Arts & Life
Wed April 10, 2013
The Prickly Process Of Changing Your Name
Originally published on Thu April 11, 2013 1:00 pm
Names are possessions that we carry with us all our lives. But we seldom think about what goes into picking the right one. Some choose to change their first names in adulthood, because of family history or pure disdain for a moniker. For Silas Hansen, the reason was that he's transgender. In a piece for the Colorado Review, subsequently published at Slate.com, he wrote about deciding, at 24, to leave his birth name, Lindsay Rebecca, behind.
"It was a very lengthy process for me that kind of mirrored my process of coming to terms with the fact that I am transgender," Hansen tells NPR's Neal Conan.
"I had been wondering for a few years whether or not this was the right path for me. And as I was doing that, I was looking at names and thinking, you know, is this the right name for me if I decide to do this?"
Hansen considered keeping his birth name, Lindsay, since it is a unisex name.
"Lindsay, to me, seems very feminine," Hansen says. "I think it used to be more of a masculine name, but now it seems much more feminine, and so it just didn't feel right to me."
Hansen went through lots of names searching for a good fit. It was a lengthy process.
"I know some friends who when they transitioned, they did use the name that their parents had chosen for them if they were a different gender," he explains.
He knew that his parents planned to name him Scott if he'd been born a boy, but he said that didn't seem right either.
"That's not who I see myself as. And so I decided not to go with that one."
Hansen also had a generational factor to consider. Would he choose a name that is popular now, or that was popular decades ago when he was born?
"I know a lot of trans guys who have chosen names that are very trendy right now. And so they end up being names that a lot of 3-year-olds or 4-year-olds have, and then they're 25."
Someone suggested that Hansen look for names that connected to his family heritage and could fit nicely with his last name. That's when he came across the name Silas, a name with biblical origins.
"It's a name I've always kind of liked," he says. "And so it felt right to me after that."
Next, Hansen had to inform everyone around him of the change. He tried the name out on his friends first.
"I asked people to start calling me that the same time that I asked them to use male pronouns and explain to them that I was transgender. So it was kind of a big transition all at the same time."
He sent an email to all of his friends asking them to use the name Silas, and it took a few weeks for it to really stick.
Hansen remembers practicing introductions with his new name in the mirror, and hesitating before giving his name at restaurants and coffee shops. "At first I was worried that it wasn't the right name for me, or that I'd made a mistake in deciding to transition, and that I was going to have to, you know, pick a different name or tell them that I'd been wrong."
He waited several months to inform his family, and they embraced the new name quickly. Though his grandmother often accidentally calls him Cyrus.
"But she tries really hard, so I appreciate that."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Most of us carry the name our parents gave us for the rest of our lives, whether we like it much or not. A few adults decide to change their names. My grandfather did. Born Cornelius, he was bore - called Connie, which he hated. So he went to court to change his name to Neal, on his 21st birthday. Silas Hansen had a more compelling reason: He's transgender. And in a piece for slate.com, he wrote: I have always disliked my birth name, Lindsay Rebecca. I disliked it even in preschool, long before I understood why it didn't feel like it fit.
So if you have changed your first name as an adult, what did you pick and why; 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Silas Hansen's essay about his transition and name change was part of an MFA thesis that he's just defended at the Ohio State University. He joins us from WOSU, our member station on the campus there. Thanks for being with us on the program, and how did it go?
SILAS HANSEN: It went really well. Thank you for having me. It's been kind of a big day but...
CONAN: I bet. Yeah. So this was an oral examination?
HANSEN: It's more informal than that. It's mostly kind of an informal workshop session with your committee.
CONAN: OK. So well, we're glad you took the time out afterwards, to join us. And I know from reading your piece, some of your friends pointed out Lindsay can be a man's name, too; you didn't have to change anything, except maybe the Rebecca.
HANSEN: Mm-hmm. I thought about that but Lindsay, to me, seems very feminine. I think it used to be more of a masculine name but now, it seems much more feminine, and so it just didn't feel right to me.
CONAN: But it was also the name associated with you when - before you made the change.
HANSEN: Yeah. Absolutely. I know some friends, actually, who are transgender, who - they had names before they transitioned that were more androgynous; names like Alex or Jordan, and things like that. But they still chose to change it because it was a signifier that they had transitioned into the person that they'd always thought that they were.
CONAN: And then you get the problem of figuring out, what name is the person you always wanted to be? What name does that person have?
HANSEN: Yeah, that's always the question.
CONAN: And what did you - how did you go about it?
HANSEN: It was a very lengthy process for me, that kind of mirrored my process of coming to terms with the fact that I am transgender. It wasn't something that I just, you know, woke up one day and said, you know, this is what I want to do. I need to find a new name. I had been wondering for a few years whether or not this was the right path for me. And as I was doing that, I was looking at names and thinking - you know, is this the right name for me, if I decide to do this? And then later, when I decided that it is something that I wanted to do, I was asking more - you know, is this right name for when I want to do this?
So I went through a lot of names; looked to see which ones fit for me. I started with names that I liked, but a lot of those were names that other people I knew had. And I didn't want to pick a name that someone I knew had. So it was a lengthy process.
CONAN: Did you ask your parents what they might have named you, had you been a boy when you were born?
HANSEN: I'd always known what they wanted to name me, if I'd been a boy. They were going to name me Scott, but it just didn't seem right to me. That's not who I see myself as. And so I decided not to go with that one. But I know some friends who when they transitioned, they did use the name that their parents had chosen for them if they were a different gender.
CONAN: I was interested - one idea you had was to look at the names that were popular the year you were born.
HANSEN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. It's actually - I know a lot of trans guys who have chosen names that are more popular now, and they're very trendy right now. And so they end up being names that a lot of like, 3-year-olds or 4-year-olds have, and then they're 25.
HANSEN: And I didn't want that but in the end, I ended up picking a name that is much more popular now than it is - or than it was in 1987. So actually, I kind of went against that, so...
CONAN: Well. And one of the reasons you picked it, first of all, your father's heritage is Danish, and you just looked up some names that were popular in Denmark.
HANSEN: Mm-hmm. Yeah. That was something that someone had suggested to me - you know, a family name. In my dad's family, a lot of the men have Danish names; names like Otto, and things like that. And so I was looking at names that felt like they could fit with my last name, that could have connected to me that heritage. And I found the name Silas there, and it's a name I've always kind of liked. And so it felt right to me, after that, so...
CONAN: And so - it's not a Danish name, though.
HANSEN: It's not. It's actually from the Bible. It's the short form of the name Silvanus. And I don't exactly know the biblical story. I'm not - unfortunately - very versed in biblical stories, but I...
CONAN: But now that you've defended your MFA, you can catch up on that sort of thing.
HANSEN: Yeah. Now that I've defended my MFA, I can do that. So it's actually from the Bible. But it's more popular in Denmark, than it is anywhere else. And so it seems like a name that could fit with that. If you Google my name, a lot of the people that show up live in, you know, Odense or Frederiksberg, or places like that. So...
CONAN: So eventually, you decided on Silas. But then you have to tell everybody you're now Silas.
HANSEN: Yeah, yeah. That was a difficult transition to make. So I changed - I asked people to start calling me that the same time that I asked them to use male pronouns, and explained to them that I was transgender. So it was kind of a big transition, all at the same time.
CONAN: And different groups - it's a little like coming out, for some people. You do it with some groups and maybe later, some other groups. So...
HANSEN: Right. Yeah.
CONAN: Your family was not in that first circle.
HANSEN: Yeah. I didn't know if it was right, at first. I was still really uncertain about whether or not it was something I wanted to do. And I knew that my friends - some of my friends already knew that this was something I was considering. And so I tried it with them first because I figured that it would be harder to kind of explain to my parents that I was thinking about this, and ask them to try to make that transition; and then change back to a different - you know, to the original name, if it didn't feel right. So I wanted to make sure before I told them. And so it was a couple months before I told them.
CONAN: And you wrote about an interesting moment, the first time one of your friends called you Silas.
HANSEN: Yeah. In the essay, I talked about that. I sent the email to my friends, asking me - to call me Silas. And then the next day, I was hanging out with some friends; and they had all read the email, but no one had talked to me about it yet. And then they said it, and it felt so weird. I wasn't sure...
HANSEN: It didn't feel like they were talking to me, at first. So it took some getting used to.
CONAN: The elephant in the room was named Silas.
HANSEN: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
CONAN: And have you gotten used to it?
HANSEN: Yeah. I definitely have, at this point. At first, I was worried that it wasn't the right name for me, or that I'd made a mistake in deciding to transition and that I was going to have to, you know, pick a different name or tell them that I'd been wrong. But after a couple weeks, it really started to feel right. I realized that I just had to get used to it. I knew that other people would have to get used to it, but I hadn't expected that I would need to. So that was surprising.
CONAN: Was there a - I think of it as the Robert De Niro "Taxi Driver" moment, where he's talking to himself in the mirror; "Are you talking to me?" Were you sitting there looking at the mirror, saying, "Pass the butter, Silas"?
HANSEN: I did practice saying it in the mirror because I knew that it was a name that I was going to have to introduce myself as, and there were several times I would have to - you know, I'd go into the coffee shop and order something, and they'd ask for a name. And I'd have to think about it before I told them what name to put on the cup. But then around - I told my friends in mid-June, and by early August, I didn't have to remind myself anymore. And it just - it felt right.
And I think I wrote in the essay - I can't remember if it was in that version - about filling out a legal form, and I'd written the name Silas when that wasn't my legal name yet. And I had to ask for a new form, and then I kept having to scribble it out because I would start to write that name, so...
CONAN: Silas Hansen is our guest; changed his name legally, eventually, to that. He is transgender. We want to hear from those of you who have also changed your name as adults. What did you pick and why - 800-989-8255; email, email@example.com. And - well, we have a Lindsay on the line; Lindsay calling us from Fort Collins in Colorado.
LINDSAY: Hi. I changed my name. I was living with my partner in 1978 and her two little girls, and one of them came home and was talking about linsey-woolsey. They had studied linsey-woolsey in school. My birth name is Linda, and I actually liked the name Lindsay. And when we moved the family to California, I changed my name when I got my California license. And since I had been - you know, I was coming out of the closet, and I wanted to - and I was changing my geographic location from Rhode Island to California, I decided to change my first name. And it stuck. It took my family about 10 years to get used to it.
CONAN: But eventually, they got used to it.
LINDSAY: Yes, eventually, they got used to it. They actually - they seemed to adjust more quickly to me coming out of the closet, than me changing my name. (LAUGHTER)
CONAN: That's interesting, that kind of identity. Silas, did you have that same kind of interaction with your family? What was harder, the transgender or the name?
HANSEN: I think they were hard in different ways. I think the name thing was difficult, in terms of just getting used to it and kind of - it was like, the most obvious thing that had changed about me. But I think coming out as transgender was also difficult for them. You know, my parents are very progressive, especially from where I grew up. I grew up in a very small, rural community in upstate New York. And so like, they didn't really have a lot of experience with that. And they did really well with trying to come to terms with that, but I think it took some time. I think both were pretty hard, though.
CONAN: Lindsay, thanks very much. You're totally happy with your choice, I take it.
LINDSAY: Yes. It rings true. It's Lindsay - Leah(ph), is my middle name, so it rings even better than Linda Leah. (LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
LINDSAY: Thank you.
CONAN: Here are some emails. This is from Pam, and she writes: My grandmother was named Estelle(ph). She always wanted a grandchild to be named after her, but none of us chose that name. When I became divorced, I decided to claim Estelle and make it my last name. I am now Pam Estelle and very proud of that name.
And this from Vervag(ph) - excuse me - Ed, rather: I changed my name as an adult because I was named after my abusive father. I couldn't live with his name anymore. I picked my maternal grandfather's first name, and last name of my liking.
And this, from Bruce in Athens, Ohio: My mother's name was Elsie Joyce. She hated the Elsie the Borden cow reference. So at age 68, she made up the name Ejoy(ph) and had it legally changed. She died six years ago.
This is from David: I changed my name in 1985, when I was 10 years old. I was bothered by the fact no one could pronounce my real name correctly. As a child fitting in, it was also very important. I was born in Iran in 1975; moved to the Seattle area when I was 11 months - years - old. My name was Mahoud. And it was not until we moved within the state that I chose a name that I picked out of a baby naming book I borrowed from the local library.
Since 1985, my name was officially changed to David. Being of Iranian descent in the late 1970s, it was a tough time for our family in light of the hostage crisis. It was not until my years of college I became to be proud of my Iranian-American heritage. Nevertheless, I am still very happy with my name change.
We're talking about names with Silas Hansen. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And if you'd like to read a version of the essay he submitted for his MFA - at least, part of that - you can go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Let's go next to Grace. And Grace is with us from Cincinnati.
GRACE: Hello. Let me pick - pardon my voice; I'm getting over the flu.
CONAN: I'm glad you're getting over it, but go ahead.
GRACE: Yeah. I'm in the process of changing my name right now. My birth name is Gay, G-A-Y. And when my parents were first married and then, in the late '50s when I was born, the connotations to the name, obviously, were very different. I was told I was going to be either Holly or Heather, but another lady on the block was naming her child that. So my mom changed it to Gay. And I've hated it all my life, and I just - it wasn't until I got married that I decided make the change.
CONAN: And why did you pick the name Grace?
GRACE: I was actually - I was whinging about it with a group of friends. And a good friend of mine said, well, you're so graceful; you should be called Grace. And we laughed. And I got to thinking about it. And my - at the time my fiance, now my husband, said that he really liked that, and that's why I chose it. It just - it seems to fit, and I'm very happy with the choice.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that, Grace, and we hope you get over the flu quickly.
GRACE: Thanks very much.
CONAN: Appreciate the call. And I know you wrote in your piece, Silas, that you think about names a lot. I wonder - I think there are an awful lot of people, like Grace, who for one reason or another, dislike the name they were given as a child.
HANSEN: I definitely think that that's true. I've talked about it with friends before, and most of - a lot of them will tell me, you know, that's not what I picture myself being called but, you know, that's the name that I've carried for my whole life. And they don't really have the drive to change it, the way that I did, so...
CONAN: Hmm. Well, we've had another Lindsay on the line. This is another Cornelius, Cornelius with us from Fresno.
CORNELIUS: Yes, it is. And I had - I heard you make your comment about, I think you said your grandfather; and I had to stand up for my name a little bit.
CORNELIUS: And yeah, my story is a little different. I didn't actually change my name to Cornelius. Cornelius actually was my first name, but I didn't know it until I was probably about 8 or 9 years old. I had to go register at the Little League, and had to bring my birth certificate. And I remember, distinctly, handing it to the woman there - taking all this information - and this pause, and saying the name Cornelius and looking at me. And I was wondering who the heck that was.
I didn't - I was raised as Pat or Patrick, which is my middle name, and no one ever told me that that was my real name. And so I kind of kept Pat until I got to college and then, you know, registering there, I always got addressed as Cornelius when they would do roll. And I thought, well, you know what? I'm just going to go ahead and become Cornelius. And so I've been that ever since, until - I was about, you know, 18.
And I kind of like it because it always gives me something to talk about and - you know. And I've always - actually, I teach now, at a college here. And my students sometime calls me Dr. Cornelius or Mr. Cornelius instead of like, not knowing that's not - that's my first name, not my last name, so it's...
CONAN: A generation ago, it would have been Don Cornelius, but that's OK.
CORNELIUS: Yeah, that's right. Actually, I say that too, sometimes, because actually, I use it to illustrate some concepts when I teach. And it's really funny, "Planet of the Apes" and all that stuff, depending how old somebody is, they all kind of ring a bell - remember that name there? So even that Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer character, Yukon Cornelius - I've been called Yukon, in the past, as a nickname, too so...
CONAN: The best-known Cornelius changed both his names - Cornelius McGillicuddy to Connie Mack.
CORNELIUS: That's right. Yeah. And no one's ever called me Connie. My father goes by Neal, and his father went by Conn. And again, I was never told that was my real name; I always went by Pat. But it's funny - when people that know me as Cornelius realize that I was actually called Pat at one time, they're kind of surprised. And people that knew me as Pat way back when, when they found out my name was really Cornelius, they don't know what to do with that, either. So it kind of gives people pause. And I like it, so...
CONAN: Well, as long as they avoid Corny.
CORNELIUS: Yep. I get that a lot, too, as you can imagine, so it's - you get used to it. But again, it always gives you something to talk about and, you know, I'm - like I said, I like it, so I just had to kind of call in and stand up for it a little bit there, so...
CONAN: Thanks very much, Cornelius. Appreciate the call.
CORNELIUS: You're welcome.
CONAN: Here's an email that we have. This, from Jillian: I didn't change my name entirely; augmented it by three letters - going from Jill to Jillian when I was 16. My reason was my brother's name. You guessed it - Jack. We were teased mercilessly as children with the old nursery rhyme. After I altered my name, it mostly stopped. That was 26 years ago. My mother hates it, but I've never regretted it.
Silas Hansen, we just have a few seconds left. But has your family finally embraced Silas?
HANSEN: Yeah. They actually did it very quickly. My mom and my grandma started right away. And my dad and my brother have really made that transition pretty easily. My grandma still messes up, sometimes. She calls me Cyrus frequently or misspells it. But she tries really hard, so I appreciate that.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for being with us today. And again, best of luck on that MFA presentation.
HANSEN: Thank you.
CONAN: And Silas Hansen joined us from our member station in Columbus, Ohio - WOSU. His essay, "Blank Slate: How I Chose My New Name," appears on Slate.com. And you can find a link to it on our website. Tomorrow, how parents talk to their daughters about the issue of consent. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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