We’re moving soon, and working on finding a new apartment in our new town (we have one, we think!). I spoke to the new landlord yesterday, and one of the questions Emily was very, very insistent that I ask was whether there were individual mailboxes for the three apartments in our building. Being the naive cis woman that I am, I wasn’t really sure why this was important, but went ahead and asked. Later, I asked Emily why it was important and she said: “I still have to get mail addressed to my old name.” At least some of the new neighbors will never know her old name.
I have to admit that, for all that I see the importance, for her, of choosing a new name, and the importance, for me, of using said name, I have no way to relate to the intensity of the need to be rid of the old name. A piece of this is obviously practical. There is still lots of transphobia in the world, and it can manifest as a disbelief in the actual existence of trans people. There are people who will say: “what’s your real name?” and then proceed to use it if they know it, which is a subtle and absolutely devastating way to completely deny someone’s existence. In a more trans friendly world, old names might be used to refer to “before”, but that’s not safe in the world we live in.
But, I see a deeper need to be rid of the old name, even around people who are totally trustworthy and in conversations where, for whatever reason, we have to refer a lot to her old name. We’re starting to develop workarounds so that she doesn’t have to write, say, or hear her old name any more than absolutely necessary, even though she needs it for some purposes. This is one of those times when I feel like a terrible partner: I don’t have the same kind of emotional drive to avoid the old name, but I also have to be extra, extra careful not to use it, because I can hurt her more than anyone if I slip. Thankfully, I have years of practice switching which pronouns I use to refer to her depending on who I’m talking to. I’m pretty good at it.
P.S. Sadly, Trans 101 is not a required subject anywhere, and it’s often missing even from most sorts of “diversity training.” So just in case you missed it: when a trans person tells you their name, it is their real name, even if they don’t “look” like their gender matches their name. The name their parents gave them at birth is called an “assigned” name, and unless you’re working with the person in some sort of official capacity, you do not need to know it. Curiosity is not an excuse for the rudeness of asking. If you are working in an official capacity and need to know a trans person’s legal name, you can say something like, “does your <insert relevant paperwork here> have a different name on it? It would really help us if you’d tell us that name.” Even if the person does give you a different name, it’s for paperwork. You do not need to use it.
If you knew the person prior to the name change, you get a little bit of a pass, because it takes time to get used to a new name and it’s easy to slip (and because, at first, there may be some contexts where the person is not out and is still using the old name). That’s not license to keep using the old name, just a recognition that we all screw up. If you do mess up the name or the pronouns, just apologize briefly and correct yourself. Don’t make a big deal out of it and don’t say “oh, whatever. It’s just a name.”