Going to synagogue on Shabbat with my family was always one of my least favorite activities. I had to keep my iPhone stuffed in the spandex underneath my dress and never knew which elderly lady was kissing me on the cheek with a “Shabbat Shalom.”
One of the worst parts was the Amidah, or standing prayer. Partially because I never really figured out when it was the appropriate time for me to finally sit down, but mainly because I knew my dad was going to squeeze my hand when that line came up. The first blessing in the Amidah is for the ancestors, and my reform congregation included the names of matriarchs alongside the patriarchs in the prayer.
In the list of matriarchs was my birth name. When my birth name came up in the prayer, my dad used to squeeze my hand. I would push his hand away or stick my tongue out in protest. I had learned in Sunday school that the matriarch I was named after had a child when she was around 90 years old. In my mind, she was just “famous” for being an old woman that got pregnant. I could not see myself as an old woman, a pregnant woman, and most definitely not an old and pregnant woman. Any of those three images were, to me, the epitome of disgusting.
At a young age I had little understanding of my gender identity. My parents never picked up on the fact that I constantly changed the pronouns of my stuffed Lion that I slept (uh, sleep) with or that the screaming and crying when I was forced to wear a dress actually meant something. I never asked my parents to call me a “boy” name or told my sister that I was her brother.
Last fall, I came out to my parents as transgender and asked them to use they- or he-series pronouns for me. I told them that my friends were referring to me as Hayden, but that I did not expect them to refer to me by my new name. At the time, I was not even sure if I wanted them to call me Hayden. I already felt like a burden to my parents because I had come out as transgender. New pronouns, talk of hormones and surgery—it was a lot even without a name change.
My mom, a former therapist, probed, “Why don’t you want us to call you Hayden if all your friends are calling you by that name?” I told them I felt like a name was something a parent should get to pick out for their child. They had picked my name based on both our ancestors and our religion, and I knew that those connections were important to them. I worried that my dad would feel a sadness reaching his hand out at synagogue, only to suddenly jerk it away remembering that my name is not anymore.
We eventually came to the conclusion that they would call me Hayden. I came home for Thanksgiving and relatives had plenty to contribute. “I don’t like that the gender is ambiguous, why did you not pick David?” “Your name makes you sound like you play Polo.” We had to keep correcting my Grandma that it was Hayden, not Hadley.
Over the summer, my mom kept pressuring me to change my name legally. My friends know I am Hayden, professors know me as Hayden, even my dog has learned that Hayden’s room means she should curl up on my bed. My mom has told me I do not look like a anymore. My dad, sister, and friends call me Hoodoop, Haysmeeps, and Haysmerps. These nicknames help fade into the background. But the stack of California legal name changing forms in my mom’s “to-do” kitchen counter area won’t do much. Every time I hear the Amidah my heart rate will increase in anticipation of a hand squeeze, with or without forms.
Hayden is one of the many students at Tufts who have changed their names to reflect their gender identities. For a lot of these students, choosing a new name was a way to feel more comfortable both with themselves and in their interactions with the outside world. For transgender and non-binary students, adopting a different name can be a liberating experience.
Junior Ken Zhou described their decision to change their name. “In high school, I felt like the name people called me didn’t feel quite right and didn’t sit well with me,” they recalled. “The change stemmed out of my friends who started calling me by a different name, and that name felt more like ‘me.’”
Zhou elaborated on this feeling, explaining that, “It’s like when you’re wearing the wrong pair of jeans and little things bother you until you find the right pair of jeans, and then it feels right. My name slid into place.”
The process of choosing a new name differs from person to person. Sophomore Cameron Rusin, for example, explained, “I didn’t like how automatically feminine my old name was. I like the more androgynous nature of ‘Cameron.’”
While some people choose names that are purposefully different from their old names, some instead choose to connect their new name with their old name. For sophomore Melvin Lin, “It was really important for my name to roll off the tongue with my first and last name. I also wanted to keep the first three letters of my name consistent, so it would be easier for everyone.”
However, many young trans and non-binary people have not legally changed their name. In order to change one’s name legally, most states require that a petition be filled out explaining the reason for the change. In Massachusetts, changing a name legally requires a court proceeding, after which a name change “shall be granted unless such change is inconsistent with public interests.” In many states, there are also fees that must be paid to obtain a name change. These costs may range from anywhere between $150 and $500. These fees, along with the intimidating nature of a court proceeding, can be a burden for young trans and non-binary people, and often prevents them from changing their names legally.
For many Tufts students, the discrepancy between a legal name and a chosen name can be challenging.
“I just signed a lease on a house and it was really complicated because I had to explain that I go by a different name than my legal name,” Rusin said. Despite this, and because the legal process is so complicated, many Tufts students like Rusin do not plan on making the legal change in the near future.
Additionally, using a preferred name rather than a legal name can cause problems within the structure and bureaucracy of Tufts itself. Tufts has a Preferred Name Policy, which states that “Tufts University recognizes that members of the Tufts community may prefer to use names other than their legal names to identify themselves.” The policy outlines several procedures that must occur in order for a student to use a preferred name rather than a legal name.
Tufts students can update their preferred name on SIS, but also have to submit several requests to various departments within the school to solidify the use of a preferred name, such as the IT department, Tufts White Pages, and Health Services. “I think it’s a really convoluted process,” Zhou said. “To have your name changed everywhere there are a lot of hoops to jump through. I’m glad that Tufts has taken these steps, but it could be a little easier and a little more accessible.”
Despite these steps, it is not possible to change a Tufts username to appropriately reflect one’s chosen name, and the ability to update Tufts student IDs was only implemented last year. To update a student ID, students must contact the Public Safety department. Public Safety at Tufts is closely linked with TUPD, and for many trans and non-binary people, interacting with the police can be difficult and frightening. During their interactions with police, about a fifth of transgender people have reported police harassment, and this proportion is significantly higher for trans people of color. Because of these and other factors, the process of acquiring a new ID for Tufts trans and non-binary students can be distressing.
Although Tufts has structures in place to accommodate students who have changed their names, its faculty does not always make use of these structures. Because the system for name changes has many different components, the correct name is not always in the correct place. For example, it is possible that a name change may be registered in SIS, but may not be registered in White Pages, Canvas, or various other platforms. Although professors receive a class list at the beginning of the semester that details the preferred names of their students, they may not be aware of name changes that occur in the middle of the semester, making it more likely for them to call students by the wrong names.
Furthermore, Tufts professors’ lack of awareness of trans and non-binary students goes beyond missing name changes. Senior Josh Cohen spoke about their experience being misgendered in the classroom by several professors this semester. “In three different classes this semester, I had a professor say, ‘What is a she-series? I’ve never heard of that before,’” they said. “I dropped one class because of the professor. I had a 30-minute meeting with her where she refused to acknowledge that her unwillingness to use my pronouns was anti-trans.”
Of their interactions with professors, Zhou said, “The biggest point of difficulty in my opinion is touching base—will you be graded accordingly if the name on your paper doesn’t match what it says in the system?” But overall, according to Zhou, professors “have been very good at resolving” confusion over their name change.
Despite all the challenges that come with the process, changing names is something that, on the whole, enhances the lives of trans and non-binary students at Tufts.
Last fall, I was on Tisch roof late at night with two of my (new at the time) best friends when I decided to change my name to Hayden. Upon returning to my room in Miller, I saw that my roommate had taken my room name tag, flipped it around, and made me a new one with “Hayden” written on it.
Even with institutional recognition of my new name through SIS and the new ID I received a few weeks ago, ultimately if my immediate community of peers and professors does not accept me, that institutional recognition of my new name is meaningless. But every time someone calls me Hayden, my name starts to feel a bit more natural—days of being called fade away.