Using Your Child’s Chosen Name

Six months after my youngest son came out as transgender, my Grampa passed away. This came during a time when my heart was already raw. I was still navigating the turbulent waters of loss and grief, as I came to accept life without the presence of a daughter in it. There were days when I was overcome by emotions I didn’t understand. Days where a song on the radio could reduce me to a sobbing mess, which was particularly troublesome when out in public. Days where I would cry over a beautiful sunset or a butterfly in the backyard. It brought me back to when I had been a hormonal teenager or a brand new mother, and I didn’t know what to make of any of it.

My Grampa. A true hero.

I would be lying if I told you it was easy. It was almost harder than switching from she/her pronouns to he/his pronouns earlier in my son’s transition. What made it easier was that my son wasn’t living with us and so I didn’t have to interact with him on a daily basis. He was, however, coming home a month or so later and so I made it a goal to be able to use his name, out loud and without crying by that time.

The day the phone call came about my Grampa, I thought my already fragile heart would shatter. How could one heart handle so much loss in such a short time? How would I be able to let go of the one man who meant the most to me in this world, aside from my husband and sons, while I was still struggling to let go of the idea of my daughter? I was devastated.

Shortly after we buried my Grampa, my youngest son decided that he was going to take Grampa’s name as his legal name. Because he was away at school working for the summer, he informed our families and his friends through a Facebook post. He talked about all the amazing qualities he admired in my Grampa, and how he hoped he could be half the person he had been. He talked about other important men in our families who have or had my Grampa’s name as either their first or middle names, and how this name has significant meaning to him. I was never more proud of him for putting so much thought into such an important decision.

At the same time, I wondered how I’d ever be able to associate that name with my son.

I was so heartbroken over losing my Grampa that just thinking about him brought tears to my eyes. I couldn’t say his name aloud with choking up, and often that led to more crying. I knew that eventually, the grief would subside, but in the middle of grieving a loss I didn’t think I would recover from, I suddenly had to learn to associate the name of the person I was mourning to my son.

I practiced by typing it in texts and emails. I whispered it out loud in my car, or at work when I was alone and it didn’t matter if I choked up or got teary. I used it when I was in therapy and could break down in the privacy of a safe place. I used his name often in conversations with my husband, and I when other people asked how he was doing, I made sure I used his name when I answered back, no matter how hard it was.

I knew how important it was to my son to use the correct name. How being mis-named, must like being mis-gendered, fed into his dysphoria and made him feel small and unseen. I didn’t want to be one of those people who contributed to that. I thought about how difficult it was for me when someone called the house and asked for him by his given name, and I would startle to hear it spoken aloud, then inform that person that no one by that name lived here anymore.

I kept reminding myself how important names are, and why using the correct name matters.

Why Using a Transgender Person's Chosen Name is Important
Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

If your child has recently come out as transgender, you might be having a hard time with their chosen name. Perhaps your child is older, and they chose a name without consulting you, and that has been hard on you. Maybe the name reminds you of someone you know, and so you don’t like the name. Perhaps you had a different name in mind, and are hurt that they didn’t ask for your opinion. Maybe you are having a hard time letting go of a name that you so lovingly chose when they were born. Or, maybe you are having a hard time accepting that your child is transgender (that is okay too, it can be a slow process) and using their chosen name is the first step and you aren’t ready to take it yet.

Here are some things to think about, and some tips to help get you started.

A study released last year by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that something as simple as using their chosen name contributes to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior in trans youth and can dramatically improve their overall well-being. Not therapy, not medication, just using their chosen name.

Source: Russel, S.T. Journal of Adolescent Health.

If you are having a hard time incorporating the new name, here are some tips to try:

  • Use the name instead of pronouns. For example, “Can you tell Sue that Sue’s dinner is ready and I’d like Sue to come to the table?” It’s fast and effective because you get tired of it fast.
  • Create a name jar. Every time you use the wrong name, a dollar goes into a jar. After some time when you are no longer mis-naming your child, they get the contents of the jar.
  • Tell stories about your child out loud, using their name (this also helps with correct pronoun use). “Joe has a track meet today after school. Joe will need to take his duffel bag, his gym shoes, and a snack.” OR, remember stories about when they were young, which helps you to be able to tell those stories using the right name and pronouns. “When Joe was little, he was the cutest thing. He used to like to dance around the house to music and wear dresses that twirled.”

Remember to go easy on yourself, but don’t let yourself off the hook either. There is a learning curve, and you need to be sure not to beat yourself up every time you use the wrong name. However, you need not let that be an excuse that keeps you from making an effort every single time. Eventually, it will be like second nature.

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