LGBTQ+ people are notorious for going by different names than the ones our parents gave us, whether that means shortening “Alexandra” to “Alex,” going by a middle name or our initials, or picking a new name altogether. In this week’s Monday Roundtable, we asked our writers who have changed their names about the process and how it worked out for them.
Laneia, Executive Editor
I once tried to shorten my name to L, because it’s the only cool way to shorten this vowel-heavy name of mine, but it didn’t stick. I guess I just need all three syllables to make myself known.
My actual legal name is Marie. It’s incredibly rare for anybody to make the connection that Riese is a nickname for “Marie.” I guess we’re used to nicknames coming from the front half of a name rather than the back half (although there are lots of Beths and Tonys out there, so come on people), or being composed entirely of letters present in the original name. But: know this, my friends — Riese comes from Marie.
Here’s how that happened: My family, people who knew me before 2006 and often my romantic partners will call me Marie still. When I was a kid my Mom called me “Ree” or “Ree-Ree,” and when I was a teenager, my best friend Krista called me “Riese,” but she spelled it “Ris.” Krista also wrote me a lot of things — cards, collages, lists — the kinds of things I’d put up on my wall over the years. We lived together in New York after college and when I went out of town for a week she wrote me a list on posterboard called “Reasons I Miss Ris When She Is Away.”
This brings us to 2006, when my new best friend Haviland — Haviland was a crucial element of my new gay life — was over at my apartment, and we were discussing the fact that I didn’t “seem like a Marie.” This is a sentiment I agreed with heartily. My whole life, Marie just felt so much more girly than I ever felt or seemed to be (I was often chastised in various ways as a kid for not being adequately feminine). I associated it with Marie Antionette, who is like, very high femme. It’s also a very unusual name for a Jewish girl! It just never quite fit, although I appreciated that it was my Mom’s Mom’s name, who died when my Mom was 14. (In Judaism, you name your kids after dead family members.) Her name had been Marilyn, but she became a fashion model and changed it to Marie Lyn, which felt more model-esque I suppose.
Haviland saw Krista’s poster on my wall, and was like “Ris?” and I was like “yes,” and she was like “That’s what we’re going to call you.” Haviland was sort of a mix of best friend and tender loving stage mom, honestly, at the time. But when I met her friends, who’d seen Haviland write about me on her MySpace page, they were calling me “Ris” liked it rhymed with “Kiss” and that’s when we were like, “hm, maybe we need to spell it differently.” My agent at the time suggested Riese, as it’d still contain key letters from my first name in the proper order, which I’d started my writing career under, and this is how we thought SEO worked then.
So there was a pretty clear line between when I went by Marie with most people and when I went by Riese with most people, and that line is GAY. I still feel very tender towards Marie, and I don’t mind at all when people use it. It feels like a special honest piece of me, somehow. But sometimes I forget when people talk about chosen names that in a way I have one too.
Abeni, Staff Writer
I fucking love my name. It’s hard to spell and pronounce, but it means so much to me.
“Abeni” is a Yoruba name, a language spoken in West Africa. When I visited Ghana a few years ago, I felt a wild and difficult-to-describe pull to the land, as though my ancestors were reaching out to me. We visited the “Door of No Return,” a port, essentially, through which most of the enslaved Africans kidnapped from the continent passed on their way to the Americas to become the chattel that built this and many other countries. I stood in that spot and wept for the ancestors I’ll never know. My father, like many Black Americans, only knows his ancestry going back a few generations in America, and that’s a loss that will be with me and my people forever.
“Abeni” means, essentially, “We asked for her, and behold, we got her.” I feel as though the Universe or Goddess or whoever has been, since I was born, asking and waiting for me to become who I am. And when I finally transitioned, and chose my name, and became who I am, the Universe got me. I think that’s so beautiful, and by choosing this name I’m able to connect in some small way to the ancestors of mine I’ll never fully know.
Creatrix Tiara, Staff Writer
Tiara is legit part of my legal name — it’s not technically the first word, but my Bangladeshi family doesn’t do “middle names”, we just have given names that stretch for miles and then sometimes get called a whole separate name altogether. The only people that call me by The First Word Of My Legal Name are people in official bureaucratic circumstances reading my name from my ID, which often throws me off, especially since it gets mangled a lot (even though it’s pronounced how it’s spelt!!!).
Some of you may first remember me on Autostraddle as Tiara the Merch Girl. That was because I started reading Autostraddle the same time I started my burlesque career, and that started by being the Merch Girl at the Burlesque Ball in Brisbane. I thought it was a cute name and it also made for a good mini-business — providing merch, stage management, and related services. One time I had a drag character whose name was a pun on Merch Girl: The Travelling Salesman.
I changed my burlesque/creative/pen name from Tiara the Merch Girl to Creatrix Tiara circa 2011, after a very tumultuous time where I dealt with a LOT of backlash from the Australian burlesque scene for being a rabble-rousing woman of colour speaking up about racism. I was tired of being someone’s assistant and wanted to own my power. I’m not sure where I came across the word Creatrix, possibly from someone’s Twitter bio, but I loved it — it was witchy, magical, potent. So Creatrix Tiara I was, and still am.
People call me Creatrix sometimes, which also throws me off mostly because I’d envisioned it more as a title or honorific than as a name per se. Also filling out forms that require a last name is annoying.
I’ve been mulling over changing my legal last name for years. Partly it’s so I can have some distance from the Malaysian government (whose ID I’m holding) in case they try to persecute me for being openly queer or political or just a minority in general. (Then again we just got a new government for the first time ever so who knows.) Mostly it’s because my last name is very Obviously Ethnic and trying to find jobs in this country is so damn hard without an Anglo name. I haven’t yet found a good name though. My first choice was vetoed by the person who inspired it — she said I should be proud of my own name. Another choice got taken out of the running because that inspiration turned out to be a colossal douchebag. Hayes was floated as a suggestion, but I don’t know how far I’d take my Darren Hayes fangirlness (also what if HE turns out to be a douchebag?! :O) I did consider Khan from my maternal line (and because Tiara Khan sounds BADASS) but that doesn’t solve the problem of Not Sounding So Ethnic.
I don’t feel super attached to my last name: as in Muslim tradition, it’s my father’s name, though a shortened version because again Bangladeshis and their mile-long names. I know there are problems with wanting to white-wash my name, though even Tiara is ambiguous — it’s not a very “South Asian” name and makes me stick out in South Asian circles, but neither is it particularly White. If I could (a.k.a. it wouldn’t cause massive paperwork headaches) I’d just go officially by Tiara, no last name — and really more accurate to my culture, since apparently (especially for women) last names weren’t really a THING in Bangladesh until the advent of passports.
Laura M, Staff Writer
When I was in high school, my queer BFF and our close friend group went by single letters. I was “L,” she was “K,” our friend Christine was “T” for “Tine” (or sometimes “CC” for “Crispy Christ”), and our friend Allison was “Z.” I don’t remember what Z was for.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya, Staff Writer
This is a sidenote but also kind of relevant: I tried for so long (too long, some might say) to force a nickname upon myself in middle and high school. The worst part about this is that I did not want it to seem like I was choosing the nickname myself. I wanted to have one of those fun, organic nicknames that other people came up with for me, but that wasn’t happening, so I would kind of try to manipulate people into nicknaming me?! Like for a while I was really set on the idea of people calling me Silver so I just talked a lot on the bus about how silver was my favorite color (it wasn’t even) and how cool “Silver” would be as a name, hoping someone would take the hint. I think one poor soul did, but it still never caught on.
But the real name change I went through was when I decided to use my middle name more prominently. When I first started writing and had to a choose a name for a byline, I decided to go with Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya. I even briefly experimented with the idea of dropping my last name and just being Kayla Kumari (though admittedly, this wasn’t for the best reason…it was because Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya wouldn’t fit as a Twitter display name). A lot of my decision to use my middle name as a more prominent part of my identity has more to do with my Indianness than my queerness. I don’t necessarily dislike my first name, but it also doesn’t hold much meaning for me. My parents kind of picked it randomly (I think they saw it in a magazine?). It’s not all that dissimilar from my paternal grandmother’s name (Kamala), so I’ve sometimes wondered why they didn’t just go with that. I’ve always wanted a more identifiably Indian first name, and bring Kumari to the surface more was my way of addressing that. In any case, I’m glad no one calls me Silver.
Cee Webster, Technical Director
I’ve been going by Cee for over 20 years! My friend nicknamed me that back in 1997 because it was the first letter of my given name, Caitlyn. I hated the name Caitlyn and felt it didn’t suit me, and I loved how Cee was gender neutral. I could use it online when talking to people in forums and on IRC and folks would assume I was a guy, and would talk to me about what I was in there to talk about (usually electronic music or computer security and web programming stuff). I could stop getting hit on and be not have to prove myself and instantly be taken seriously.
This was freshman year of college, and moving to a new city meant I could start using a new name. I started introducing myself as Cee in school and to the friends I made in Boston. I really liked the name, it was easy to pronounce, unique, and most importantly didn’t have a gender associated with it to me, which felt right.
I came out as genderqueer a few years ago, when I realized this new concept was just a word that described how I always felt about my gender. I finally decided I had enough of being called my birth name at the doctor’s office or in legal documents, so I changed it legally two years ago. I thought I should find a “real” name to change my name to, with Cee being my nickname, but I am terrible at naming things including myself, so I just went with it. While I was there, I changed my middle name from Ashley to Shea, which was my Grandma’s maiden name. We were very close and I’m happy to have her name. Shea is also quite neutral as a name I think.
I used to not tell people my birth (dead) name, but the further away I am from it, the less it bothers me. Everyone in my life calls me Cee, so the old name has lost most of it’s power.
Wow yikes! It took me forever, and like most things when it comes to my gender, I spent a lot of time staring at the ceiling before gathering the courage to do it. ‘Anna’ stopped feelings good in like almost every way but I also felt stuck with it. I had a lil baby art-career under that name. I also was a server and let me explain something if you’ve never worked in the service industry: It is not a great industry for trans folks! Or genderqueer folks! Shit is rough and GENDERED and then you gotta smile and pretend it’s okay because, god damn it, you want that 5 dollar tip.
I think there’s also this thing that happens when people are afraid to take up space when it comes to trying out new names (or pronouns. or sexuality. or gender.) I know that for a long time I didn’t allow myself the brain space to consider or ask for a new name. It felt like I was too demanding, too weird, or that by asking for that I’d be taking up space that wasn’t mine.
Luckily, there’s no such thing as ~scarcity~ of space when it comes to folks being their authentic and genuine selves so eventually I got the fuck over it. I was always joking about how I used to collect Archie comics as a kid and they are worth pennies now. This was long before Riverdale and Archie Comics re-vamping their brand to make it more appealing to a new audience. I had a pal call me Archie as a joke and I didn’t hate it. I told one single far-away friend, and she did what I want all of you to offer your questioning friends: to use that name with me, to test it out with me, see if I enjoyed how it played out in text and talking.
I think the transition into Archie went really slowly. I didn’t know how to make a fast n quick turn. I asked one friends at a time to stop calling me my birth name. I signed my name with both Anna and Archie. It honestly took years and now I exclusively go by Arch/Archie and I know it’s a dorky goofy nerdy name and couldn’t luv it more.
Alyssa, Comic Artist
I’ve recently started more seriously considering name changes for myself. It’s been hard for me to decide whether or not it’s the right time or if I’ll ever be comfortable enough to make that choice for myself, but I have made tiny steps toward it. Little things like shortening my name to Al or A at coffee shops, or on name tags, or signing off on emails.
When I turned eighteen I changed my last name. I grew up with the name of an abusive step father who’d raised me, and didn’t want to carry it with me as an adult. I sometimes feel conflicted about whether I’d feel lost or found were I to change my first name too, and I’m still in a place of sorting that out.
But my pals and loved ones support and validate me through everything, and I feel really confident that should I make any decision about my name I’ll be appreciated and seen entirely by them. For the moment, just knowing that feels like enough for me.
Molly Priddy, Staff Writer
A funny thing is that I rarely get nicknamed or go by different names, but it’s almost like I’m allergic to calling people their birth or given names. I’m a shortener, a nicknamer; someone is a buddy or a pal or a babe or a gem before they’re “Name” and it’s just always been that way.
I’ve gone by various iterations of my name over the years: Molly P, Priddy, Prid, Molly Michael (my middle name), MMP, Moll, Molls (which I hate), my mom has called me each of my four sisters’ names before she remembers mine.
I would like to blame my Canadian heritage for the nicknaming, because everything and everyone in Canada has a nickname.
Alexis, Staff Writer
In high school, everyone called me Jasmine so that stuck for a while. We all had like fairly ridiculous nicknames in high school but that was one of the first given and I want to ask the universe why it stuck with me for so long. Like, my sister who came to the school after me? They nicknamed her baby jazz? All-girls’ schools are strange places.
I used to hate it when people called me Lex. My family would called me Lex or Lexi when I was little and I’d say “My name is Alexis” and they’d do that thing where they look you in your face while they say the thing you asked them not to say, so I kinda got used to it. After I graduated high school and like went to therapy, I felt more comfortable with family calling me Lex because I felt like they were really seeing me. My little cousin started calling me Exi because he couldn’t pronounce Lexi yet and that’s made me a lot happier with Lex, which I go by if I like/trust you, so even though I’m saying it here please don’t call me that unless I say you can!
Also at work I have a name tag that says Jerome, partially because I wanted to see reactions to it, partially because I don’t want people talking to me and like on the one hand, people come up to me less! on the other hand, it shows that they are definitely not good about trans anything at all. Which isn’t surprising, like don’t even try to call me by my right pronouns there.
Valerie Anne, Staff Writer
When I was little I hated my name. It was different and weird and no one had ever met a Valerie before and whenever I played pretend at recess I would always change my name to Katie or Jessica. I wanted to blend in, I was desperate to be more like the other girls however I could be. I remember once when I was on vacation with my family and we went to a restaurant called “Val’s Sandwiches” and I was very excited until we found out the “Val” in question was a man. Horrified — part of my misguided attempts to tamp down my queerness involved aggressively avoiding being identified as masculine in any way — I found myself resenting the nickname.
But also being a conflict avoider by nature, I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone to stop calling me Val. So for years, despite never introducing myself as anything other than Valerie, the nickname purvailed. If anyone asked, I would tell them I preferred Valerie, but people so rarely asked. But a few years after I came out, a realization hit me — I’m over here correcting people who assume I’m straight right and left, why can’t I take ownership of my own damn name? And so I did. I grandfathered in the people I didn’t correct for years (though I have friends now who champion this cause and don’t care if it’s my boss they’re correcting) but I’m getting a lot better at saying, “Actually, I prefer Valerie.” And it’s worked out! Turns out people don’t get mad at you for having a preference about your own name. Who knew??
I spent years casually looking at gender ambiguous names because, y’know, I wasn’t REALLY going to change my name ever — it’s just fun to play “What if?!” But you know what: it’s fucking exhausting having to respond to a name you hate all the time. You don’t have to do that! You can change your name! It’s easy! (or, it was in Ohio and I have a lot of privilege as someone who is seen as generally “not-overtly-threatening to moral society” or whatever).
I’m not saying every part of changing your name is easy. I worried what people would think if I asked them to call me something and then decided “oh no this also isn’t me, abort mission.” Like, maybe they’d think I was doing it for attention? Which I hate? The thing is, if the people in your life respect you, they’ll give you the space to figure out where you’re comfortable. It’s YOUR name. You’re the person who has deal with it every second of your life. Don’t let people make your name about them.
I tried “Cameron” out for more than three years before legally changing my name. And the process of choosing “Cameron” took months before I even implemented it (as a camper at my first ever A-Camp, a great place to feel good about scary personal decisions).
The main issue I had with my name is that it was very obviously feminine in a way I am not, so for me, I wanted something that worked for as masculine and/or feminine as I felt on any given day. I looked at a lot of baby naming sites and fell down a hole of “what does this name mean” before resurfacing and deciding that was just a distraction from making a real decision. I also fell down a hole of pet naming sites? Because people will name their pets fucking anything and I just wanted something — just anything fucking thing — that felt better for me than Carolyn.
Do I seem like a Carolyn to you? No. I don’t. Because I’m not one. So now I’m LEGALLY not one.
Eventually I gave myself loose guidelines. Because you know what? There are a lot of names out there and the sheer number of choices is overwhelming. I decided to keep the same first letter (email addresses and some usernames wouldn’t have to change) and stay within a similar range of letters and syllables (I don’t have a solid reason for why but unconsciously I think it made the transition from Carolyn to Cameron easier for everyone including me).
Will there be people who are shitty about you changing your name? Yes. Absolutely. And that will suck and it’ll be hard. It’s been three years and my mum, who reportedly loves me very much, still outright refuses to call me Cameron. So there’s plenty of tension there, but I feel good about my decision. The positives vastly outweigh the negatives. And also? Every year my mum refuses to call me Cameron, the worse she makes herself look. At this point, it’s a waiting game to see whether respecting my choices or preserving a good reputation brings her around. And I’m okay with that.
It’s everyday things that are validating: like being called by the right name off of a list in the doctor’s office, or paying with a credit card that has YOUR name on it, or applying for jobs and not having to explain that, well yes your ID says this but you’re actually called This and hoping whoever might be hiring you doesn’t grant themselves the power to veto your request based on how valid they think your explanation for changing your name is!