Thursday, January 26, 2017

Call Me Gabby: On Deadnames and Changing My Legal Name

M.W. Bychowski

"And the angel answering said unto him, 
I am Gabriel...
and am sent to speak unto thee, 
and to shew thee these glad tidings."

Book of Luke 1:19

The Case Against My Deadname

As I stood in front on the locked courtroom door waiting for my hearing, I read and reread the sign that announced the cases for the next hour. Each case was numbered to indicate the order in which they would be heard once the court was in session. I was number thirteen. But there was two number thirteens. The case of my legal name change appeared twice in different forms. In the first instance, it reported to be the case of Gabrielle Mary-Willow Bychowski. In the second instance it reported to be the case of my deadname. The reason for this was that the court system did not know which one would end up being correct. If the court found in my favor, the first case would be the proper name. If the court found against me, the second case would be the legal one. As I stared looking at the screen, however, it felt like both my identity and my deadname identity were being called to court to contest who had the right to my life. In some ways, this was the last legal gasp of my deadname identity. If I won, that name would have to walk away and leave my life alone. If I lost, the court would legally lock me into a name that no longer felt livable. This conflict gives a sense of the manifold meaning of the word 'deadname' which signifies the name that is no longer alive, or active like how a virus is active. In another sense the deadname signifies the unlivable life, the living death in which too many transgender persons are forced to live for too long. Some never escape their deadname. The deadname identity fights and brings the life of the person to an end. Even in death, the deadname presides over too many transgender persons like a jailor of gender identity over the deceased. Deadnames have power and that is what makes them dangerous. If I won today, I would not totally escape the lingering ghost of my deadname in all areas of mu life but from here on out, the law would be on my side.

When the bailiff unlocked the door, I entered the court as both myself and my deadname. Only one would walk out. As I took my seat behind the divider, I watched as everyone took their places and warmed up for their roles. I had an uncanny flashback to my third grade play when my class had performed February On Trial. In this courtroom drama, the month of February stood accused of not doing its fair share of the annual work. In that play, I was tasked to play the defense attorney, summoning witnesses and delivering stirring rhetoric while my counterpart, the prosecutor pretended to sleep through the whole proceedings. I won the case by presenting overwhelming evidence; although it didn't hurt that I was dating (insofar as third graders 'date') the judge, or rather the girl that was playing the judge. That third grade defense was make believe. This was real. What struck me however was how formulaic and scripted it all was. The judge entered, few stood, they said a few words, we sat down. In short order, cases were called and lawyers jumped up to speak briefly with the judge. Many of the cases did not show. They went down the list, waited for someone to reply, then moved to the next. Quicker than expected, they called number thirteen and I stood. I was asked to approach the judge and be sworn in by raising my hand then affirming I would tell the whole truth and all that. I say "all that" both because we all know what they ask people to say in courts from TV and movies but also because I honestly didn't hear most of what she was asking me to swear. Her lips moved, I nodded, by the pounding in my ears made it hard to hear. This was a bad bad case of stage-fright. But fortunately I trained to deal with stage fright since third grade. I recognized when it was my turn to speak and I said my line, "I do." Then I looked toward the judge and the case began.

The judge confirmed my name and then hammered me with questions. The day before as I was traveling to my hometown for the court case, I was telling my mom how nervous I was and how I wished I had asked the lawyers helping me procure my legal name and gender marker changes what to say when I actually get into the courtroom. What would they ask? What would be a good response? I knew how to manage an audience, a room of students, a conference hall, even church and political crowds. But a judge was a difference audience entirely. This one person had the ability to affect the trajectory of my future for good and ill. I knew their were rules and procedures, like theatre lines and blocking, but I was not master of them. I groaned that it was now too late to call the firm working on my case. Then I remembered, two of my best friends and my brother were all lawyers. One worked for a judge, one taught law, and the other brought cases before the Supreme Court. I had people behind me that would help me find my footing. I promptly called or texted all three of them. In my heart of hearts, I knew I was also just calling to hear their voices and share the moment with them. They each calmed me down in their own ways. They each gave different elements of the same overall advice: be quiet and calm, follow the judge's lead. That's what I did. What I discovered as the judge proceeded through her questioning was that she was reading from a list and signing boxes as she went along. This was more or less scripted. For me, this was more or less going to be unadorned, drama-free high stakes theater to affirm or deny who I was in the eyes of the law.

In the end, once the court confirmed with me that I was assuming a name in order to avoid creditors or the police, the judge had me check the spelling of my name then declared I was who I said I am: Gabrielle Mary-Willow Bychowski. The judge told me how to get official copies of my court order then told me I was done. Looking back to my seat, I saw my mother standing up with a beaming smile. She had been there when the law first determined my name and gender marker. Today, she was witness to the law being corrected and she was holding back tears of excitement. Walking out of the courtroom, my mom asked me how I felt. I told her it was like I had turned a chapter in my life. I had wanted to have and originally gained a court date to legalize my name and gender marker on President Obama's last day in office. It would be a turning point for me and our country. That gets at the intensity of the moment and its repercussions. Yet beyond the significance of this day, it was less like turning a chapter and more like the editors and publishers finally printing the book under the title that author had originally wanted. It felt like the moment in which readers of a book with a gender neutral name find out that J.K. Rowling is a woman. I sometimes wonder how many readers of my work, published under the name M.W. Bychowski, are surprised to realize it was written by a woman and specifically a transgender woman. Now if they checked my legal documents, they will know my name. Now if they check the newspapers and blogs, regardless of what they say about me, they will know my name. Now if they check my wedding certificate, they will know my name beside my beloved's. Now if they one day check my tombstone, future generations will know my name.




What does it mean to transition my name and gender marker now? The decision to file for legal corrections to my identity documents was years in the making. I haven't used my deadname as my primary identifier in over a decade, yet there is no switch you can flip that will get everyone on board with those updates all at once. Transitioning is not just something the transgender person does but involves all the intersecting communities they are a part. For all intents and purposes, I have been Gabby M.W. Bychowski for some time but not in the eyes of the law. Coming out to my friends, family, and co-workers came first. Getting other things in line, especially medical assistance, came shortly after. This is quick to write and quicker to read but took years of stops and starts. The deadline for  a legal name change had long been either before I was legally married or before I received my doctorate. Both of those eventualities converged in 2016. I knew by early 2017, I would need to file. Then the election happened in November. At this point, it began to be all hands on deck in the transgender community to give one another support enough to get through the next day. Soon it became evident that with shifting government policies and rising tides of anti-transgender legislation, the community had to make preparations for the future tribulations. Before the final state was announced for the election, I had already begun to put into immediate motion procedures for legal name and gender marker changes that had been in holding patterns. The time was now to make sure that we had all the legal documents possible to defend who we are against the coming offenses. When the police pull us aside to check our drivers licenses, when guards at the door to rest rooms ask for proof of our gender, when TSA agents check our passports during a screening, the more of the law we can get on our side the better.

What made all the difference was that the transgender community was not alone. In the weeks after the election, #TransLawHelp began circulating around Twitter and other social media to connect transgender persons with free legal help. Firms, clinics, law schools, and individual lawyers were volunteering their services to the transgender community pro bono, meaning "for the public good." Some transgender person possess the education in legal procedures or money enough to afford assistance to go it alone. Yet most transgender persons, especially the young and most vulnerable do not have the resources needed to navigate the bureaucrat mazes alone or defend their own cases adequately if and when they are challenged. Personally, in order to fast track some of the changes that remained, I reached out to #TransLawHelp and was put in touch with a local lawyer to help me file the needed documents. The lawyer and her clinic team explained many of the tangled requirements that stood between me and the various agencies and courts I would need to manage. The lawyers guidance was indispensable in better understanding how the law and government functioned and what was the best way to position my cases. All the lawyer's advice and everything the clinic did was free. This was good because everything I did with the courts and agencies here on out would be rather expensive and strained my small budget. A hundred dollars for this and a couple hundred for that added up quickly. The expense would be worth the outcome but all of it might not happened so successfully if it was not for the free legal assistance. More than anything, knowing that I was not going into this alone gave me the emotional resources to push through the cost.

When I was finally given a court date I was ecstatic. I was surprised by how far off the day needed to be, over two months. But I finally knew on what day the law would see me for who I am. But beyond this, I was thrilled that the court date I was given was January 19th. This was the last day in office for President Barack Obama. The day felt a fitting symbol for my liberation from my deadname. The change would be one last good thing from that era. Also, this would mean that whatever the new administration did on its first day, I would be that much more prepared. Unfortunately, this would not work out so smoothly. A few weeks later, as I filed the required announcements of my name change to local newspapers, I received a letter from the courts. What made my chuckle was the name of my judge, whose last name matched the name of my home town. The letter however contain something that took away the laughter. My court date had been changed to the next week. My heart and stomach dropped nearly to the floor. The symbol and the preparation would be gone. I caught myself in time, affirming that it is better late than never, and pushed forward. I pushed back all my related plans and prayed that nothing happened in the first week of the new presidency to make my filing impossible. Fortunately, the separation of State and Federal jurisdiction worked in my favor this one time. And fortunately no move was made in these seven days to stop my from making it to court. In the end, all I lost was some time. The loss of time is not nothing. It meant one more week using IDs with a name that wasn't mine and one more time booking flights with a gender marker that wasn't me. By the time I arrived at the court, I wished I had been able to get back that time I lost and have done this much sooner.

However we arrive at monumental moments in our lives as transgender persons, our transitions all look different and take more time than we wish. No matter how much I desire there was a switch I could have flipped, the processes I had to undergo on the road of transition could not have been done any other way. For all its ups and downs, turns and bends, the road was mine to walk. Other trans persons will find themselves going along different roads. We all start from different places, experience different obstacles, and the environment is changing all the time. Also, we all have different goals and processes in determining what we want. I knew for a long while what my name was but getting the first person to see through the mist of dysphoria to the truth underneath was a goal and a struggle of its own. The legal name change is a big marker in the path but may not affect my heart as much as the first time I was called Gabby. Then there was the first time my family called me Gabby. Being called Gabby by my partner and Momma Gabby by our kids still makes my heart swell. Being called Gabrielle by the court was a big deal but the law and government are not the most important things to me. They determine the circumstance of my life and the lives of those around me. They are battles that need to be fought. But I don't desire approval from the government. I don't desire approval from strangers on the internet. I don't need to hear the opinions of random voters or politicians. I am who I am regardless. Being who I am, having my community behind me, and drawing on the power of coalitions like #TransLawHelp are the real power that move me forward. As our movement presses on, the law and government better get behind us or get out of our way.



Call me Gabby

Why did I chose the name Gabrielle? I am asked this regularly and I have simple answers, as well as more difficult to articulate answer. The simple (but not less true) version goes like this: I had like the name Gabrielle since I first heard it as a young Catholic girl. At first, I had decided it would be the name of my next pet. Gabrielle was the name of an Arch Angel and the only Angel to appear in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scripture. It remains fairly consistent through different languages. In Latin and Polish, Gabrielle is the same as it is in English. Gabrielle (גַּבְרִיאֵל or Gavri'el) means "God is my strength." In its shortened form, Gabby in English means talkative. Likely this comes from Gabrielle and all angels being messengers. In the Book of Daniel, Gabrielle tells the prophet the meaning of his visions. In the Book of Luke, Gabrielle announced to Mary that should would have a child. In Muslim tradition, Gabrielle is the angel that conversed with Muhammad. Gabrielle is a go between that spans religions and tribes. Gabrielle's strength is in her words. As a child, I was very talkative. As an adult, I am more laconic until you get me on a topic I've done research about then sit down and get comfortable because I can go for a while. As I got older, I decided it would be the name of my first child. The name works regardless of the child's gender. Gabrielle is described in some places as a man, other places as a woman, or as a gender indeterminate being. This was the plan for some time until I decided that I would be too jealous of any pet or child I had with the name Gabrielle. When I presented myself to the world as my authentic self, I would claim the name Gabrielle as my own.

The complicated answer depends more on the revelation of experience and less on clear logical deduction. Gabby is my name. I knew by programming to respond to my name like I knew what to do when someone waved at me. I was alerted to someone speaking at me and wanting my attention. But my deadname never felt like my name. It marked me but did not reflect me. The deadname echoed with what my community assigned me to be. My deadname meant getting good marks and grades in school. My deadname meant marking pages while reading and making pages as I write. My deadname was metalanguage for marks, signs, words in general. My deadname marked anything and nothing. My deadname was a dead or empty sign. That is how I felt.  My deadname was a title for a job I did not want. My deadname was either a vacancy sign or else a generic placeholder awaiting the official title to arrive. My dead middle name was not much better. It meant willpower and choice but not my will or choice. It meant the will of society to determine my gender for me. It was a declaration rather than a question. It said, "you will do and be this," when it should have asked, "what will you do and be?" According to stories from my parents, my deadname was in honor of a doctor my mother knew and my middle deadname was in honor of my grandfather. But these were their names. They were not my names. When I first began to shed them, I found that being called M. was better than being called by my deadname. M. could mean me. M. is a famous transgender woman. In Marvel Comics, M. is a Muslim woman with mutant abilities of super strength, flight, healing, super-intellect and other powers of the mind. M. also matched me with my friend Em. Because we were so often together, folks at work would call us M. and Em. To this day, as a neutral alternative to full names, M. and M.W. still describe me in writing, work, and even among my children who say with the candor of a seven year old, "it is easier to spell!"

When I would come to claim my own name, both of the persons my deadname and middle deadname signified would be still be honored but in a way that was authentic to me. When I went into the courtroom, the middle name I claimed, "Mary-Willow," enfolded the first three letters of my deadname and the first three letters of my middle deadname into the two parts. The middle name also matched my gender neutral academic and writing name, M.W., which I had chosen in honor of all of the other women and men I respected who had done the same; not least of all J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton. As whole names, Mary signified the many Mary's of scripture, the Virgin Mother and Mary Madeline. I would honor my family's history but also my heroes. The name Mary was big enough to contain all their meanings and still most of all mean me. Willow has less human origins and meanings. True, it means the TV character from the show Buffy with whom I most identified. But the name also signified a tree with which I felt a great deal of kinship. Despite my allergies, as a girl I often preferred to be around trees than people. The trees did not treat me like a boy or anyone I wasn't. I could be me with the trees. I would imagine I was playing with the elves among the willows. They would listen and keep my secret. No one asks trees if they know anyones secrets. But they do. Among trees, willows are one of my favorites. Willows have long draping leaves that cover them from sight. I often like to wear my hair like a willow. Willows look sad, like they are crying or mourning over the world. I get that. I feel that. The word "willow" means "a turning." Willows turn in toward their own thoughts and turn to listen. Willows look wise, like their heads are bent in thought and listening. Like I said, willows keep secrets. Willows hide themselves and others, keep them safe. A willow is a wise old woman friend of Pocahontas in the disney animated film. A willow is a grumpy sentient tree in Lord of the Rings. Willows know much and have seen much.

The answer, call me Gabby because that means me is complex in its simplicity. In the end, I claimed Gabby as my name because that was my name. When people say Gabby, I don't just look up out of some conditioned response. I look up because Gabby means me. Gabby isn't just a word from the outside, signifying some expectation in the world. Gabby resonates with something inside me. The Bible is full of references to God knowing a persons name before they were spoken into creation. In scripture, God calls someone by their name and they respond, "speak, Lord, your servant is listening." I am Gabby because I am called Gabby. That names calls to me because it connects what is inside me with the world beyond. Gabby is not just a name that makes me more comfortable, it is more accurate. Call me Gabby because that is factually who I am. Call me Gabby because that is legally who I am. Call me Gabby because that is what wakes me up from the slumber of this world and invites me to say to you, "speak, I am listening." And I will be listening. Call me Gabby so I can share with you some of the things I have heard. Call me Gabby so we can learn how to listen. The ability for any of us to claim our own names is a blessing that should not be underestimated. There is an affirmation of self that I have been able to make in changing my legal name that too few are able. Transgender students are not called their names in school or on their report cards. Called by another name, their authority over the details of their own lives are ignored. Deadnaming becomes a way of not seeing the transgender youths. Too often, because their communities refuse to see them, they disappear. We give them strength when we call them by their name. We give them strength when we give them language to deliver their messages. We give them strength when we listen to the revelations they have for us. On this day, I am honored to be able to receive my hearing and long for the day in which I can share the glad tidings of others struggling to be heard. Call me Gabby but don't stop listening for the lives that are yet to be incarnated and yet to be named.


The Court Date is Set


The Court Case is Won

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