transgender issues

How Transgender People Choose Their New Names

Nametags on cork board
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

With three simple and straightforward words — “Call me Caitlyn” — we met Caitlyn Jenner on Monday, in a gorgeous and groundbreaking Vanity Fair cover. The new first name, on the one hand, echoes the famous K-names in the Kardashian clan; and yet, at the same time, the C sets Caitlyn slightly apart, as subtly unique and independent.

For many transgender people, choosing a new name is the first outward claim on their new identity. “It helps [other] people to start seeing and thinking about you differently — even if your body hasn’t changed, or if body changes aren’t part of your transition plan, they still have to call you something different,” said Colt Keo-Meier, a clinical psychologist in Houston who works with the transgender community there (and happens to be transgender himself). Certainly, not everyone who transitions will change their name, either because they’ve already got a gender-neutral name — Alex, Taylor, Jamie — or because they simply don’t feel the need to have a name that matches their gender identity. But for many, it’s a symbolic and visible step.

There are, of course, as many stories behind name changes as there are people who’ve changed them, but clinical psychologists who counsel transgender people say that there are a few common themes they tend to hear. “Most often, they have chosen a name a long time ago, and initially kept this very private,” said Walter Brockting, a professor of medical psychology and co-director of the LGBT Health Initiative at Columbia University Medical Center, in an email.

That’s (kind of) what happened with Fred McConnell. “I used to collect names, mostly boys’ names, for my kids one day,” said McConnell, a Sydney-based writer for The Guardian who recently published a column describing his decision to change his name to Fred. “Then I realized, I kind of always knew these were names I’d like for myself.”

At first, McConnell thought he wouldn’t change his given name — it was already pretty gender neutral, he said. (McConnell — and several others interviewed for this story — asked me not to use their former names.) But he found he had a hard time convincing some people in his life to take his transition seriously. “I couldn’t communicate to people that this was a serious change. I’d always been a real tomboy, masculine presenting,” McConnell said. Under his old name, he could tell people he was now living as a man, “but no one believed me,” he said. “So it was a decision I made as much for other people as I did for me. As long as I had that old name, people aren’t going to get it.”

So one afternoon, with his mom at his side in the family living room, he took the list of about a dozen names he’d been carefully curating his whole life, and cross-referenced it with a family tree. One name stood out: Frederic. “My mom was immediately like, Oh yeah, I really like Fred — that’s it,” McConnell remembers. “It was almost as quick as that.”

But there are other ways to imbue a new name with familial meaning. Unlike some who might relish the opportunity to rename themselves, Sophie Labelle, a 27-year-old artist in Montreal, hated the pressure. “I kept changing my name,” she said, “like, four times.” Emily, Genevieve — nothing felt right, until, at last, Sophie did. “I was talking with my father, who told me if I’d been assigned female at birth, that’s the name my parents would have given me,” she said.

Others still want to keep something of their given name, like Z Egloff, whose given name, Elizabeth, first became Betsy, and then simply Z (a nickname from college, as in Bets-Z). “Z, just the letter Z,” is how she usually introduces herself now; she legally changed her first name to the initial about a decade ago. Though she prefers female pronouns, she says she feels both male and female, which is why something ambiguous like Z feels right. “It still feels like me, but in a way that’s really true to who I am,” she said.

Or there’s Simon Eliot Smith, who had already established a career writing about social-justice issues under the byline S.E. Smith and wanted to keep his given initials. The name Simon came to him almost out of nowhere. “I one day picked up the phone and answered with that name,” he said. And that, essentially, was that. The name instantly felt familiar, though he can’t articulate exactly why, beyond the fact that he just felt like a Simon. He’s not Christian, but he likes the religious aspect of the name, particularly “the history of the apostles evangelizing for Christ,” he said. “And I feel like a big part of my job is evangelizing for … social justice in general.”

Smith’s name change didn’t make the cover of Vanity Fair, but when he changed it legally it did appear in the local newspaper, which, where he lives, is almost the same thing. “I live in a small town, so the things that reliably get read are the police reports and the legal announcements. … It was almost like a birth announcement,” he said.

Kind of like Smith’s name, Keo-Meier’s came to him quickly. Nearly a decade ago, he was at his very first transgender support group meeting, the first time he’d ever reached out to the community. He knew he’d have to introduce himself, and he didn’t want to tell the group his given name. He had, he estimated, about 20 minutes to rename himself. He racked his brain, mentally rifling through all the men he could think of whom he knew and admired, finally recalling someone whose last name was Colton. The name brought to mind a kind of young, masculine energy — and it didn’t hurt that Colt was the name of his favorite character in the 1992 film 3 Ninjas. He introduced himself as Colt. It stuck.

One Sunday morning about a year later, during church, the priest gave a sermon that might as well have been just for Keo-Meier. The reading was from Luke 19: “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there … .Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Even today, he said, it feels like a message of acceptance, and it provided him with the courage to stand up to those who didn’t understand why he had to make this change. “And if anyone asks you why,” he said, paraphrasing the passage, “tell them God needed you to.”

How Transgender People Choose Their New Names