A reader writes: “I am legally and anatomically female and 43 years old. I have presented as fairly gender-neutral for most of my life, and have always been bisexual in orientation, but relatively recently realized that I am really dissatisfied with my birth sex and gender.
“After extensive research on available options, I’ve decided I’m very unlikely to undergo surgery or hormone treatment, especially as I identify more as gender-neutral or possibly transmasculine than male. (I do intend to consult a therapist who specializes in trans issues for guidance in this area.)
“I am currently trying to figure out if it’s possible to have a viable gender-neutral identity. Fortunately I live in San Francisco, where all manner of gender expression is tolerated and even celebrated, but in some ways that makes it harder to show people that I don’t consider myself female; dressing more like a man will likely cause me to read as a butch dyke. As I’m much more sexually attracted to men, particularly bi and gay men, than women, that reading is problematic for me.
“In any event, I’ve decided that whatever form my gender expression ultimately takes, I do want to change my birth name, both first and last, to one that is gender-neutral and personally meaningful. I want to do this legally rather than just adopt a nickname, as my given first name is clearly feminine and I’ve had issues with my last name for years. I am 99% decided on what my new name will be, but I’ve run it by only my spouse so far as I want to be sure.
“I am struggling with how best to go about the announcement and process of my name change. I think it might be confusing to tell only a few close friends to call me by this name first, and then tell others later. I would rather do it all at once. But how to go about it? I’ve never had to reveal something of this magnitude before. When I came out as bisexual, and later as polyamorous, it was hardly a big deal, considering my social circles. This, however, is a momentous change, and that’s before even considering the legal aspects, with all the documents that must be changed and the associated expense. Any advice?”
First of all, yes, it’s possible to have a viable gender-neutral identity. You will probably run into the occasional “Thank you, ma’am, I mean sir, I mean ma’am” kind of thing, but if you have a strong self-concept and good self-esteem, you should be able to weather that. You will no doubt also run into some pronoun confusion, where sometimes you’re referred to as “he” and sometimes as “she,” but since you have presented as gender neutral for a while, you have possibly already experienced this.
In addition, as you point out, you are much more likely to be mistaken for a lesbian in LGB spaces, and more likely to be seen as a man in straight spaces – particularly those straight spaces that have fairly rigidly defined gender presentations and expectations. You can correct people, and there’s nothing wrong with correcting people, but when they first encounter you in these LGB spaces, assumptions will be made. Should they be? Probably not. But they will be.
The thing that you are most concerned about now, however, appears to be your name change. You want to be sure that this is the name for you before you go through all the legal aspects of changing it. That makes sense. But your concern seems to be that this is such a monumental change that you don’t know how to go about announcing it.
The fact is that people change their names all the time for a variety of reasons. Often, it is just because they don’t like their given name. Most people understand that. They might argue and say, “Oh, I love your name,” or they might ask you why you want to change it, but “I don’t like my given name” is a viable explanation.
I think it’s possible that the reason that you feel that this is so monumental is that you feel that you are coming out to people by changing your name – that somehow you are coming out as a gender-neutral person, and that seems like a really big deal to you, which is understandable. Coming out as anything can be very difficult.
But you’re not coming out. You’re just changing your name. And that is actually getting relatively commonplace. In addition, no explanation other than “I don’t like my given name” is necessary, if you feel the need to give any explanation at all.
So my opinion is that you should tell everyone at once (well, as you run into them or by e-mail announcement or however you want to do it), and you should say something like this: “I’m considering changing my name, and I’m 99 percent sure of what I want to change it to, but I really need your help in getting over that 1 percent hump. I would like to ask you to call me Pat (or Kris or Sam or whatever) from now on so I can see if that’s what really fits before I take the big leap. I know you’ll screw up from time to time, and that’s okay, but it would really help me if you could do this. I just want to make sure that this is the right name for me.”
That’s it. The first thing you will get, of course, is “Why do you want to change your name?” “Because I don’t like my given name.” “But why?” “Because I don’t like it.” “But why don’t you like it?” “For the same reason that I don’t like broccoli. I just don’t like it.” “But it’s a beautiful name.” “But I don’t like it.”
You’ll eventually wear them down. And if they refuse to help you out, then maybe they are not who you want to be hanging out with anyway. You can always just not respond when they use the wrong name. That will condition them to use the right name – or to drift away, which will not be that big of a loss.
If you eventually decide that this isn’t the name for you, then you can always repeat the process with another name. I do have to warn you that, after a while, even your closest friends will say, “Make a decision, already!” But I don’t think that you will have to go through too many names before you find the one that’s right for you.
I am also linking to some older posts here that I think might be helpful: How Can I Live a Gender Fluid Life?, ‘Nina Here Nor There’: An Interview with Nick Krieger, and Making Legal Changes (there are three letters in this post – read the last one). Also, be sure to read the comments on these posts, because they are often the most helpful parts. (And I do realize that gender fluid and gender neutral are not the same thing, but I still think the posts might be helpful.)
And be sure to read the comments below. My readers have excellent thoughts. I wish you the best of luck with your new name. Readers?