Understanding the complexity of our names, dead names with respect

by Allie Fireel

On January first of this year, Parker James went down to the probate office and changed his name.

Though he’d first told his partner that he was trans nearly five years ago, it wasn’t until the last year or so that Parker got serious about transitioning, and a big piece of that was changing his name to Parker. 

For many trans and non-binary people coming out, choosing a name is a big deal. And there isn’t a set of rules to help us figure it out. 

Like Parker, I’m trans, though I’m nonbinary. I started using my name on December 1st 2019; my fortieth birthday.  I haven’t done the legal parts yet. I have to admit that I’m still afraid to. It feels like such a huge step. But I’ve told everyone one in my life, and started using my new name professionally. (Shout out to The LEO for changing my byline on all my old stories!!) 

But where do our new names come from? Like a lot of trans stuff, it’s hard for a lot of us to put into words.  Some of that difficulty comes from the ways trans people feel about names. 

So- time for some Trans 101 just in case you haven’t had this explained to you. 

You may have heard the phrase “dead name” or maybe even the verb form “dead naming.”  It basically means talking to a trans person and using the name they were given at birth. Though it’s best to ere on the side of caution and not ever deadname anyone, trans folks do not all feel the same way about their deadname. 

Personally it doesn’t bother me much, and  I don’t even really like to use the phrase deadname to talk about my birth name. (But if you try to go tell a trans person that deadnaming them is fine because Allie Fireel doesn’t care, I. Will. Cut. You. respect their name and their feelings.)  For some, hearing their deadname is deeply hurtful. Sometimes it’s only a big deal when being deadnamed is clearly a sign that someone -perhaps a family member or co-worker- is purposefully being disrespectful. 

So names are twisted all up in our feelings, and other than that, I can’t really speak any universal truth. It’s different for everyone.  

I decided to reach out to a couple of friends and ask where their name came from. (Yes all trans people know each other, yes I’m kidding, no you can’t make that joke without it being transphobic.) 

So- without any further ado, meet some of my friends, and learn what’s in a name- specifically what’s in their names. 

Parker James

Parker was pretty pragmatic about picking his name, but it was tough. 

“That was the hardest part. Trying to figure out a name. I’m  like, ‘nothing sounds right.’”

He considered “Tyler,” until noticing that there are already way too many Tylers at his work. He also tried “Bryce.” 

“So I had  people at work start calling me (Bryce), and the first person to call me that, I was like ‘No. Nope. I don’t like it.’” 

Finally, the right name just… happened. 

“And then all of a sudden I landed on Parker James.”

Parker said that the legal bit of the name change was pretty easy,  it’s all the other places he had to change his name that made it exhausting. 

“You don’t really realize how many accounts you have until you start trying to change your name. And I’m still not completely done with it.”

Jenn Gabhart (Female, she/hers)

Jenn Gabhart says she pretty much always knew she was trans, and that before she publicly changed her name and came out, she had gone by Jenn for almost ten years. 

When Jenn needed to be hospitalized for pancolitis, she decided to tell everyone her name, because why deal with the extra stress of using her dead name in the hospital?

She got mixed reactions when she told her family; her brother and dad were okay with it, but it took her mother longer to come around. 

When she was being admitted to the hospital, she didn’t have to tell the nurse about being trans, because the nurse doing intake saw that Jenn was on medicines that suggested Jenn was probably trans. 

“She saw the list of medicine I was on, and asked if I had a different name I prefered to use.”

Jenn says “Jenn” doesn’t have some complex or epic story. 

“I just wanted a name that was phonetically similar to my birth name. And of the available options, Jenn fit me the best. And I spell it with 2 N’s because I have to be special… And that’s my legal name, some people assume it’s short for ‘Jennifer,’ It is not.”

Cassie Bilyeu

Cassie Bilyeu’s name is a little more connected to ideas, and more mythic. Cassie is also a writer, so we decided to let her explain it all in her own words.

“I didn’t tell people my name right away after I came out as trans.  I wanted to sorta ease people into the concept, not frighten anyone off.  It already seems like a big ask, asking people to change how they think of you.  But everyone said it fit me. They probably have to say that. But that sorta clinched it.

I go by Cassie, because Cassandra seems a little formal for everyday use. Years before I was conscious of my trans identity, I’d use (Cassie) in computer games or for RPG characters.  I think the first encounter I had with the name was a character is 90’s YA sci-fi series Animorphs. Cassie wasn’t my favorite character, but I must have noted the name. And I remember very clearly asking the first Cassie I’d met in real life if she knew the origins of her name. 

The Greek mythological Cassandra could see the future but she was cursed to never be believed, which is very trans.  She would tell people her truth, and they would say, ‘nah.’ So it’s always seemed appropriate to me.”

Allie Fireel 

My birth name is Elisha. Sounds like “Eli,” plus “sha.” As you may have noticed, on the page it can easily be mistaken for “Alicia,” and all my life people have mispronounced it as such. 

When I was a kid, on the first day of a new school, or starting a new sport at the YMCA, or CCD or whatever, the adult in charge would read out “Alicia” and all the elementary school boys were immediately off and running with gender based insults and torments. 

I learned quickly to shrug it off, to undercut the jokes, to push away any association with the femaleness of the name Alicia. It was a precurser to the amount of time I’d spend struggling with gender based and homophobic insults for the rest of my life, and the many times I’d try to hide any female or soft qualities. The large number of unicorn posters I had was not a fact I shared much in public. 

When I came out as trans non-binary, I didn’t plan to change my name. Theoretically i was open to the idea, but didn’t feel the need to go hunting around for a new moniker. I told people who asked I would only change my name if something cosmically perfect occurred to me. 

And then it did. One minute my name was Eli, and the next minute my name was Alicia. People have called me that name for as long as I can remember.  So it was kind of like I wasn’t changing my name at all, just embracing the name my parents unintentionally gave me the day I was born.

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