This is a long post, partly because it’s a catalog of the immense amount of work that changing my name has been. Here’s a summary: 1) choosing my new name was a huge part of affirming my identity, 2) seeing and hearing my old name a hundred times a day hurts, 3) changing my name, which is key to avoid encountering my old name, has required a lot of time, organization, money, and emotional labor, 4) a lot of barriers to name changes are just a matter of poor software design, 5) software designers can avoid most of these barriers by not using names or metadata involving names as primary keys in databases, thinking carefully about whether name changes need to be verified, and perhaps not gathering names at all.
Names are deeply personal. But as a trans person, my name assigned at birth was often deeply impersonal. “Andrew” felt like a label parents had given me, rather than something that identified me. Up until I came out a month ago, I used “Andy,” which felt a bit more like mine because it was less masculine. But when people used it to get my attention, it always felt like someone was calling me out by some Star Wars robot asset number: “D3235, do you have a sec to chat?” “Hey D3235, it’s been so long.” “D3235, you are defective.” Being addressed by my deadname—how trans people often refer to the name they were assigned at birth—has always felt dehumanizing, because it referred to a social identity that represented me, but wasn’t me.
So this past summer, when I decided to socially transition, choosing a new name was at the top of my list. I knew I wanted to keep my initials, partly for the convenience of keeping my UW email address, partly because I thought it would be easier for people to learn my new name if it still started with an “A,” and partly out of respect for my parent’s choice. I spent hours reading through lists of “A” names, much like I did as an expecting parent, trying to find a name that felt like me. When I saw Amy, I knew immediately that I’d found my new name. When I see it and hear it, it actually feels like it refers to the me.
I was initially scared to share it with people. I didn’t know how it would feel to be called my new name. I mustered the courage to tell my wife, and the first time she used it, it felt incredible: for the first time, I felt like someone was referring to me, not just to my body. When my therapist first used it, it felt equally incredible, as if this person who I had told all of my secrets somehow knew me better, just because of my new name. In a way, hearing and seeing my name became addictive: there was a part of me that was never seen, and it was hungry for recognition. Telling people my name, and having them use it, fed that hunger, and became an incredibly healing source of affirmation. That was true when I came out to the rest of my family, and to a million people online.
But changing a name is no simple process. Every day, I’m deadnamed by people in my life, by emails, and by websites. Face to face, many people catch themselves and apologize. And I get it: the associations in our brains are hard to update without practice, and most people aren’t practicing. But the rest of the world—the legal world, the digital world—never corrects itself. It can’t, because it doesn’t know my new name, because it makes it so hard for me to update it.
In the rest of this post, I want to catalog these name legal and digital name change barriers. I want to do this partly for anyone in the world who also wants to change their name, and needs a guide for the work it entails, so they can prepare for it emotionally and logistically. But I also want to do it for all the people in the world who run organizations and institutions that have databases that store our names. I want software designers to understand why names matter, how organizations’ efforts to capture, store, and protect our names cause harm, and what you can do to reduce that harm.
Names as information
When you were born, someone wrote your birth name down on a piece of paper and established your legal name. Your parents or guardians spoke it to you every day. They started writing it on forms, for school, for taxes, for insurance. Eventually, you started speaking your name. And as you aged, you started writing it on forms. Over your life, this little bit of information that identifies you to the world slowly seeped into society’s records of your existence, and into people’s minds as a representation of you.
We transmit our names in many forms. We speak them to others and they memorize it, associating it with our faces. Sometimes we write them on paper forms and those forms get entered into filing cabinet for later reference. And more commonly today, we enter our names in web forms on the internet, and our names get stored in a digital database for later retrieval.
Once a person or an organization has our name, they work hard to protect it. Paper forms are locked away in cabinets with keys. Websites encrypt databases and they erect authorization barriers like passwords, pins, and secret questions to make sure that no one discovers our name or gains access to change it. And the countless people in your life deeply entangle your name in associations with the experiences they’ve had with you in the world. Once we give our name to these physical, digital, and biological databases, they become deeply entangled in our relationships to people, to organizations, and to governments.
Our names, as information, are deeply entangled in our existence. We carry pieces of plastic everywhere we go to prove our identity at work, when checking in to hotels, when accessing a car rental. We use them as an index into resources, such as our bank account, our airports, our borders, and government social programs. We use them to give credit when we put names on the spines of books and author lists of publications. Organizations use our names to speak to us hundreds of times a day in emails, in letters, in advertisements, and in person. Names loosely encode our nationality, ethnicity, sex, and gender identity, making them powerful forces for discrimination.
What does it actually take to update all of these records of my name? To have every person in my life delete my old name and use my new name? To have every organization recognize my new name? To have the government recognize my new name? As it turns out, it takes a lot of time, a lot of emotional endurance, and a lot of task management skills. Looking back on the last four weeks of legal and security barriers, I’m amazed anyone changes their name to any degree of satisfaction. But it is possible, with some persistence and patience.
Changing my legal name
The first big item on my list was changing my legal name. This is the major barrier to recognition for most people, and the seed of name change in all other organizations that depend on legal name (e.g., workplaces, health care, financial institutions). In Washington state, name changes are easier than in many other places, but it still wasn’t easy:
- I consulted the King County Courthouse’s name change page, which instructed me to fill out a petition form, bring my government-issued ID, and bring $201.50 in cash to the courthouse.
- I went to the bank to get the cash.
- I filled out the petition, went to the courthouse at 9:30am, and waited in line to submit the form and pay.
- I waited for the daily 11 am name change hearing in front of a judge.
- I entered the hearing room and found a seat with a dozen other residents of King County and waited for the judge to arrive. Some were getting married, some changed their name because of a new religion, and some, like me, were choosing new first names to reflect our identity.
- The judge called us up individually, roughly in order of filing.
- When the judge called my birth name, I stood in front of him, swore to tell the truth, and testified that there would be no harm done by changing my name.
- He approved the change, congratulated me, and then I waited for the county clerk certified orders at the side of the room.
- I congratulated another trans person on their new name while I waited :)
- I left the courthouse with two court-certified, signed, and stamped copies of my name change court court order, the only proof in the world of my new legal name.
I walked out of the courthouse on an incredible affirmation high. But that quickly wore off when I realized how weird it was carrying around two pieces of paper that say I had a new name, even though every other piece of identification I had said the opposite. If immigration enforcement asked me to prove my citizenship, could I? Was my driver’s license still valid? Did I just lose my entire credit history? Do these court orders even mean anything if everything else in the world still has my old name? I realized that the only thing linking me to my previous legal identity and my new one were these two pieces of paper. And it was starting to rain.
I put the court orders in my bag and walked over to the Social Security office to submit an application for a new social security card. The instructions on the social security website were pretty straightforward: bring a driver’s license, a passport, the court order, the application, and my old social security card to any social security office. I made my way to the office in downtown Seattle and waited for 1 hour. My number was called, and I spoke to a very nice clerk who reviewed my paperwork, filled out a digital request for a name change, and she told me to expect my new card in the mail in 10 days. And it couldn’t come soon enough: I needed it to update my passport, my legal name at work, my legal name at all of my banks and retirement accounts, and most importantly, my driver’s license and debit and credit cards that I show to people with my dead name every day, outing me as trans to strangers.
When my social security card eventually came the next week, I next prioritized my driver’s license. I went to a Washington state licensing center with my wife, bringing my old license, my court order, a form filled out by my doctor indicating “treatment appropriate for a gender transition” so that I could change the gender marker on my license, and a checkbook to pay another $100 to the state. I waited for an hour, then spoke to a kind man about my name and gender change, and he quickly reviewed the materials and started the process. He asked me to sit back down while he talked to someone else about the changes, and we nervously waited while he pointed at the screen, and the woman looking over his shoulder looked sternly at one of my documents. Then suddenly, he called out “Amy, you’re all set!” He took my photo, told me the license would come in 10 days, and handed me a printed temporary license.
The same day, I visited the cute little City of Seattle, University Customer Service center to submit an application for name and gender change on my passport. I brought my old passport, some terrible passport photos from a FedEx Office store, my checkbook to pay the state another $160, my driver’s license, my court order, and a signed letter from my doctor once again indicating “appropriate treatment for a gender transition.” The woman at the desk was wonderful, and informative, and congratulatory, and gave me really clear expectations about the likelihood of the request being approved, and the expedited timeline of receiving my new passport. I had to give up one my two precious court orders to mail to the State Department, which made me a little nervous. Now I only had one document linking my old name to my new name, I had no driver’s license, and I had no passport. Did I even exist in the eyes of the government anymore?
Overall, the legal and governmental aspects of my name change didn’t take much time—perhaps 10 hours of transit, paperwork, and waiting at offices. But they were the scariest. It was rarely clear from the outset whether any of the changes would be approved, and if they weren’t, what recourse I’d have. I felt fortunate after the process to live in a state that made most of this quite easy, with lots of progressive people who were kind and congratulatory. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from people in other U.S. states having to wait months to change their names because of ridiculous laws that require putting your name change in the news paper week after week.
Changing my name in Internet accounts
While I waited in limbo for all of my legal identification to be mailed, I had plenty of other work to do. I’ve always kept a reasonably organized 1Password of every organization that has my personal information. I opened up my list and found that I had more than 500 organizations to notify, and another 200 accounts that I didn’t want anymore that I could just delete. I used 1Passwords tagging system to tag all of them Deadname, and then slowly went through the list to tag some of them Critical (like my bank and work), some of them Update (because I use them frequently, like my Starbucks account and Uber), and some of them Delete (because I never use them). I then began working through these three groups of accounts in decreasing order of importance.
My wife helped out. We spent hours each evening and weekend for the past few weeks on websites, on the phone, and sending emails. Every night after work I would come home and work on 5 or 10 more. For organizations I had to call, I blocked of 1–2 hours each day at work to get on the phone, navigate my way through customer service, and request the change. In all, I spent about 100 hours over the past 4 week changing names, and I still have 100 of the 500 organizations to go. Below I categorize the various experiences I had, from easy to hard, to give a sense of the range of difficulties and processes I encountered.
Changing my name on email accounts and clients was mostly straightforward. I updated my name on Google accounts, in Microsoft Outlook, and on all of my devices, and it mostly appeared correctly on other people’s devices when I emailed them. However, Microsoft Outlook was particularly bad about updating: many people send me troubling stories of my name being cached, and their efforts to try to delete the cache so that my name would appear correctly.
My favorite name change experiences were the automatic ones. After I showed my wonderful HR person at the University of Washington my new social security hard, she updated it in Workday, and it automatically propagated it to most of my benefits organizations—dental, retirement, life insurance, and health insurance just magically updated. Kaiser Permanente was the only exception to this; it was supposed to update automatically, but didn’t, so I had to call member services, and they updated it for me without any further evidence (and Kaiser had already made it easy to change my preferred name, so I rarely saw my legal name). Apparently, changing your name with creditors also automatically updates names at the three major credit reporting agencies, but it apparently takes months to appear. Despite delays, these came for free, and only took time because I keep logging in every day to see if they’d been changed yet.
About 5% of my accounts didn’t have my name. Mailing lists, various academic publishers, online billing websites, and my August smart doorbell just had my UW email or my cell phone number. It still took a few minutes to find out that they didn’t have my name, but each one was a huge relief that I didn’t have to see my old name, or fix anything.
About 45% of the accounts online were straightforward login and edit affairs: I logged in, change my email address, name, username, headshots, and gender markers. These organizations included a wide range of services that I use regularly, like Airbnb, Amazon, AT&T, Facebook, LinkedIn, Netflix, New York Times, Twitter, Slack, and Uber. Most of these were retail websites that could care less what my name was; they just wanted my money and my correct contact information, and were happy to let me call myself anything I wanted (except for the name in my billing information). Each one still took about 5–10 minutes to fix, with logins, email verifications, and finding the place on the set to edit my data. And of course, some of my 1Password data was out of date, so there were several password resets and recoveries.
About 4% of accounts would let me change my username, but only if I deleted and recreated my account. OmniFocus support sent me a complex 7-step list of instructions on how to create a new account, sync all of my devices to the new account in which to sync my to do’s, then email back to have my old account deleted. Delta Dental simply deleted my account and told me to create a new one, since the web accounts are basically read only. My Seattle Public Utilities web account was the same, only an account for accessing and paying bills, easily deleted and recreated.
About 6% websites wouldn’t let me change my name at all, including random accounts like my Dyson customer service account, old health care providers like UW Medicine, old health insurance providers like Blue Cross Blue Shield, and the occasional retail site. They had no web interface for changing it, no customer service contact information for changing it. My deadname will apparently live in their databases forever.
Another 8% of of websites wouldn’t let me change my email address, including companies like Bitmoji, Code.org, Gazelle, Powell’s Books, Whole Foods, and my hair salon. These websites used my email address as my username, and provided no way to change it, and no obvious way to reach the company to change it. This is survivable for now, since I can still get email at my old address, but wouldn’t work at all for someone who loses access to their email address. That, and I don’t want to see my old address every time I log in.
About 6% of websites made me email customer service them to change my name, including a mix of retail sites, publishers, and government services like Puget Sound’s Good 2 Go tolling system and Orca Card transit payment system. I had to out myself each time, which wasn’t too intimidating, since I could take my time crafting a message that said what I needed. But managing who I’d reached out to, who’s replied, and who hasn’t has been overwhelming. There are still about 8 companies I reached out to more than 2 weeks ago with no reply.
About 10% of websites made me call their customer service line to change my name. These were far more nerve-wracking than email. Not only did I have to navigate a bunch of terrible automated phone interfaces to find my way to an actual person, and not only did I always had to out myself every time, but customer service agents would always begin by asking my name. My voice doesn’t really pass as female consistently, so when I’d say “Amy,” they’d often say, “Okay, sir, how can I help you?” and then they’d make me prove who I was because Amy didn’t match the name on my account. If I used my deadname, not only did I feel terrible having to say it, but they’d use it throughout the call, even after I’d told them my new name. The only other option was saying something like, “My name is Amy but the name on the account is Andrew” and then they either didn’t know what to call me or they became skeptical that I was the account owner. By the end of the call, usually everything was done and fine, but only after lots of confusion. I only had the emotional stamina to do a few of these each day.
About 10% of websites used usernames instead of email addresses, but wouldn’t let me change my username. Google was the most heinous of these: there is simply no way for me to change my Google username from andyjko to something with my new name. I have to look at or type my old Gmail address every time I log in, I have to see it when I switch Google accounts, and I have to see it in my mail clients, which show both my old email and my new email alias that I’ve attached to my Gmail account. My only other option was to painstakingly and migrate all of my Google data, service by service, into a new Google account; some of this migration is lossy, and some migration is not possible. I wasn’t ready for that massive IT project; I don’t know if I’ll ever be. Many other services were just as bad as Google, but less imoprtant, including Honda Financial Services, domain name registrars, medical providers, UPS, and other random services.
About 3% of accounts required me to provide a copy of my court order. Alaska Airlines made me email a copy of it. I had to show it to Bank of America in person. Caliber Home Loans made me fax it (I still don’t know if they received it). Comcast and PayPal made me upload to a website. I had to bring the original in person to one of Washington’s third-party car title providers; they told me the new title would come in 6–8 weeks, and that I should come back if it never comes. TIAA required me to mail the original court order and trust that they would return it. I refused to send it, because I only have one left after sending one to the State Department for my passport. I hope they’ll accept my copy, but I suspect I’ll be mailing back and forth with them for a few months. Let’s hope I don’t need access to any of the money in my retirement account.
Another 3% of accounts required me to provide a copy of my driver’s license. American Airlines made me email it. Bank of America, Seattle Public Utilities, and Costco made me show it in person. PayPal and Delta made me upload it and still haven’t processed it. Usually, these involved a person just looking at my ID and making a change. These were pretty painless because I kept a clearly scanned copy of PDF and JPG formats on my computer for quick and easily uploading.
While most of my name changes have been seamless after making them, there were some immediate complications I didn’t anticipate:
- For some reason, when I changed my name and gender marker for my MetroMile car insurance, my base rate went up 30%. Some online have speculated that it was because of the gender marker change, others speculate it’s because they did a credit check and found no credit history under my new name.
- When I changed my Apple ID from my old to new email address, all of my notes and podcasts stopped syncing. I had to log out of iCloud on all of my devices, which forced me to lose unsynchronized changes to Notes. It also apparently deleted all of my Podcast subscriptions.
- I went to a Mexican restaurant and bar with my wife and ordered a horchata. The waiter asked for my ID, since it was a bar, but he wouldn’t accept my old driver’s license with a hole punched through it. I had to walk 15 minutes back to my car to find the temporary paper license I’d accidentally left in the car. Oops.
I have lots of work left to do. My passport hasn’t arrived and I have a flight to Finland soon. Non-US airlines require a copy of my passport to change my frequent flier accounts. I have to change my name on the 8 flights booked under my deadname; some airlines have told me I will be charged change fees because they have to reissue the tickets. There are 35 more accounts I haven’t updated because they’re low priority, and another 70 accounts I haven’t updated because I don’t use them anymore. I’m waiting for my mortgage to update, my Capital One account to update, my home and life insurance to update, my TIAA retirement account to update. My TSA Pre update apparently takes 6–9 months; the customer service agent was pretty sure I wouldn’t need my passport to make the change but wasn’t sure. I have no idea if the credit reporting agencies actually will update automatically, and the best advice seems to be to check your credit report in 3 months.
And then there are the thousands of marketing databases that have my name and old email address that I don’t even have access to. Every day, I go through my inbox and try to unsubscribe to everything I can, but the emails keep coming. Staring at a hundred marketing emails that start with “Hi Andy!” is a terrible way to start my day. I could make them all go away if I could get away from my old Gmail address, but Google has made this nearly impossible.
Changing my publications
Whereas website changes were hard, my academic publications are nearly impossible to change. I have more than a hundred publications archived by publishers like ACM, IEEE, Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, and open source archives like DBLP, ArXiv, Google Scholar, Semantic Scholar, and other academic search engines. My deadname is not only in all of those search indices of publications, but it’s also deeply inscribed in not only PDFs of my publications, but the more than 6,000 papers that cite those publications. Many of those citations are fine because they only use my initials, but most use my full name.
I think, as do many other researchers who change their name, that they should all say my new name. They are a record of who published the work, not a record of the name of the person who published the work at the time of publication. Some publishers disagree and count the name as an intrinsic part of the archive. Others don’t think it’s important enough to fix. Others, like ACM, have finally started to take the problem seriously and are investigating solutions. I’m not hopeful, given how under-resourced and conservative academic publishers are, and how incredibly difficult changing PDFs is. I think my academic name will be forever out of date in research archives.
After four weeks and 100 hours of name change labor, I think I’m almost done. I have a small glimpse of a day when I won’t have to stare at my deadname on the cards in my wallet, I won’t have to see it in every email I get from marketers, and I won’t have to come out to every random employee at a restaurant or store. Soon, on most days, I’ll be Amy to every person I encounter, and won’t have to be reminded of the 39 years I spent with a name that didn’t represent me.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Hm, that was a lot of work, but it doesn’t seem that bad,” consider the broader context:
- I spent all of my free time in the past month on this. All of it. I did basically nothing else in my downtime.
- I live in a state where name changes are comparably easy. But in some states, it takes months or years to get a court order, and a lot more money.
- Every customer service person I’ve talked to in Seattle has been so nice and so helpful once they realized I was trans. They put aside their icy customer service stoicism, and sensed my situation, and made it as easy as they could. Somehow, I suspect people in more conservative parts of our country aren’t so accommodating.
- I’ve spent about $500 so far on fees to change my name and gender marker. That’s a ridiculous amount of money that is out of reach for most people. People shouldn’t have to save up 50% of their monthly minimum wage income to have their chosen name recognized by the state. The only federal agency that made this free was social security.
- I’m obsessively and aggressively organized, and incredibly persistent when it comes to getting things done. The 100 hours it took me (so far) might take a less organized person twice as long. I also had a supportive and wonderful partner helping me out. Some of the people in my life who want to change their name hear about the work involved and are too intimidated to even start.
- I have 39 years of emotional resilience that helped me survive the pain of these 100 hours. I would get off a call with customer service, hot faced, angry, and sometimes crying, but I had a lifetime of strategies to push all that aside, stop the tears, and call another company. My alien ability to suppress my emotions made this about as easy as it could be, and it was still really, emotionally exhausting.
The design implications of my name change experience are pretty simple:
- If you’re designing a service, make changing a name, username, and email as easy as you can possibly make it. Remember that if someone is changing their name, they’re doing it in a hundred other places too, and every little usability problem and security barrier will make them hate you and your organization.
- Don’t use names, emails, or usernames as primary keys in databases. All three encode names, and names change for all kinds of reasons. Use a meaningless ID as a primary key, letting names and emails be what they are: highly mutable ways of referring to or contacting a person.
- Don’t ask for a name if you don’t need it. Marketing emails don’t need to address me by name. Web applications don’t need to say “Hi Amy!” for me to get value from them. By even gathering the data, you risk mis-naming someone without knowing it and losing their business.
Hopefully, my story provides a sense of why these simple design guidelines are so important to follow. If you’re in charge of a software service, go audit your database schemas against these guidelines and prioritize the problems you see. There are a large number of companies that have gained my respect for having a seamless process, but an even larger number of companies that have permanently lost my business.