Trans Radiance is a new, limited series of positive, empowering stories of trans people doing important, uplifting things. Elizabeth Warren’s mention of 18 Black trans women who have been murdered in 2019 at the recent LGBTQ Forum, arguably one the largest, most mainstream discussions of queer and trans issues in American history, was important and historic. But its power as a viral moment is also reflective of mainstream and social media’s tendency to report on trans women’s issues only when they’re sensationalist; as we near the end of the year, all of the major networks will be writing stories about Black trans murder (the New York Times has already begun). But we’re more than just murder victims.
This series will attempt to add to and shift the narrative by providing another, under-reported perspective: we’re also community members, artists, leaders, activists, and regular-ass women; we love and support each other and our community members, and we do amazing things. Simply put, we’re radiant.
A couple of months ago, my father and stepmother took my girlfriend and I out to dinner for my birthday, and our waiter was a total sweetheart. Because we arrived before my parents did, we chatted a bit as he took our drink and appetizer orders (dad’s paying! I get to eat appetizers!), and he asked my name. “Abeni? It’s beautiful,” he said. “I chose it myself,” I replied, as I usually do.
Later, during the meal, he returned to the table to check up on us. “I looked up the meaning of your name,” he told me. “It’s lovely.” I blushed, speechless. Never had I been so affirmed in that way — and the fact that he took it upon himself to look it up, rather than ask me to attempt to explain its meaning and significance, felt like being seen.
My name, by the way, is from the Yoruba language — native to West Africa — and means, essentially, “We prayed for her, and behold, we got her.” I chose a West African name as a means to superficially connect to the ancestry my people were forcibly disconnected from via slavery. As I searched around for a name, Abeni — and its meaning — jumped out at me as though the universe had highlighted it.
“Our proper name is as much a part of us as our own skin. It travels with us like a passport, testifying to our unique presence on this earth,” asserts Mavis Himes in The Power of Names. Before we have anything else — personality, agency, gender — we are given a name. It’s evidence, usually, of our membership in a family, a culture, a community. So when it doesn’t fit — whether because that membership is problematic, has been severed, or, as is the case for many trans people, it doesn’t accurately reflect who we are — it can create an existential crisis.
And a practical one. For reasons that are somewhat understandable, it’s a difficult process to legally change one’s name. When people change their names to reflect a marriage, it’s usually straightforward, if cumbersome. For trans people changing their names (and sometimes legal gender markers) to better reflect their gender(s), however, the process can be expensive, frustrating, sometimes traumatizing, and often downright confusing.
For this piece, I talked to some trans women about their names and their experiences changing them legally (or choosing not to), as well as a couple of the incredible organizations attempting the make the process more accessible to all of us.
“I always knew I would choose the name ‘Serena,’ — the blonde-haired shero of the Sailor Moon saga,” Serena Sonoma, a writer for Out magazine, Vox, Teen Vogue, and other publications, told me. “Growing up I wasn’t allowed to express my femininity and so I would often use Sailor Moon… [w]atching Serena transform… I’d often muse that I could, someday, too.”
Sonoma’s given name was “unisex,” and she “never had an issue with it.” But she felt such a strong connection to Sailor Moon that she still chose Serena. “It served as a reminder of where I’ve been… The kid who wanted to redefine her own path, who always felt lost or didn’t quite fit in, the kid who wanted to transform and start anew.”
The act of changing one’s name can sometimes feel threatening to those from whom we received it. When I legally changed my name, I decided to use my mother’s first name as a middle name — partially to mitigate the sadness she felt when I “rejected” the one she’d chosen for me.
A similar consideration was in place for Melínda Chavela Valdivia Rude —who goes by Mey — a writer for Out.com. “I asked my mom if she had picked out a girl’s name for me before I was born, and she said Melínda, which was the first M name I found that I loved… Valdivia is my mom’s maiden name.”
It was incredibly important to her for her mother to be involved with her new name. “I absolutely ABSOLUTELY love that my mom picked out my name. Before I came out we weren’t very close, but since then we’ve become best friends and I love her so much. Reconnecting with my mom has been a huge part of my life since coming out and so I’m glad my name reflects that.”
Drew Gregory, a fellow writer for Autostraddle, decided not to change her name at all. “I thought a lot about my name when I was first transitioning. A name change can be such a powerful declaration of a trans person’s identity,” she explained. Growing up, she didn’t like her name — people thought it was short for “Andrew,” even though it wasn’t! “I really didn’t start liking it until I transitioned and saw myself as a female Drew… I also can’t pretend that Drew Barrymore didn’t play a major role in me keeping my name… she represents a certain easeful femininity that really appealed to me… I like that I’ve taken a name that was given to me and made it my own.”
For some of us, though, changing our names is about disconnecting from a community. “It was important for me to choose my own girl name, as well as having a last name connected to my family without being connected to my immediate, abusive family,” Annie Mok, a Twitch streamer, musician and writer/artist, explained.
“[Mok was my] grandfather’s original last name before being changed to Choy at US immigration.” When asked how she feels about the name she was given as a child, she answered simply: “horror.”
Given the intense introspection, relationship negotiation, and practical impact of changing one’s name, the decision is almost never made lightly. After the decision, however, comes the next step — pursuing whether to change it legally, and if so, navigating the labyrinthine, opaque, and expensive process of getting legal identity documents that match.
“In most cases, it’s really difficult for most people to obtain [a legal name change] without some form of help or guidance,” explained Ian Anderson, Legal Services Project Manager for the TLC.
“That’s true for a number of reasons: the process involves several steps, the forms use very technical language, the laws relating to name/gender change court orders sometimes change year to year, and the process or forms can vary county by county.”
According to AC Dumlao, Program Manager at TLDEF, the name change process in particular is incredibly outdated: “New York’s name change statute, for example, dates from 1847… newspaper publication was required to alert creditors to a name change.”
Some states still require a newspaper publication, even though technology has made this completely unnecessary.
The TLC hosts frequent legal clinics to help trans people navigate the often confusing process. In fact, attending one of the TLC’s clinics was how I was finally able to legally change my name and gender — after years of unsuccessfully trying to navigate the process on my own. In January, California amended its process to make it easier. I waited to get my documents processed until then for this reason — and it still wasn’t easy. I then attempted to do the same federally — to get a passport — which was a different, much more difficult process that took over nine months.
“Each state sets its own laws,” Anderson clarified. “[The process] may involve presenting a doctor’s letter saying that you’re receiving ‘clinically appropriate treatment for gender transition…’ a surgeon’s letter specifically saying you’ve had genital surgery, or a judge’s order… [i]n a few states, it’s still not possible to update the gender marker on your birth certificate at all, and in several states, the ‘revised’ birth certificate will still show the old information along the new.”
Some states allow nonbinary markers. Some don’t. “[M]any states, as well as the federal government, continue to only offer binary gender markers. These laws are being challenged one by one, but lawsuits do take time.”
That’s something else the TLC works on — changing these laws to make the process simpler, easier, and more accessible. This crucially-important work is also about more than the emotional and psychological impact of having a name that aligns with one’s identity — there are practical implications: “If the information on someone’s documents doesn’t align with how people typically perceive them… the documents could out them as trans and lead to discrimination or violence,” Anderson continued.
That’s part of why Mey changed her name legally. “[N]ot changing my name while presenting as a woman was leading to some potentially dangerous situations and discrimination at airports and with police and doctors. Changing my name has improved my life greatly.”
Not everyone wants to legally change their name or gender, though. “The process of changing my gender marker on my license was such a headache, I know I’m very lucky to not have to change my name too,” said Drew.
And Annie has decided not to bother with the whole process: “I’m very lazy,” she confessed. “[A]lso, I don’t want to be targeted by Trump and his cronies for being trans and having my name on a list of people who legally changed their names.” While that might sound alarmist, it’s not inconceivable given the state of American politics and technology right now.
Another hurdle? The process can be expensive. I was only able to afford it because I happened to be on MediCal at the time, and there are sometimes waivers for low-income people.
TLDEF is especially focused on making the process more affordable. “TLDEF’s Name Change Project provides pro bono legal name changes to low income trans and non-binary individuals,” said Dumlao. “More than 65 percent of TLDEF’s name change clients live below the federal poverty line.” TLDEF is usually able to make the process completely free for their clients.
While I was grateful to the TLC for hosting the name change clinic, and helping me apply for a fee waiver, the combination of which made the process possible for me — Mey credits her community for making it possible. “I was blessed to get financial help from the Autostraddle community when I changed my name. Riese was especially helpful and I’ll be forever thankful to her for that.”
Crowdfunding campaigns to raise money for name and gender changes are plentiful, and as is usually the case when trans people raise money for things like life-saving surgeries, medications, or legal documents, it’s usually other queer and trans people and organizations who show up and give what they can.
Trans Lifeline, another trans-led organization, even offers financial support in the form of “microgrants” to trans people to get legal documents. The #transcrowdfund hashtag on Twitter and Instagram is simultaneously a sobering look at financial issues trans people face and an incredibly uplifting example of a community holding each other down and lifting each other up. Trans-led community organizations like BreakOUT! In New Orleans also help members raise money for and otherwise navigate the name and gender change process. No one takes care of its own like the trans community.
One of the loveliest experiences of my life has been realizing that I’ve forgotten a trans friend’s old name. Realizing that I consistently call myself by my own name in my own internal monologue is up there as well. Having government institutions — and, thus, TSA agents, doctors, the Postal Service, teachers, insurance companies — do the same can be transformative.
The impact of organizations like TLC and TLDEF, and the name and gender change clinics that they run, is hard to understate. It often feels like the process is intentionally confusing, difficult, and expensive, part and parcel of the trans-antagonistic culture in which we live. Our names are intimately connected with our identities, and not having access to a name that reflects who we are is damaging psychologically and practically.
These organizations, the community members who fundraise and donate to trans people trying to get access to affirming legal documents, and the family and friends who support us emotionally as we navigate a tricky process are literally saving our lives.