Rapper and songwriter Kendrick Lamar said this about the power of names: “If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.” Our names are so much a part of us, that we may not even realize the weight they carry. If you are like most people, you were named by your parents and have gone through life without questioning it. However, for many transgender and nonbinary people, a birth name can bring about feelings of dysphoria. This is why there is power in choosing one’s own name, reclaiming and creating an identity that more closely aligns with what one feels on the inside and outside.
Note: Normally News is Out will refer to a person by their last name upon subsequent reference, but since this article is about the power of names, we will be using first names to refer to those featured.
For those interviewed that use multiple pronouns, we will be using them alternately.
“Names are powerful things”
“I always felt like my name didn’t fit and as a child was constantly trying to invent a nickname for myself,” said Dean Phoenix, 55, of Austin, Texas. Dean, who identifies as transgender and nonbinary and uses they/he pronouns, shares that the nickname route never really panned out. However, when they started massage school, classmates took to calling them Dean, their father’s family name. Four years later, a move to a new job inspired them to go by Dean officially.
“My company was great and supportive and I didn’t have many issues having a different legal name and greeting name with no last name,” said Dean. “My clients also were great and never questioned my name.” However, having no last name proved challenging and recently, they settled on a last name that carried a lot of weight – Phoenix.
“Last year, I went through some major transformation and just felt ‘Phoenix’ was the right last name for me…. even though I felt a bit shy about it. But the theme of resurrection and rebirth and what the Phoenix represents is really important to me.”
For Tilly Bridges, a trans woman from Los Angeles who uses she/her pronouns, finding a name that fits just right took a little time. While she hated her deadname, she did like the “ee” sound at the end and wanted to find something with a similar cadence. Once she landed on Tilly, she was pretty much sold.
“Looking at it made me happy, saying it made me happy, hearing it applied to me as a person made me happy. It just felt right. It felt like ME,” said Tilly.
Maebe A. Girl, LA, identifies as trans nonbinary and uses she/they pronouns. Maebe, who has campaigned for California’s 28th Congressional District twice and is running in 2024 for CA-30, started their career as a drag queen and performer. Maebe began as her drag name and eventually moved over into their real life.
“I actually fell in love with the name just because I feel like it perfectly embodies a nonbinary person,” said Maebe. “You know it’s maybe, neither this, nor that.”
Lilyana Arielle Fey describes herself as an “anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-prison, atheist Jewish, non-binary trans-woman” and uses she/they pronouns. Lily explains that they knew they wanted a name that began with “L” in honor of the important women in her life and Lily “just kinda burst out of me.”
The Arielle in their name is based on the French feminized version of Ariel, an Angel of God, which is translated as Lion of God in the Torah.
“I wanted a piece of my name to still reflect my Jewish upbringing and my connection to Judaism, however limited that may still be,” said Lilyana. “It’s important.” As for Fey? “l landed on Fey due it’s meanings and relationship to like, otherworldliness, death omens, supernatural beings. It’s kind of…in defiance. Also, a badge of honor, of pride, that I have survived death”
A wonderful thing about choosing your own name is finding inspiration in the things that bring joy.
Poet, 22, of Anaheim, CA, identifies as pansexual transmasc and uses he/ze/they pronouns, was inspired by his love of art when it came to choosing a name.
“I grew up with a deep love for writing, and poetry was something that always made me feel the most safe as a kid so it just felt right,” said Poet.
Nonbinary Maldwyn Giannakodimos, 26, of California, is a fan of “Dungeons and Dragons” and discovered their name while playing. While using a name generator for “DnD” they came across an interesting option.
“The very first name that came up was Malakas, which cracked me up because I’m Greek and that’s a Greek swear word, so of course it’s the name I went with,” said Maldwyn or Mal for short. Other players began shortening the name to Mal and realization struck.
“I realized I really, REALLY liked being called Mal. I didn’t want my name to be just Mal though, so I googled ‘names Mal is short for,’ and picked the very first one I’d never heard of, which was Maldwyn!”
Jack Stevie Brown, 25, of Liverpool, United Kingdom, is nonbinary and uses them/them pronouns, also found inspiration in pop culture for their name. While Jack was the name of their great-grandfather and what they would have been given if assigned male at birth, the show “Gentleman Jack” sealed the deal for them.
“I was watching ‘Gentleman Jack,’ and I saw how Jack was used as an insult or slur towards women who defied gender norms at the time, and honestly I wanted to just own it,” said Jack. Jack also chose Stevie as part of their name in honor of their grandfather.
“Choosing Stevie felt like a way I can always keep part of him with me and carry on his memory, they said.
“Young man, names are powerful things. You don’t just go around using them for no reason,” is a quote by author Rick Riordan, creator of the “Heroes of Olympus” series. His character Leo Valdez was the initial inspiration for Leo Castaneda-Pineda, 22, of Providence, Rhode Island. Leo uses he/they pronouns and identifies as queer and transmasculine.
“When I first realized I was trans around the age of 13, I made a list of names I liked, compiled from various sources,” Leo said. However, they kept coming back to Leo. “I decided to try it out, and it just clicked. I’ve been using it for about four years.”
Euphoria and empowerment
According to It Gets Better Project, gender euphoria “is the feeling of significant right-ness or comfort with one’s biological sex, gender identity, or expression.” Euphoria was a word used by many of our interviewees to describe the feeling when they are called by their chosen names.
For Tilly, she describes her gender dysphoria like being underwater. “You can’t breathe, you’re drowning… but none of your friends and family can see and don’t know how to help (or worse, are some of the people who are holding you under). Hearing people use Tilly is the opposite feeling.”
“My name alone was, and still is, a life preserver that keeps me afloat,” said Tilly. Hearing anyone use it makes my brain release the happy chemicals and I feel like I’m floating.”
Dean is enthusiastic when it comes to the feeling they get upon hearing their name.
“Euphoric. I love it,” said Dean. “It fits. It feels RIGHT. Relief. Settled. Powerful.”
For Maebe, there’s a sense of empowerment along with euphoria. “It is empowering, and people tend to love the name,” said Maebe. “I work a few days a week at a restaurant, and when I introduce myself, people get this smile, and this little like, joyful moment where they’re like ‘oh, Maebe, I love that’ So, people really like it, and I really like that.”
“It makes me feel like me!” Jack said of their name, which feels like it fits their most authentic self. “There is a comfort to it that is hard to describe, but my back doesn’t tense when I get called Jack, whereas it definitely did before. My dysphoria has lessened, and I feel like I’m living as my true self now.”
While Leo expects the euphoric feeling of hearing his name to eventually wear off, it still brings them much joy. “I really relish every moment where I just get to be Leo.”
For Lilyana, their name feels good and representative, but she also thinks about how it affects others. “My name makes me feel good I guess, but it’s just my name! It represents me,” said Lilyana. “In many ways I chose my name because of how I thought it would make others feel.”
Making it legal
The legal name changing process is different in each state, with some states making it easier than others. For Tilly, her experience was fairly easy, the only issues stemming from delays due to pandemic backlogs.
“Really positive, but that’s because I live in the most liberal state in the U.S. California respects trans people and has our backs, so the process was pretty easy,” said Tilly.
Poet, also a resident of California, is nearing the end of his name-changing process.
“I just finished up the last steps in the process as far as government changes go,” said Poet. “I would say that I feel very lucky to be in a state where I know I have a lot of protections.”
Poet also recognizes that the process can be daunting, and information isn’t as readily available as it could be.
“There are not as many easy to access resources on the proper steps to take, so it was a lot of late nights scouring websites and reddit to find the answers I needed,” said Poet.
Mal also found the process frustrating but had a friend that was able to help.
“I thankfully have a wonderful friend who loves doing paperwork (and went through the same name change process himself), so they were able to help me get everything understood, and mostly filled out,” said Mal. “Now it’s just on me to complete the process.”
Lilyana received assistance from the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois for her name change, which made the process much more approachable. “They provided the forms, a pro bono attorney to help us in the courtroom, helped ensure our fees were waived, they made everything really painless,” said Lilyana.
Not everyone who chooses a name decides to do so legally or is in a position to do so.
For Leo, family issues are still a challenge. “Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to because of my family situation, but I’m hoping to do so in the near future,” said Leo.
Jack had initially legally changed their name to shorter, gender-neutral version of their deadname, so they say they are not in a big rush to go through the process again. “Really I don’t actually see my old name crop up much at all anyway,” said Jack. “In time I hope to change my name legally to Jack, but to anybody new that I meet now, I am Jack. And to me right now that’s what matters.”