I found out about their “old-fashioned and stupid” older name. I’d outgrown that and come to believe that whatever name someone gives you is their real name, and if they change it later, then that’s their real name.

Names are one of the most important aspects of our identity. Many people identify with the name they grow up with. Many others don’t. If you’re fine with your name and have never thought about changing it, the idea of a name having defining power might seem strange. But just think of the Johnathan who hates Johnny; the Margaret who’s Maggie at home and Margaret at work; the co-worker who goes by their middle name. There’s a reason that people bristle when someone calls them by a version of their name that they don’t like.

Now amplify that feeling a billion-fold to understand how someone feels when they changed their name because they needed to get away from every association with the past that name defines. That’s why friends and family should support people who ask to be called something else — and why allies should protest when someone’s deadname is used in any context without their permission. Deadnames can hurt, taking someone right back into a challenging past situation.

Sadly, many trans, nonbinary and gender fluid people meet resistance when they change their names. Trans people have told me of friends and family members who’ve flatly refused to call them by their name, with excuses like “I’m too old to change now,” “It doesn’t suit you,” “I’m not changing the name I/our parents gave you,” “It was your [deceased family member]’s name so it’s too meaningful,” or “That’s fine for the rest of the world but you’ll always be [deadname] to me.”

Veronica decided on her current name around the end of August 2018. Through July and August of that year, we had discussed names a few times, even tried some out. On one long car ride, we had even decided on a name that lasted for 50 kilometres** and then realised it wasn’t for her.

Veronica is the name that clicked; Vee or Roni for short. As with the pronouns, most people got it right straight away with the occasional mistake; a few people took more time to get it; and, frustratingly, one or two people still get it wrong today. Overall, it went the way it should: smoothly.

I don’t miss Veronica’s second deadname, the one I knew her by, any more than I miss her old hairstyles or clothes she doesn’t wear anymore. As with her pronouns, I have made mistakes. It was a little challenging when telling stories about our early relationship but I’ve adapted.

If you ever meet anyone who claims they can’t get used to someone’s new name or that they have the right to use someone’s deadname, tell them to adapt. It’s not hard.

*Nope. It’s a deadname now and you won’t hear it from me.

**It was Kelly. Which was also something I considered when was considering changing my family name. And for 50 km, it was totally the right name… until it wasn’t.

Vocabulary: deadname = If your former name represents someone you’re not and/or there are negative emotions associated with it, it’s your deadname. If someone uses that name, they have deadnamed you. My pre-marriage name is not a deadname because I don’t have any problem with using it professionally or people calling me that.

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