How Changing Your Name Can Change Your Life

How Changing Your Name Can Change Your Life

DADDY Magazine – How Changing Your Name Can Change Your Life

New clothes, new name, new life. Falling for someone new — even if you’re still with the same partner you’ve been with for years. Fleeing a bad scene and starting over. Making a resolution to be a better person, or at least a different one. This October, DADDY is all about NEW BEGINNINGS.

Years before I even knew how to write, I knew how to spell my last name. My mum would always use the German spelling alphabet just seconds after saying our Arabic surname. Little me thought the refrain “Heinrich, Otto, Zeppelin,…” was just part of our name. I later learnt that Zeppelin was part of living in a society that considered our name to be foreign. It was in Nazi Germany that Zacharias became Zeppelin. Apparently, Zacharias sounded too Jewish. 

I was born in 1991 with a different brand, so to speak. I was the same person. My ID just went through some updates. A relaunch. On my original birth certificate, I have a different first and last name and gender. Not a big deal? Well, it makes a difference if people address you as, say, Mrs Amira Hussein or as Mr John Smith. They might not even be aware of it, but hooray for unconscious bias!

It’s easier to land a job if your name sounds white

Officially changing my name (and gender) made me think a lot about the possible privileges and disadvantages. Just consider these studies: People whose names are easy to pronounce are favored for political office and job promotions, they appear more credible. There’s evidence that the Americanization of names pays off and that the opposite is true if your name implies that you’re Black or Muslim.

I am a trans woman of color. I chose not to opt for an Arabic name again. This name would already have to face sexism. Maybe even transmisogyny, if I were to put a picture next to it when applying for a job. I didn’t dare to add racism to this equation. It was no easy decision. Have I denied my heritage? Have I obscured my true identity?

Systemic racism doesn’t want you to be able to choose your own name

 Specific trans laws aside, it’s quite complicated to have a legal name change in Germany. The general name change law was signed by Adolf Hitler in 1938. I wish I was joking. Germany abolished the part of the law that forced Jews to use “Jewish names” in 1945, but thought the rest of the law has nothing to do with Nazi ideology. 

This law states that a name change is only possible on important grounds. Thus one has to make a formal request to an administration official and may need to go to court if it is denied. Wanting a different name is not enough, there has to be a considerable need. Having a psychiatric expert opinion may not even be enough. Someone was once denied a name change to a new name with a noble title, even though a therapist confirmed it would help them psychologically

So what is a considerable need and why shouldn’t just everyone have a name they feel comfortable with? And what if they even feel comfortable with their name themselves, but experience discrimination based on their name, such as not securing a job or never hearing back from a prospective landlord? If a German-sounding name with a title of nobility in it doesn’t make a difference, why not let anyone who asks for it, have it?  I guess the truth is, it does make a difference, because nobility and excluding people from access to it through a name change reflects a classist society just as much as a racist society is suggested by the need to ban people from making their name more “German-sounding”. It’s not audacious at all to say that it all comes down to racism, classism, ableism and in the case of gender: sexism. This is not simply a “transphobia-problem”, though it may be a little more obvious in our cases. Don’t you think it would make a difference if this article was written by someone named Prof. Dr. Hans von Meyer? Don’t you think my claims would automatically appear more credible (I know, not to you, fellow QTBPOCs)?

Why not go for as many cute new names as you can think of?

 I understand that it’s difficult to know who someone is talking about if they change their name every two weeks. My friends had trouble explaining to their friends that it was still the same person they were talking about, when I was trying out a new name again. “Phoebe called me yesterday!” – “Who?” – “Oh, she went as Mila until recently.” They’ve managed though! At least most of them. Sometimes when I introduce friends to each other, one of them still uses my Version 3.0 name while others are already onto Version 5.0 and it definitely makes for interesting conversations!

 There is some excitement in being your own parent in a way. It’s also scary sometimes to reveal a new name to one’s best friends: Will they laugh? Will they say it’s a perfect fit? Or both, because somehow a funny name suits you perfectly?

There are some extra challenges for trans people

 There is a whole lot to write about how expensive, how complicated, how degrading the process of changing your name and gender as a trans person in Germany can be. Usually one has to change their name and gender going to court, pay a lot of money, have at least two medical experts decide if you’re trans enough. Even after having successfully updated one’s ID, almost every organisation, bank or insurance seems to have their own way of handling it and wanting definite proof. Thus filling out forms and writing emails often times feels like that three-hour long wait in line in front of a club, suspecting you might not even get in after all and will have to try another day.

 I’m happy to at least have some official documents now using the name I was born to end up with. I just started to work at a new office where everyone only knows my new name. It felt good to be introduced with that name, not having to explain to anyone that I would rather not be called [old name] anymore or would rather want to be addressed as “she”. It’s official and I don’t have to constantly explain myself.

Years before I even knew how to write, I knew how to spell my last name. My mum would always use the German spelling alphabet just seconds after saying our Arabic surname. Little me thought the refrain “Heinrich, Otto, Zeppelin…” was just part of our name. I later learnt that Zeppelin was part of living in a society that considered our name to be foreign. It was in Nazi Germany that Zacharias became Zeppelin. Apparently, Zacharias sounded too Jewish. 

I was born in 1991 with a different brand, so to speak. I was the same person. My ID just went through some updates. A relaunch. On my original birth certificate, I have a different first and last name and gender. Not a big deal? Well, it makes a difference if people address you as, say, Mrs Amira Hussein or as Mr John Smith. They might not even be aware of it, but hooray for unconscious bias!

It’s easier to land a job if your name sounds white

Officially changing my name (and gender) made me think a lot about the possible privileges and disadvantages. Just consider these studies: People whose names are easy to pronounce are favored for political office and job promotions, they appear more credible. There’s evidence that the Americanization of names pays off and that the opposite is true if your name implies that you’re Black or Muslim.

I am a trans woman of color. I chose not to opt for an Arabic name again. This name would already have to face sexism. Maybe even transmisogyny, if I were to put a picture next to it when applying for a job. I didn’t dare to add racism to this equation. It was no easy decision. Have I denied my heritage? Have I obscured my true identity?

Systemic racism doesn’t want you to be able to choose your own name

 Specific trans laws aside, it’s quite complicated to have a legal name change in Germany. The general name change law was signed by Adolf Hitler in 1938. I wish I was joking. Germany abolished the part of the law that forced Jews to use “Jewish names” in 1945, but thought the rest of the law has nothing to do with Nazi ideology. 

This law states that a name change is only possible on important grounds. Thus one has to make a formal request to an administration official and may need to go to court if it is denied. Wanting a different name is not enough, there has to be a considerable need. Having a psychiatric expert opinion may not even be enough. Someone was once denied a name change to a new name with a noble title, even though a therapist confirmed it would help them psychologically

So what is a considerable need and why shouldn’t just everyone have a name they feel comfortable with? And what if they even feel comfortable with their name themselves, but experience discrimination based on their name, such as not securing a job or never hearing back from a prospective landlord? If a German-sounding name with a title of nobility in it doesn’t make a difference, why not let anyone who asks for it, have it?  I guess the truth is, it does make a difference, because nobility and excluding people from access to it through a name change reflects a classist society just as much as a racist society is suggested by the need to ban people from making their name more “German-sounding”. It’s not audacious at all to say that it all comes down to racism, classism, ableism and in the case of gender: sexism. This is not simply a “transphobia-problem”, though it may be a little more obvious in our cases. Don’t you think it would make a difference if this article was written by someone named Prof. Dr. Hans von Meyer? Don’t you think my claims would automatically appear more credible (I know, not to you, fellow QTBPOCs)?

Why not go for as many cute new names as you can think of?

 I understand that it’s difficult to know who someone is talking about if they change their name every two weeks. My friends had trouble explaining to their friends that it was still the same person they were talking about, when I was trying out a new name again. “Phoebe called me yesterday!” – “Who?” – “Oh, she went as Mila until recently.” They’ve managed though! At least most of them. Sometimes when I introduce friends to each other, one of them still uses my Version 3.0 name while others are already onto Version 5.0 and it definitely makes for interesting conversations!

 There is some excitement in being your own parent in a way. It’s also scary sometimes to reveal a new name to one’s best friends: Will they laugh? Will they say it’s a perfect fit? Or both, because somehow a funny name suits you perfectly?

There are some extra challenges for trans people

 There is a whole lot to write about how expensive, how complicated, how degrading the process of changing your name and gender as a trans person in Germany can be. Usually one has to change their name and gender going to court, pay a lot of money, have at least two medical experts decide if you’re trans enough. Even after having successfully updated one’s ID, almost every organisation, bank or insurance seems to have their own way of handling it and wanting definite proof. Thus filling out forms and writing emails often times feels like that three-hour long wait in line in front of a club, suspecting you might not even get in after all and will have to try another day.

 I’m happy to at least have some official documents now using the name I was born to end up with. I just started to work at a new office where everyone only knows my new name. It felt good to be introduced with that name, not having to explain to anyone that I would rather not be called [old name] anymore or would rather want to be addressed as “she”. It’s official and I don’t have to constantly explain myself.

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