By Stephen Carter
Or click here to download the audio file: Call Me by My Name
When I was in first grade, I decided to change my name.
Well, not change it, exactly, but switch it. My parents had called me by my middle name since I was born—mainly, I think, because my first name was the name my father went by and they wanted to avoid confusion.
Family lore says that I stopped using Ruben because there was a dog on our street with the same name. But I don’t actually remember how I came to my decision; I only remember that I didn’t particularly care for my middle name, even though I had heard it from my birth. It wasn’t the right shape for me somehow.
The main thing I remember about the process is my mom writing my first name on my hand before school one day so that I would remember how to spell it. This new word seemed complicated, especially with that “ph” in the middle that sounded like a “v,” but my name had moved from my hand to my head before the day was out.
The fall of 2001, my wife and I moved with our two children to Alaska. But it was more than a geographical move: my wife boarded the flight in Salt Lake going by her first name, and deplaned in Fairbanks going by her second. It was the perfect time to make the switch. We had moved to a place where no one knew us, where they would accept whatever name she gave them. Since our children still called her “Mom,” I was the only person who had to make the change on a day-to-day basis. And, with a decade of habit behind me, it was hard. I almost didn’t use her name at all for the first couple of years, just calling her “Sweetie.”
Most of her family still hasn’t made the switch, and it’s kind of a sore spot for her, though she understands why it would be difficult. Things get attached to names: emotions, memories, habits—and that weight is hard to move. But she’s been shaping this name, defining it, filling it out over almost two decades. When you call out her former name, you call someone else now.
A few days before Christmas in 2015, our second child, 16 years old, interrupted a viewing of White Christmas to tell us that he was transgender and that she had chosen a new name: Laila.
This may seem strange, but dealing with my daughter’s name change was much more difficult than dealing with her gender change. Part of the difficulty was purely practical: she asked us to start using her new name before she had really come out to anyone else, so I was supposed to use it in some contexts but not in others. But the change was most difficult to implement while in private conversation with my wife. It wasn’t just the 16 years worth of synapses that had to be realigned, it was that all the memories we had of our daughter were still attached to a name that she said no longer belonged to her. It seemed that the tender feelings we bore toward her youthful self had suddenly snapped loose, the small face we had loved for so long drifting away—especially when she began calling her previous name her “dead name.” It was very close to the truth: I felt as if a kind of death were occurring.
But the change had to be made. Both my wife and I had done the same thing. We knew how important it is to be called by your chosen name.
A year or so earlier, I had put together a ceremony for my family of origin so that we could consecrate my sister’s sealing. Not many of us had temple recommends, but we still wanted to bless her new life. That small, extra-temple ritual became my most precious memory from that day. And it gave me an idea.
I had given Laila her initial name soon after her birth in a blessing ceremony. And it seemed to me that we needed another ceremony, an event we could point to as the moment of change—the public birth of her new name.
Since Laila is a big fan of curry, we gathered with family and friends at an Indian restaurant, Laila showing up in a striking new dress that I thought fit the occasion well. We all ordered and ate, laughing and joking in our usual way. But I was having a hard time being a part of it because I really wanted to start carving out a bit of quiet, intimate space. But I eventually understood that it wasn’t going to happen, so, before the food was quite eaten, I told everyone to shut up and let me talk for a minute.
I held up a handkerchief-sized prayer flag an artist friend had made for the occasion that had Laila’s original name on it. I said, “This is the name we’ve known Mason by for 16 years. We’ve called him by it for as long as he’s been alive. It’s a name that has a lot of love attached to it. It carries memories that we treasure. It’s a precious name to us. I’m going to pass this flag around the table. As you receive it, hold it a moment and say Mason’s name for the last time.”
Though I could tell that my request sounded hokey, everyone obliged. When the prayer flag got back to me, I folded it carefully and gave it to my wife.
Then I took out the flag with Laila’s new name on it and held it up. “This is Laila’s new name,” I said. “It is a name she chose herself. It is the name that our love will now be attached to. It is the name that will gather precious memories around it. It is the name that will evoke Laila’s face, personality, and soul. I will pass this flag around our table. As you receive it, hold it a moment, and say Laila’s new name.”
When the flag got back to me, I presented it to Laila.
I really don’t know if anyone there remembers the ritual as being anything other than awkward, but it served its purpose for me by giving me that definite moment. We had acknowledged the change publicly; we had given it our blessing. I no longer felt ambivalent about using her new name and pronoun in any context. They had become official.
The funny thing is, the story of Laila’s name-change ritual always affects the people I tell it to more than the event seemed to affect anyone who was actually there. Perhaps that’s part of the magic of ritual: even if the event itself isn’t everything we had hoped for, its story can gain significance as it gets told—the story shaping our memory of the ritual more than the event itself did.
Perhaps that’s the reason I flew into a small rage one Christmas a few years ago. My family of origin was together in the kitchen preparing dinner when the subject of my name change happened to come up. The same story was rehashed again, with everyone laughing at the small boy who didn’t want to share his name with a dog. Someone asked me rhetorically, “Do you remember that?”
My response surprised me. “I don’t remember it at all,” I said in an even voice, my eyes on the food I was preparing.
“Oh, come on!” they smiled, hoping to push me out of my joke.
“Nope,” I said. “For all I know, that story could be completely made up.”
I set the knife down and glared around the table. “I actually hate that story!” I shouted. “And it keeps getting told over and over again. It feels like something everyone uses to keep me in a box. It makes me into a silly little boy who made a silly little decision. It’s kind of personal, don’t you think? Shouldn’t I have a little bit of control over my own story?”
I guess I sounded pretty serious (I was), because no one has told the story in my presence since.
And I’ve realized that I really did need that story back. That root part of me had been under collective control for far too long. Now that I have gone through a child’s name change, I understand that there was doubtless affection in their telling of that story, but it wasn’t what I needed. I needed to give that long ago little boy the room to have many possible reasons for his decision, room for him to possess some dignity. I think he deserves it for taking his small stand against such weighty social expectations—room for his new name to be valid without a dog nipping at his heels for the rest of his life.
During the October 2018 General Conference, Russell M. Nelson, new president of the LDS Church, told the world that “Mormon” was no longer to be used as a descriptor for the Church or its members.
I had a few moments of giddy optimism after his announcement. “What if,” I thought, “the Church is doing this so that we can shed the traditions that have held us back for so long?”
“What if the Church is getting ready to say, ‘The Mormon Church would never give women the priesthood, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would! The Mormon Church would never apologize for the way it treated African-Americans all those years, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would! The Mormon Church would never give anything but a cold shoulder to the LGBTQ community, but the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would welcome them with open arms!’” And I decided that I would happily give up my beloved, labored-for name of Mormon to be a part of this reinvented, Christlike-love-centered church.
Then Dallin Oaks gave his talk.
Our knowledge of God’s revealed plan of salvation requires us to oppose current social and legal pressures to retreat from traditional marriage and to make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women. . . . [Satan] seeks to confuse gender, [and] to distort marriage . . .
Different name. Same church.
I’d had brief glimpses of hope before, like the time the new bishop of my ward (whom I’d never met) told me, during what I thought would be a run-of-the-mill temple recommend interview, that the Young Men and Young Women wanted to know how they could reach out to Laila. I was astonished and moved by this unexpected offer.
“Here’s the obstacle we need to overcome,” I said. “When the November 2015 policy about the children of gay parents was announced, Laila’s Sunday school class had a discussion about it. She got to hear first-hand, with no filters, how her class members felt about people like her, and it really wounded her. Perhaps we could start by discussing those attitudes with the Young Men and Young Women, many of whom were in that class, and what a more Christ-like approach might be.”
An uncomfortable silence ensued.
“I suppose church culture isn’t quite ready for that yet,” I finally said.
“Thanks for asking,” I said.
A year and a half later, I was sitting with Laila in a courtroom. The session had started late because the microphones in the previous room weren’t working and there were still a few cases to wrap up. So we sat through an hour and a half of various civil cases until the entire room had emptied, Laila’s name and gender marker change application apparently being last on the docket.
The judge called her up to the podium and asked her a few questions. Then he looked at his desk for a long time. My stomach clenched up. Was he looking for a way to say that he couldn’t grant her application, leaving her case until the end so he wouldn’t embarrass her in front of an audience? It seemed plausible given the current political atmosphere and the fact that we lived in the most Mormon county in Utah.
My daughter stood waiting.
“I asked you to come today because I wanted to meet you,” the judge said. “You’ve been very brave to pursue who you really are. You’re making the path easier for others who will come after you. It’s a great privilege for me to make right on official records what has previously been wrong.”
A person with authority: seeing my daughter, calling her by name, and making her not only official, but honored.
His words broke my heart wide open.
And made it whole.