Alias Smith or Jones

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.


OK, maybe not quite that bad…

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.

hr dilemmaSo 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.

Isn’t it?

Thanks for reading – more about recent progress next time.


13 thoughts on “Alias Smith or Jones

  1. Sometimes I wonder if I made the wrong decision just changing my initials – Bob doesn’t begin with K – but changing one’s surname is a whole other level of upheaval. At least my signature is enough of a scribble that I won’t have to change it. I imagine you will have to develop a new signature, which I suspect will feel very jarring at least at first.

    For all that I know your old and new surnames and, well, I understand. Also, your new surname is in my contacts list on my phone so when I get an email from you it says “Ruth Newsurname”

    • Thanks Kirsty. I think I’ll be quite happy with a new signature – my current illegible scrawl is the product of a cheque-signing mandate Bob had years ago that resulted in me developing the quickest way to make my mark, having to do so many times each day.

  2. Well, I went the whole hog and never doubted that I needed to. It’s a forename I always liked, and a surname I deliberated over quite a bit, and chose to go fluidly and naturally with the new forename. People told me that my new name sounded genuine and not made-up. My niece thought it very English in a Jane Austenish way. Brilliant. And eight years on from 2009, it fits me like a glove.

    You never get rid of the old life. You can keep it private, that’s all. I view it as a phase in my general development as a person, when I couldn’t see what I was, and was way too eager to do what people in my life then expected of me. Like your experience, it had its great moments. But I vastly prefer my present life. It feels like a fresh start, a new deal, and I’m glad that no part of my new name links me with the past.

    My old self increasingly seems like my twin brother, not heard of since 2009. It may one day become credible to mention him as my deceased twin brother. Maybe.

    Lucy Melford

    • Thanks Lucy. Your thoughts about Bob’s past life seem to echo what many say, in particular about that need to try and ‘fit in’. It’s something I certainly recall doing – often painfully so.

      New start, new name seems to make sense.

  3. By the time I got to the end of your blog post it sounded to me like you have made up your mind already. In a way, transitioning to live in one’s true gender is a fresh start, where everything should finally feel right… so as you have had such a lengthy period of anguish with your current surname having to correct people in one respect or another, I’d be very much in favour in your situation of changing it to something that you like… whatever that might be.

    A fresh start? I really wouldn’t recommend that to anyone unless they are currently living or working in a place full of bigoted people or have a job that is within a particularly macho environment that might well be unpleasant to continue in as a woman. I don’t see that as being the case with you, to-date pretty much everyone has embraced the new you, and that is at least in part because you are a very nice and decent person, thus I see no reason why that will not continue in the work place. More importantly, your job is essentially an HR type role which one would hope should provide an almost ultimate level of protection… but even more than that at least part of what you do seems to be to do with the formulation of a policy in respect of transgender personnel… and, if so, then what better than the direction to come from the horse’s mouth… so to speak – you can provide first-hand direction and input to shape policies and procedures without having to be in an attention-grabbing limelight position like some seem to (bizarrely, in my opinion) desire.

    • Thanks Andrea – you’re very kind! Yes, I think my mind is made up but writing it down has helped – as indeed have the comments. It comes down to what we’ve often said before, in that it doesn’t really matter if others know our background as long as they’re friendly and respectful.

      Watch this space for further workplace news… 🙂

  4. Parents! Why do parents and their parents and countless generations before them continue to use ridiculous surnames?

    “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.” This rang a bell with me, I hated any utterance of the name I was forced to carry for so long. It was not a terrible name though many managed to misspell it often enough. I chose a new name for the real me and it is now a joy to hear it spoken.

    Choosing children’s names is a lottery at the best of times, I think that they should be temporary for everyone and changeable when reaching an age like 18, the world would be a happier place…

    • Thanks! Someone once told me the whole point of middle names was to give people a choice in later life – gender dysphoria notwithstanding – but few seem to take it.

      I think much depends on your personality as to whether an unusual surname is a blessing or a burden. My late elder brother carried it with pride – as an extravert it helped him stand out both in business and sport – whereas I can only ever remember cringing at its mention from an early age.

  5. Whoops! I’m arriving to this very late, but I’m going to comment anyway.

    It sounds like you know what you want to do, so I won’t waste time on advice 🙂 I did heavily consider changing my surname but instead decided not to, but for a bit of a different reason. I am Mia Violet online, but decided to go for Mia Violet *Surname* as my actual full name. I debated simply being Mia Violet, but realised having a bit of distance between the two might come in handy (for instance at my day job they just know me as Mia *Surname*). That was the idea at the time anyway, in actuality I’m now thinking I’m going to drop the surname eventually as I have absolutely 0 attachment to it and consider myself to simply be Mia Violet.

    On the topic of fresh starts though, I certainly am very happy I made one myself and moved away to transition. But that was also about a change of scenery and leaving behind an awkward family situation too. I always think of it in terms of transition allowing a good excuse to move away and start again if that’s something you already want, but it’s certainly not a necessity. It’s a nice bonus that new friends and new colleagues have no frame of reference for me being anyone other than who I am now.

    • Thanks Mia! You’re right – I have made my mind up that Bob’s surname is going. Any remaining doubts I may have had have evaporated for a variety of reasons. When I told my manager at work (more soon!) what my name will be, her immediate reaction was, ‘ooh, that’s a pretty name.’ I promise you, no-one has ever, ever in my life before reacted that way to Bob’s name. And yes, it offers the opportunity if not exactly for a clean break from the past, then certainly a re-boot where I can keep the supportive connections while effectively becoming invisible to others.

  6. Good for you, Ruth, for giving the matter of your new name so much thought, and also for not taking your surname for granted. It seems that my situation was similar to yours — my old surname is rare, and people meeting it for the first time would probably either misspell it or mispronounce it — it is a relief to be able to choose a new surname, and choose and use a simple one.

    One option that some transitioning people might like to consider is changing their surname to the maiden surname of their mother or other ancestor. That would retain a family link — if, of course, they want to do that.

    • Thanks Rosie. Funnily enough that’s exactly what I’ve done – the surname I’ve chosen has existed in the family before and thus I feel I’m maintaining some kind of link to the past, but on my terms.

      Great blog of yours, by the way – well-written and insightful. I’m enjoying catching up – and I hope your recovery continues to progress well.

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