His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
-T.S. Eliot, “The Naming of Cats”
I have been engaged for about two months now, so the topic of name changing has come up with lots of people. I have never been married before, but this ain’t my first rodeo with legal name changes- I changed my name from “Alyson” to “Althea” years ago, keeping my middle name (“May”) and my lifelong nickname (“Alymay”).
The reasons I decided to change my name were widely complicated and personal. I never really bonded with the name Alyson, and since late elementary school, went by Alymay. I originally wanted to change my name to Alymay Buron (a family name) Sellars, but was advised that Alymay might be too informal of a name and I would be overlooked by potential employers. So, I went about the task of selecting a new first name- hopefully being able to keep the “Alymay” identity with my friends and family.
I had always loved the name Althea (I even had it as my MySpace (remember MySpace?!) name for a while). It’s a Grateful Dead song. It is associated with healing. It’s a beautiful shrub. It’s the genus name for marshmallow plants. While I decided that I wanted to change my name in high school, I waited until after my first semester of college to make the change “legal”, as I had toyed with the idea/experimented with going by my middle name, “May”. My parents gave me a “new name” (their blessing, and help with the legal fees) for Christmas that year, so I came back to college the from break with a nose piercing and a new name.
Timing was key here. The start of college meant coming out of an abusive relationship and new challenges of recovery, and I needed something to strengthen my autonomy and sense of self. Though the next semester was one of the roughest in my life, the fact that I had taken this step for myself empowered me to not give up. Though I still am the same core person, I own who I am now. I have a strong sense of identity. And I forget all of the time that my name hasn’t always been Althea, though I’ll admit, I still sometimes turn my head when I hear someone say “Alyson”.
My friends still call me Aly or Alymay, as they are both suitable nicknames for my new name. And when I started at my most recent job, the HR director asked me if I’d rather be referred to as Althea May or Althea. I paused for a second, grateful that I had options and someone wanted to make sure I was the most comfortable I could be! I picked Althea May, and they made sure that my email address and the name sign next to my door reflected this.
Now that Kelsey and I are formalizing our relationship with the government, we have the options to look at our names to see what we want to do. I may keep my name, I may not. We might do something completely “non-traditional”. At this point, all options are on the table.
I feel like I have a lot of pressure, as someone active in feminist causes, to keep my name. After all, I am not changing ownership from my dad to Kelsey, Kelsey and I together decided that we want to get married. That being said, I also like the idea of having a uniform last name, and as Kelsey is a journalist, it makes sense that we would go with his last name (we did discuss that, if I were the journalist in the relationship, he would be willing to take my name). Above all, I do not want outside pressure to be the only reason I do or don’t change my name.
The power of being able to choose your own name is also a social justice issue. It’s an identity that we have for ourselves and the groups we identify with. People often try to call us names we don’t agree with (like the Washington,D.C. football team anyone?). When we call a group a name they don’t want to be called, we take away their power and autonomy to be in charge of their own group identity. Policing terms or imposing them on others is inherently unjust.
Beyond the social justice issues of the naming of groups, this can have great intrapersonal meaning to some. Though I am a cis person who does not claim any expertise on trans issues, I have learned to ask trans people the terms that they want to be called. That way, you don’t accidentally mis-gender someone, or on the other hand, if they are just starting their transition, still trying to figure out what pronouns they like, or aren’t out to others, you don’t call them by one pronoun that they aren’t ready to be called.
Women choosing to keep their last name is down from about 23% in the nineties to just 8%, though many are also choosing to hyphenate or modify their last name as a hybrid. Men changing their last name to their wives is much more common. About 44% of Americans live somewhere that lesbian and gay couples can legally be married. We can no longer assume who (if anyone) is taking whose last name anymore. It’s best to ask before we assume what each couple is going to decide to do.
Now that I get to make this big decision over the next year, I am excited to explore what feels right to me. I look forward to discussing this with family and friends and making a final decision for myself.