What’s In A Name? A Lot Of Paperwork, Actually
11:57 AM EST on December 26, 2023
The story from the trans sci-fi collection Meanwhile, Elsewhere that's stickiest in my brain is one that shouldn't really be sci-fi at all. "The Gift," by Ryka Aoki, depicts the transition of a high-school girl as a short, easy process—one in which the biggest problems of a very first week out as trans are figuring out how to talk to boys and not having enough experience to be good at cheerleading. With a quick, straightforward experience of coming out across family, church, and school, wheels greased by acceptance and affirmation at every stage, the protagonist, Samantha, is left only to worry about being a teen and not the emotional drain of frayed relationships or the dizzying logistics of actually getting everything you need to function as a trans person.
My own experience, as everyone's, has been choppier and more consistently hindered by gatekeepers, financial obstacles, and layers of bureaucracy. But one of my new year's resolutions for 2023 was to legally change my name to the one I actually use in real life, something I'd put off for years because it seemed overwhelming, like changing banks or trying to figure out what my health insurance actually covers. The incongruity of an official male name only occasionally caused minor inconveniences—when I needed to add to a tab with a suspicious bartender, for example, or do invoices for freelance work before Defector started. My old name, in essence, played the role of a social security number—necessary information that holds no real emotional import—but the inconsistencies were just enough that I couldn't let them linger forever. Most of being an adult is making appointments for yourself that you don't really want to make. Which reminds me, actually: I need to find a new dentist in 2024.
I kept notes on every step I took, expecting the process to be fraught with drama and conflict. I knew the world wasn't anything like the one in "The Gift." I didn't trust anyone else to really do the work of getting my documents right unless I absolutely forced them to do it. But ultimately, thanks in part to the flexibility my job offers, it wasn't so bad. It still took effort and planning but, all told, very little discomfort. In case it's useful, however, here's how I did the piece-by-piece process in the state of New York.
January 9: The first thing I did was fill out the New York City name change form. It's pretty straightforward, asking for personal information and checking for things like child support or bankruptcy declarations. Under reasons I just put "I'm trans, and I'm changing my name to officially match the name I've used for years in my day-to-day life." That's it. I then printed it and made an appointment with a notary near the Defector office. It was quick and impersonal, less intimate than checking out at the grocery store. She didn't even ask me any questions about the thing she was notarizing.
Immediately, I walked to the courthouse, which was only about 10 minutes away. There was just one person ahead of me in line at the window on the ninth floor, where a careful, older man behind the counter looked at my documents. When he noticed I was missing a proof of address, he let me email him a bank statement and then printed it out. He added variations on my deadname—middle initial, no middle name—to the petition, then made copies and personally redacted with a marker. With all my stuff, he sent me down to the third floor to pay. I didn't have to wait in line there, but I also didn't have enough cash, so that clerk sent me to an ATM on the ground floor. That ATM was out of order, but a cop sitting next to it directed me to the deli across the street. I went, got the money, returned to the courthouse, passed the metal detectors, and rode back up to the third floor. Luckily, because I'd given the notary a $20 for a $5 transaction, I had the $65 I needed. (There was a sign at the cashier that said exact change, please.)
There was no line again. I paid, got the proof that I paid, and moseyed back up to the ninth floor. There were two people ahead of me this time, but it still went fairly quickly. I found out I was the 39th name change so far this year. The man there had me wait off to the side while he typed up a few things. I read The Call-Out by Cat Fitzpatrick. After maybe 10 minutes he returned and had me sign what he'd typed. He called out my deadname, which was an interesting choice on his part. I thought Oh, I guess kind of soon that won't really happen anymore. He said I'd hear back via phone or email within 30-60 days.
February 15: I got it! It was just a form email with the subject line "NAME CHANGE GRANTED." I had been very slightly anxious about the wait. I think I said "Oh my god" out loud, even though I was by myself doing blog stuff. I got a little more stressed, honestly, thinking about all the other forms and paperwork I still had to do—bank, insurance, work, drivers license, social security, birth certificate, and my special Gay Capitalist account on E-Trade. Why do I have to have so many frickin' things with my name on them?
February 16: I was used to the courthouse, which meant I could deploy my mental map to navigate the hallways without looking at signs and ride the snail-like elevator without being concerned that I would wither away and die in there. The clerk on the ninth floor (different guy) got my copies of the court order quickly, and even though I'd done research and knew how many I wanted for each separate change, he was still eager to walk me through why I needed the number I did (five). That's one for each government record I wanted changed, one for me to hold on to, and one more just in case. (The private places, in my experience, let you use a regular copy machine or a PDF.) The guy who certified the copies on the third floor was also sweet—a little self-effacing about all the steps needed to officially certify something. There are a lot of steps! But then it was done, and I just had a very cool document ordering everyone to use my name and replace M with F. I made my appointment at the Department of Motor Vehicles for next week, on a day off I took in exchange for writing blogs on a Sunday.
February 23: I shouldn't have waited until the day before to get all my little DMV proofs of identity and residence together, but after a trip to the library to use the printer, I was all set. My fear was that they’d tell me I'd need to change my social security or something before my ID. Or they would yell at me for not updating my current address with them when I moved two-and-a-half years ago. (I updated with the voter registration people at least!) But I prepped as much as possible. I even did my taxes well in advance so I wouldn't have to deal with any name limbo there.
February 24: I had to wake up early for the DMV. It was as dull and dreary an atmosphere as you'd expect, with plenty of agitated people who were there for much more urgent reasons than I was. But I still got out in less than two hours. It was a foreboding start when the computer that printed out my number took literally two minutes to load it, but the waiting afterwards wasn't too bad. (I used the time to read Wrestling Observer Newsletter.) I didn't even need all the documents I thought I did—just my application, current license, social security card, and the court order. I don't know if this was supposed to happen, because I couldn't keep it when I switched out my previous state for New York in 2018, but I left holding my old license, which means I retained a photo ID along with my paper temporary one until my new thing came in the mail.
March 8: I got my ID. It felt weirdly anticlimactic. Like, I was a little breathless when I realized what the envelope was. But when I opened it and looked at the card, it barely felt different from the old one. With only a couple of words in tiny font changed, it certainly did not beckon me through a brand-new threshold. I mean, it was cool, but it looked the same and my picture was almost as awkward. But it was nice! It didn't feel like a reward in itself—really just a gateway to more work—but now, with this ID, I could move on to the next things.
March 13: This was the day I really buckled down on the next big changes: birth certificate, Social Security, bank and credit card, my airline miles, and my investment platform. I researched what each of them needed—some want scanned files, some physical items I have to mail—and made copies at the Defector office. For Delta and American Express, I submitted digitally, and my Delta account changed within just a few minutes of making the submission. I got another notary for my bank form, and then I went to the post office to send documents off to the bank, E-Trade, and a $66 money order for the state of Michigan, where I was born. Social Security I was able to mostly do online, but I needed to go into their office within 45 days to show my documentation. I was wiped.
March 21: I went to the Social Security office in the morning, delaying the start of my work day. I waited for maybe an hour or so with an Umberto Eco book, then had a brief interaction with a woman who looked at the documents and processed the change. Foucault's Pendulum was by far the most mentally taxing part of the experience.
April 7: I got my Social Security card today, and my bank and investment platform correspondence worked as planned. I mailed a letter to each, and at some point they switched over with no fanfare, and then I got a letter back confirming the change. I received my new credit card, as well, and after a brief bank phone call I was expecting a debit card in the mail, too. Still waiting on the birth certificate from Michigan, but that was supposed to take about six weeks. I also emailed my landlord (never heard back, but I already had both new and old names on the lease anyway), and our HR pals at Defector were in the process of getting my name changed on my benefits. The to-do list was very small by this point!
April 20: I got my new insurance card, my debit card, and coolest of all, my birth certificate. I decided that means I'm basically done. Putting the two side by side, the paper quality of my new birth certificate isn't anywhere near what it apparently was in 1995—if the old one was a royal decree, this is a doctor's invoice. But looking at it, with both the real name and the F, it felt like I just pulled off a magic trick, or successfully traveled back in time to subtly fix history.
May 6: What I initially thought would be a miserable grind, a la my experiences with our beautiful American health care system, ended officially with the universe smiling on me. I told a bunch of people, for months, that my treat for myself after completing all these tasks would be a first-time purchase at Tiffany—a silly materialistic craving I've had for a long time. On behalf of the whole of Defector, Sabs got me a (relatively) modest gift card for my birthday, and I went all dressed up to their just-remodeled flagship store in the afternoon. It's kind of like the DMV, if you replaced all the plastic with diamonds. I picked out a little necklace I loved—among their very cheapest items, but still significantly more than the card covered—and when the very cool woman helping me couldn't run the card (the reopening had come with some issues all week, she said), she went to the back. When she returned, she offered to wrap it up. We small talked a little, I asked what else I should make sure to check out in the store (it's a pretty awesome space), and she offered to take me with her to some of the dining collection. She got up, and I was like "Wait, don't I need to pay for the rest of this?" and she replied, "Oh, no, it all went through." A quick check with Sabs confirmed that they weren't overcharged for the gift card, so my name-change journey concluded with my own personal 70-percent off sale at Tiffany.
December 18: I still don't like the picture on my new ID, but life's a little less fragmented when it comes to doctor's visits, or money business, or picking up packages, or paying at those weird takeout places that just pluck the name off your credit card. My old name only shows up on junk mail now, which I can easily identify, and it's otherwise irrelevant.
By the way, before I did the legal change, I didn't exactly have a real middle name. Well, I had one, the old one, but when people asked me mine, I never really had an actual answer. This process, however, forced me to come up with one, and while I didn't actually mind the idea of keeping it James, my dad's name, I asked my mom for her thoughts because I knew she had Lauren in her head all the way back in 1995. She sent me a picture from her baby shower that I hadn't seen before. Nothing about me was certain yet, so half the poster said Lauren Nicole. I went with it.
Unlike James, there isn't a family connection here. She just thought it sounded nice. I guess this is the story behind it now.