Presented By
  • Living
  • LGBT

How Transgender People Choose Their New Names

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

On Monday, the world was introduced to Caitlyn Jenner.

That’s the name that Olympic athlete and reality star Bruce Jenner has asked the world to call her, now that she has come out as a transgender woman. People reported that Caitlyn was a name “he always loved when he thought about this [female] part of his life.” But every trans person has their own naming story—if choosing a new name was part of their transitioning process.

Take Janet Mock, the MSNBC host and iconic author, who adopted her name in a time when Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope songs were floating across the airwaves in her native Hawaii. Her friends, noticing similarities between Jackson and Mock, with her fine features and wild, crimpy hair, called her “Baby Janet.” And Mock took the name as her own while she was in high school, in the early days of her transition. “There’s power in naming yourself,” she wrote in her memoir Redefining Realness, “in proclaiming to the world that this is who you are.”

Then there’s Greta Martela, the executive director of Trans Lifeline, the only crisis line for transgender people staffed entirely by transgender people. Her old name—which most call a birth name, but an increasing number call a “dead name”—was not clearly male or female. But she wanted people to assume she was female when they heard her name, so she scoured baby name lists and old video game avatars before settling on Greta. “For me, I just really wanted to make a break from who I had been,” she tells TIME. “I spent all this time trying to please other people by being something that I wasn’t, and I wanted a clean break from that.” Greta is, however, a Scandinavian name, just like her birth name.

Or take Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. After she came out to her parents, they surprised her by requesting they be allowed to give her a new name. “They said they were my parents and had a right and an obligation to name me,” she says. Keisling says that, even though the word isn’t quite right, she felt honored. “It just solidified that I had 100% family acceptance, nobody even blinked,” she says. Together, they settled on Mara, which was close to her old name and allowed her to keep the same initials.

Transgender people might name themselves for symbolic reasons, to break or keep connections to their past, adopting or dropping family names. Susan Stryker, a leading academic on transgender issues based out of the University of Arizona, chose both her first and last names — the latter, she says, to “provide anonymity to my family.” She now thinks of it as her “transgender superhero name,” she says.

Many choose names that are overtly feminine or masculine, either to embrace their new identity or to avoid confusion. But others choose names that are gender neutral, as a kind of refusal to play the binary, gender-absolutist game that caused them confusion or trauma in the past. Some might change just the spelling, from, say, Cary to Keri. A few don’t change their names at all. Paisley Currah, a political science professor at CUNY, says he was given his “supremely rare” name at birth and chose to keep it after he came out. “As I grew up, it was still so rare it wasn’t associated with one gender or another,” he said. “Long story short, I was lucky enough to be able to keep my name.”

Jenner appears to be among those who picked a name for which they’ve already carved out an identity, even if that person was never out in the open before. “Welcome to the world Caitlyn,” she tweeted on Monday. “Can’t wait for you to get to know her/me.” She’s not alone. “I know people who have picked their name because they’ve always used that name to describe themselves privately,” Keisling says. “Even when they were a little kid and everyone was calling them Jason, they knew they were Emma and they always referred to themselves as Emma.”

See The Life of Caitlyn Jenner

1976 Olympic Games. Montreal, Canada. Men's Decathlon. USA's gold medal winner Bruce Jenner.
At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon, setting the world record at 8,616 points.Getty Images
Bruce Jenner celebrates during his record setting performance in the decathlon in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.
Jenner became a national hero following his Olympic win and was later inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986.Tony Duffy—Getty Images
NBC Sportscaster - Bruce Jenner
Jenner became an NBC Sportscaster in the late 1970s following his Olympic performance in Montreal.NBC/Getty Images
Bruce Jenner and Linda Thompson
Jenner married actress Linda Thompson, above, on Jan. 5, 1981, following his divorce with Chrystie Crownover.Getty Images
Nancy Reagan With Celebrities
Jenner was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child. In October of 1985, he received the Outstanding Learning Disabled Achiever Award from then-First Lady Nancy Reagan alongside stars such as Cher and Tom Cruise.Getty Images
Bruce Jenner
Jenner was a successful race car driver in the 1980s, though in a 2013 interview he said, "I was a lot more badass runner than I was a driver.”Ann Clifford—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Bruce And Kris
In 1991, Jenner married Kris Jenner, previously Kris Kardashian, just one month after she finalized her divorce from Robert Kardashian. The two had dated for only five months.Maureen Donaldson—Getty Images
Kardashian Jenner Family Portrait
Their marriage merged two already large families, evident here in this 1991 portrait.Donaldson Collection/Getty Images
Bruce Jenner
After his sports career, Jenner, seen here at a celebrity golf event in 1993, had a number of small acting jobs and television appearances.Stephen Dunn—Getty Images
"Cinderella" Release on Video
The family poses at an event in 1995, the year Jenner and Kris welcomed the first of their two children together, Kendall Jenner.Ron Galella—WireImage
Former US gold medal decathlete Bruce Jenner (C),
Kylie Jenner was born two years later in 1997. The girls can be seen here on the red carpet in 2000, long before they covered magazines and appeared on TIME's Most Influential Teens list.Scott Nelson—AFP/Getty Images
E! Entertainment Television's 2005 Summer Splash Event - Arrivals
Jenner, seen here in 2005, would re-enter the spotlight thanks to Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which first premiered in 2007.Steve Granitz—WireImage
Bruce Jenner
Jenner spoofed his reality-star fame with a commercial for Tropicana Juicy Rewards in 2010.AP
The Tonight Show With Jay Leno
Jenner and Kris, here at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 2011, announced their separation in 2013. She filed for divorce the following year.Kevin Winter—Getty Images
Bruce Jenner On "Extra"
Jenner poses with a box of Wheaties in 2012. He appeared on the front of the box first in 1977 after his Olympic gold-medal win, then in 2012 when Wheaties rolled out a retro series.Noel Vasquez—Getty Images
Brandon And Leah Album Release Party For "Cronies"
Jenner appears with two of his sons, TV personality Brody Jenner and musician Brandon Jenner, who records with his wife as Brandon & Leah, at an April 2013 release party.Chelsea Lauren—WireImage
Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - October 20, 2014
Jenner walks with step-daughter Kim Kardashian in October of 2014 — about five months after rapper Kanye West became his son-in-law.Bauer-Griffin—GC Images
Bruce Jenner Vanity Fair Caitlyn transgender
Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner, appeared as a woman for the first time on the cover of Vanity Fair's June 2015 issue, photographed by Annie Leibovitz.Annie Leibovitz—Vanity Fair
The 2Caitlyn Jenner 2015 Espys Arther Ashe Award015 ESPYS - Show
Caitlyn Jenner accepts the Arthur Ashe Courage Award onstage during The 2015 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 15, 2015 in Los Angeles.Kevin Winter—Getty Images

Of course it can be hard, especially for a parent, to start using a new name for someone they’ve known a long time. Catherine Lee, whose son Ashton was featured in TIME’s cover story on “The Transgender Tipping Point,” said that despite her best intentions, getting it right was hard for her when he first came out. “I found myself making lots of mistakes and using the wrong pronouns and confusing people sometimes,” she told TIME in 2014. “But the more I practiced, the better I got … Initially when he told me this, I didn’t view him as a male. I still viewed him as a female. That process is something that takes time.”

The process of adopting a new name can be messy in one’s personal life, with less accepting people intentionally using an old name or well-meaning people simply forgetting and making mistakes. And then there’s the practical obstacles of being forced to out oneself repeatedly in public when one’s presentation and ID don’t appear to match. (The processes for changing official documents varies from state to state.)

But using the name someone asks to be called can make a big difference to the person making that request. “When I hear my old name, it hurts so much,” says Nina Chaubal, who also works for Trans Lifeline. “It’s definitely really validating when somebody uses the right name. It’s very acknowledging of my identity, and it’s a name I picked for myself.”

To not use the name can seem to be the opposite: a rejection of who a transgender person is saying they are, or an insinuation that they are not really who they say they are. Even when it’s done on accident, this act is sometimes called “dead naming” a transgender person.

That term speaks to the way many (though not all) transgender people feel about an old name once they’ve adopted a new one — and the reason that most subjects of this article are referred to only by their chosen names. “It’s important for people to know me as Kye because that is who I am,” says Kye Allums, the first openly transgender Division I NCAA athlete. “The name I choose is the name I want to be called.”

Photos: 25 Transgender People Who Influenced American Culture

Laverne Cox
Laverne Cox has used her growing celebrity as a star of the critically acclaimed Netflix series, Orange is the New Black, to become an outspoken leader of the trans rights movement, addressing crowds of thousands at schools and other forums around the country.Jason Merritt—Getty Images
Lana Wachowski
With her brother, Andy, Lana Wachowski has co-written, produced and directed Hollywood blockbusters like the Matrix triology, V for Vendetta and Cloud Atlas.Michael Sohn—DPA/AP
Kye Allums
Kye Allums became the first openly transgender athlete in NCAA Division 1, the top level of college athletics, when he played on the women's team at George Washington University in 2010. John Lamparski—Getty Images
Bruce Jenner Vanity Fair cover Caitlyn transgender
Caitlyn Jenner, made famous as an Olympic gold medalist in 1976 and later as a reality TV dad, appears as a woman for the first time on the cover of Vanity Fair's June 2015 issue, photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Vanity Fair
Chelsea Manning Transgender
Chelsea Manning is an Army soldier who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for violating the Espionage Act, after she leaked hundreds of classified documents to Wikileaks. U.S. Army/AP
Brandon Teena
Brandon Teena was an American trans man who was raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993. His murder was a catalyst for a lobbying effort for hate crimes legislation and his life and death were the subject of the film Boys Don't Cry.AP
The electronic musician Wendy Carlos, formerly Walter, released Switched-On Bach in 1968, which won three Grammy awards and became one of the first classical albums to sell 500,000 copies. She went on to compose notable scores for films like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron.
The electronic musician Wendy Carlos released Switched-On Bach in 1968, which won three Grammy awards and became one of the first classical albums to sell 500,000 copies. She went on to compose notable scores for films like A Clockwork Orange, The Shining, and Tron. Ebet Roberts—Getty Images
Since coming out publicly in a 2012 Rolling Stone article, the musician Laura Jane Grace has been a vocal advocate for trans acceptance. In 2014, her band Against Me! released the album Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
Since coming out publicly in a 2012 Rolling Stone article, the musician Laura Jane Grace has been a vocal advocate for trans acceptance. In 2014, her band Against Me! released the album Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Gary Miller—Getty Images
Carmen Carrera Transgender
Model and actress Carmen Carrera vaulted to reality TV fame after appearing on RuPaul's Drag Race. Nearly 50,000 people have signed an online petition asking Victoria's Secret to make her the company's first transgender "Angel."Danny Aarons—Newspix/Getty Images
Christine Jorgensen
Christine Jorgensen, a former soldier, became a nationwide media sensation after having sex reassignment surgery in Denmark in 1952.Fred Morgan—New York Daily News Archive/Getty Images
Billy Tipton Transgender
The American jazz musician Billy Tipton became famous after his 1989 death when it was discovered that he had been assigned the female sex at birth.AP
The American public grew up knowing Bono as the daughter of entertainers Sonny and Cher, before he came out as a transgender man in 2009. Bono, who first came out as a lesbian in ’90s, has been an active LGBT rights advocate for decades, writing and making films about his experiences and using platforms like reality show Dancing With the Stars to talk about LGBT issues.
The American public grew up knowing Bono as the daughter of entertainers Sonny and Cher, before he came out as a transgender man in 2009. Bono, who first came out as a lesbian in ’90s, has been an active LGBT rights advocate for decades, writing and making films about his experiences and using platforms like reality show Dancing With the Stars to talk about LGBT issues.Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images
Candis Cayne
Candis Cayne was the first transgender actress to play a recurring transgender character on a prime time series, as love interest Carmelita on ABC's Dirty Sexy Money. In past decades, the majority of transgender characters have been played by non-transgender actors and often been portrayed in negative roles, like psychopathic killers or dead prostitutes.Charles Sykes—Invision/AP
Lynn Conway
The pioneering computer scientist and engineer Lynn Conway influenced a generation of computer chip designers and has worked at Xerox PARC, IBM, and DARPA.
Caroline Cossey
Caroline Cossey is a British actress best known for her role as a Bond girl in the movie For Your Eyes Only.Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Before she came out in 2014, the Serbian-born model was already blurring lines in the fashion world. As the androgynous male model and muse for big names like Marc Jacobs. In 2015, Pejic became the first transgender model to appear in American Vogue.
Before she came out in 2014, the Serbian-born model was already blurring lines in the fashion world as the androgynous male model and muse for big names like Marc Jacobs. In 2015, Pejic became the first transgender model to appear in American Vogue.Nicholas Hunt—Getty Images
Lana Lawless Transgender
The LPGA removed a requirement that golfers be "female at birth" after trans woman Lana Lawless sued for the right to compete in 2010.Ben Margot—AP
Fallon Fox
Fallon Fox became the first openly transgender fighter in mixed martial arts history when she came out in 2013.Sally Ryan—Zuma Press/Corbis
Beatie went public in 2008 as America’s first “pregnant father,” undergoing artificial insemination after his former wife proved infertile. The transgender man captured the nation’s attention after appearances on show’s such as Oprah, setting off cultural conversations about the social and legal status of transgender people in America. He has since had three children.
Beatie went public in 2008 as America’s first “pregnant father,” undergoing artificial insemination after his former wife proved infertile. The transgender man captured the nation’s attention after appearances on shows such as Oprah, setting off cultural conversations about the social and legal status of transgender people in America. He has since had three children.Chris Jackson—Getty Images
Janet Mock
Janet Mock, a transgender advocate and writer, published a best-selling memoir about her transition, Redefining Realness, in 2014 and hosts a MSNBC web talk show about pop culture.Fernando Leon—Getty Images
Mike Penner
Veteran LA Times sportswriter Mike Penner announced he was a "transsexual sportswriter" in a 2007 essay and wrote under a new byline, Christine Daniels, for nearly a year. After struggling with the challenges of living as a trans woman, Penner abandoned the name in 2008 and returned to living as a man, before committing suicide in 2009.Los Angeles Times/AP
Renee Richards Transgender
The pro tennis player Renee Richards won a landmark decision for transgender rights in 1977 when the New York Supreme Court ruled that she could compete in tournaments as a woman.Larry Busacca—Getty Images
Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia Rivera was present at the Stonewall uprising and remained a tireless advocate for trans people of color, as well as gays and lesbians, who were marginalized as the LGBT movement became more mainstream.Valerie Shaff—Sylvia Rivera Law Project
Geena Rocero was already a successful model before she gave a viral 2014 TED talk in which she came out publicly as transgender. “All of us are put in boxes by our family, by our religion, by our society, our moment in history, even our own bodies,” she said. “Some people have the courage to break free.” Her advocacy organization, Gender Proud, works to empower transgender communities around the world.
Geena Rocero was already a successful model before she gave a viral 2014 TED talk in which she came out publicly as transgender. “All of us are put in boxes by our family, by our religion, by our society, our moment in history, even our own bodies,” she said. “Some people have the courage to break free.” Her advocacy organization, Gender Proud, works to empower transgender communities around the world.Santiago Felipe—Getty Images
Jenna Talackova
Jenna Talackova fought a legal battle to become the first openly transgender candidate to compete in Miss Universe Canada in 2012, after initially being rejected because of her gender status.Aaron Vincent Elkaim—AP

Read next: Laverne Cox Urges Fans to See More Than Caitlyn Jenner’s Outer Beauty

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com