I’d better warn you in advance. This is one of my occasional ‘thinking aloud’ posts, and so is likely to ramble all over the place before helping me to reach some kind of conclusion. Hopefully.
At some point in the not too distant future I’ll be changing my name legally. On the face of it, it’s a foregone conclusion – I’m Ruth, so all I need to do is get rid of the Bob, right? For most people, I imagine that’s quite a straightforward decision: Bob Smith becomes Ruth Smith, end of. As I explain elsewhere on this blog, my parents made no secret of the fact that Ruth would have been my given name right from the beginning, had Mother Nature not been distracted for a crucial moment when dishing out the chromosomes all those years ago. I even have a middle name in mind that I’m guessing would have also come my way, one that belonged to my great-grandmother, and which my mother always said she’d have preferred to have been given herself. I happen to like it, too… but I’m not telling you what that is just yet.
It’d actually be much easier if my surname really were Smith, because what complicates matters is the fact I was cursed with a rather unusual and distinctive surname – one that has been a source of comment, curiosity and occasional mirth from others all my life. Like the rest of my family, I’ve learned to shrug off the inquisitiveness and inappropriate comments but, as anyone with a non-standard surname will testify, it gets a bit wearing after a while. That’s even before we get on to misspellings – there are few who get it right first time, and even people I’ve known for donkey’s years still get it wrong. Sigh.
I realise I have a heaven-sent opportunity to leave all this behind. If I’m going to change my name through transition, then why not go the whole hog and fix my surname too? In fact, had I realised at an earlier age that changing one’s name was as easy as it appears to be, I’d have probably done it a long time ago.
If I do, it’ll once and for all put an end to a lifetime of constantly correcting mispronunciations and misspellings. My mother told the tale many years ago of explaining her new married name using Fingerspell to a hearing-impaired friend, almost caused a falling out between the two of them as the friend thought my mother was taking the rise out of her. Personally, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to respond to well-intentioned comments on the lines of, “Oh, that’s an unusual name, where does it come from?” Yes it is – and no, I haven’t a fecking clue.
So I have an alternative surname in mind. Not just some random creation, but one which has existed previously in my family and while still distinctive, doesn’t raise eyebrows or questions about its origin, and can really only be spelled one way. Let’s call it Jones. Thus it solves a life-long problem in more ways than one. Also – in theory at least – Bob Smith would effectively disappear forever as I become Ruth Jones.
I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that in UK law anyone who transitions has the right to be able to sever links with their past if they wish. I believe that’s the whole point of the Gender Recognition Certificate and associated equality rights. If we want, effectively we get the chance to wipe the slate clean, to the extent that an employer or any other organisation can be deemed to be acting illegally if they wilfully reveal a person’s transgender history to anyone who doesn’t need to know, for example through shoddy procedures or record-keeping. I have to say I’m not sure how that actually works in practice – for example what happens with employment references, security and credit checks etc. – but that’s the theory at least; future anonymity and protection .
But that then raises the question of how wise it would be to try and do some kind of disappearing act. I’ll admit that a fresh start has its appeal, and means that I’d be able to leave behind all the people and connections that have no place in my life anymore, and who don’t know about my transition. But I can’t help thinking it might create more problems than it solves, because despite the obvious appeal to the contrary, I can see disadvantages to severing all links with the past – the most significant being whether I’m actually being true to myself in doing so, or simply hiding? If I were to keep my existing surname, there’d be continuity but at the cost of more people knowing – possibly including some I might think needn’t know – that I’m transitioning, as it wouldn’t take a genius to make the connection. I guess it’d also provide some continuity professionally, rather than colleagues and clients thinking Bob has left the building and been replaced by a new girl.
I imagine most others in my situation keep their surname – famously, women such as Stephanie Hirst and Rebecca Root have done so, plus other less well-known friends– but maybe they’re all happier with theirs than I am mine – and their past too. I’ve certainly no intention of trying to deny or forget what’s gone before.
One topic that comes up in the blogosphere and forums from time to time that may be relevant here is how we feel regarding the Bob Years. I know there are some who feel so strongly about their identity that they treat that earlier part of their life as if it never happened. They seem to literately hate Bob and everything he stood for, and want to leave him behind. I’m not sure if that’s ever going to be possible without simultaneously moving home, changing job and severing all contact with friends and family – including not telling anyone your new name or whereabouts, but I dare say people do it, even though it would be akin to how I imagine a witness protection scheme might be.
Personally, while I wish there hadn’t been quite so many of them, I don’t look back on the Bob Years with any particular bitterness. There are plenty of good memories, lots of love and friendship and wonderful people I don’t want to leave behind. People who know all about my journey – or if they don’t already, soon will – aren’t really bothered whether it’s Bob or Ruth who’s their friend and are happy to support any decisions I may make. As we occasionally need to remind people, transition doesn’t involve a personality transplant; we’re still the same person, only happier.
So given I’ve no desire to transition anonymously, is there any point to my dilemma? Would a wholesale change of name make the future easier, or just add another layer of complication? There’s no necessity, so any decision would be purely cosmetic. Yet as I roll my likely future name in full over and over in my mind, it feels good, has a resonance and rhythm that I’ve not had before. I can say it out loud with confidence, something I’ve never been able to do. Bob has always felt rather apologetic and self-conscious about his name when forced to say it out loud, in the same way he’s never really liked looking in the mirror – but that’s all changed now.
It seems a long time ago now, but I have a clear ‘landmark’ memory of the very first time I had my hair fixed properly, looking in the mirror and actually liking who I saw looking back. It was a revelation that I’ve never forgotten. Similarly, I’ve tried saying both alternatives for my new name out loud and whilst the first option is palatable, the complete change involving a different surname not only sounds better, but also feels utterly natural. I can’t help thinking this is how it probably is for most people with uncomplicated surnames matched with well-thought-out first names throughout their life – except of course that they probably never notice.
So if a complete change of name feels inexplicably right and lightens my heart in the same way as the reflection of the new me in the mirror, it’s probably a no-brainer. And if my choice confuses others, complicates systems and processes etc., then that’s someone else’s problem, not mine.
Thanks for reading – more about recent progress next time.