Hello, I’m Cara. Or at least I have been Cara for a few weeks. Before that, I was Ruth Pattiata. And before that… well, long story.
So. I was born Ruth B. C. Pattiata (there, you can steal my identity now). I spent my formative years in a country where it’s not that common for a lot of tribes to not have family names. Hence, by the time I started school, I was Ruth B. as is the convention. Fast forward a couple years to the first time I filled out my name in a form in an English school: I was gently corrected by a teacher who said that it’s not how I’m supposed to identify myself. It took me a couple of tries (whilst classmates giggled that I keep getting my name ‘wrong’) but I eventually became Ruth Pattiata. The name most of you would have known me by.
And then… And then I felt like a change. One day I decided that I liked a shortened version of my middle name and that I’m going to use it. No reason, except that (a) I felt like it and (b) I seem to have a track record of making relatively big decisions on a whim (e.g. becoming vegetarian for five years, becoming non-vegetarian after five years, taking music instead of art in high school on the toss of a coin, chopping most of my hair off using my very own two hands). So there we have it. Cara Pattiata.
So what’s in a name, anyway? What does it matter? After all, “that which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet”, as the great playwright Shakespeare wrote.
What’s in a name?
Do names matter? Psychologists think so. Just think of news headlines: British people living abroad are ‘expatriates‘ whilst people who settle in the UK are ‘migrants‘. Coloured athletes are ‘British’ whilst coloured convicts are ‘black’. A winning Andy Murray is ‘British’ whilst a defeated one miraculously turns into a ‘Scot’… you get the idea.
The importance of names doesn’t stop there. We put all sorts of presumptions on hearing people’s names. US job seekers are more likely to get a callback to interview if they have a ‘white sounding’ first name. People with names which are easier to pronounce have been found to be judged more positively by others. Also, dare I mention Katie Hopkins?
Anyhow, maybe most of that doesn’t apply to me. I’m a migrant whatever my name is, I’m neither a national treasure nor a criminal, and Ruth sounds about as ‘white’ as Cara (in fact, on a side note, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked whether Ruth is really my birth name, since such an English name doesn’t go with such an Asian-looking girl). But still, the point stands. Names are important.
So what’s changed since I’ve become Cara?
I mean, most people are still in Ruth mode. And who can blame them? I’ve been Ruth for over 20 years. I’ve been Ruth for the entire time most people have known me. The way that I announced that I’m changing my name (via a Facebook post, after modifying all of my online aliases on various social media platforms) did mean that a fair few friends were confused about whether it was a case of me leaving my phone unlocked in the wrong hands.
But I guess I’ve learned some things about myself.
I wasn’t too invested in my identity as Ruth
Maybe it was because I’ve modified my name several times already. Maybe it’s because I don’t really like who I was (which is a whole other can of worms that I’m not going to get into right now!) and wanted to reinvent myself in a tangible way. But it didn’t take me long at all to consider myself as Cara and ‘say goodbye’ to Ruth. It feels almost like I’m starting again with a new identity and a fresh start.
I like being in control
I enjoyed the process of deciding that I’m going to change my name, choosing a shortened version of my middle name that I liked (runners up include: Caro, Trixie (from my other middle name), and Caroline), and introducing myself to people using the name that I’ve chosen. True, since my parents gave me three different names you could argue that I technically chose to call myself Ruth, but this feels a lot more intentional. It’s nice that it’s still a variation of my given name, rather than creating a new one independent of my parents.
Whether changing my name actually gave me control over my identity or just an illusion of it, I quite like it.
An unexpected exercise in empathy
So, on this tangent that I didn’t foresee, I guess changing my name gave me a little more empathy towards transgender people.
Okay, hands up who’s heard of deadnaming. In a nutshell, it’s “the act of referring to a transgender person’s birth name instead of their chosen name”. By deadnaming someone in the process of gender transitioning, a transgendered person is denied their identity; this has severe psychological effects on the person.
In my own Ruth –> Cara transition, I’ve had people ask why exactly I felt the need to change my name. That I can deal with. I’ve had people say ‘Ruth’ from habit. Again, understandable. I’ve even said to my partner that I would understand if calling me Cara is a bit weird since he fell in love with a Ruth. However, one person (who shall remain nameless) on hearing that I’ve changed my name declared “Oh, but I prefer Ruth,” and proceeded to continue calling me that out of preference.
Well, doesn’t that make my blood boil; I just about stopped myself from saying “good thing it’s not your name, isn’t it?”. Seriously, the cheek!
Of course, that in no way compares to deadnaming. My gender identity is not at stake here. I was just a little bit annoyed. But that little incident seriously changed my perspective on deadnaming transgender people. Before, I’ve just heard of it and know that it’s disrespectful. Now, having had someone decide that they have more right than me to assign my identity, I know how important of an issue this is.
Yeah, I didn’t mean that blog post to suddenly turn into a transgender issues article. It was originally planned as a general splurge of thoughts on my experience of changing my name. However, whilst writing it out, the sheer annoyance of my encounter with Them-Who-Will-Not-Be-Named overwhelmed me all over again so I just decided to keep it.
TL;DR – names are important. Just look at what happened to Romeo & Juliet.