I am writing with a bit of an unusual name suggestion request. I have a child who is 13 years old, and identifies as non-binary with preferred pronouns of "they / them". Our family loves and supports them, and we are so happy to see them embracing their true selves and living freely and confidently. They would like to consider changing their name from (redacted; a fairly common one-syllable ‘girls’ name) to a gender-neutral alternative. I have to say that this has been really very emotional for me as a parent. I love my child, and one of the most important things I gave them was their name. It has meaning for our family. Choosing a name was one of my favorite parts of having children. So, I am struggling to remain supportive and be accepting of this part of their experience. I thought one of the things that might help would be to seek some advice on gender neutral names that can still in some way honor the name that we gave them at birth. My child’s middle name belonged to a great-grandparent, and their given first name is a noun, which our child embodies in every way.
I would love to get your thoughts on this.
Thanks in advance for considering.
Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful letter, and of course for being the kind of parent who is willing to ask this question in service of your child feeling comfortable in their name and their identity. I suspect if you’re reading this you’re thinking “well, of course”, but there are a lot of people – even those who consider themselves open-minded – for whom this would be incredibly difficult, not least because, as you point out, ‘choosing a name was one of my favorite parts of having children’.
Obviously, I understand that sentiment – and so, though you say you’re struggling to accept this part of their experience, I would suggest that one way to reframe it is to share that joy with your child. There are a number of cultures worldwide wherein being given, or choosing, a new name at different stages of life is a rite of passage – the key here may be to embrace that philosophy – frame it that way. The name you chose for your child fit them up to a certain point, and helped them to become the person they are today – and now, like a new school or a new bike or etc, they need a new name to help them continue to grow.
Assuming your child wants to keep elements of their name – some people who identify as a different gender than they were assigned at birth prefer a completely new name, and some want a name that is either a different version or ‘nods’ to their earlier name – how do you choose a name that will still speak to the significance of the one you chose for them?
Where a gender neutral name is concerned, one option might be for your child to keep their initials and search for names that are gender neutral within them. A lot of proper or ‘descriptive’ nouns, like colours, work really well here – who could assign a gender to a name like Green or Indigo – or nature names like Maple or Birch, or poetic names like Epoch or Sonnet or Lyric? The letter writer’s child has an ‘A’ and a G initial – Grove or Garnet or Autumn could work too – notwithstanding people who feel each of those are gendered, according to people they’ve met.
If these are too out there for your child – they don’t want an ‘object’ name and prefer one more traditionally ‘a name’, obviously there are popular gender-neutral names that have been assigned for years – Jess, Alex, Jordan, Avery, Charlie, etc – however, they’ve become gender neutral by virtue of working for ‘either’ men or women (and many are originally men’s names that have become accepted for women’s names) as opposed to being overtly gender-neutral, and of course, acceptance of them as belonging to either gender can vary wildly by geography – Morgan or Dylan.
I do think this is a place where surname-type names can be really helpful – Hayes or Giles or Appleby or Burroughs – if you already have one of those, it might feel like overkill to be, for example, Burroughs Willoughby – but it can release the constraints of assuming one or the other. Or your child might prefer being simply “A.B. Lastname” – it certainly hasn’t been a problem for BJ Novak or SE Hinton, and I’ve always favoured the F. Murray Abraham approach – if there’s nothing that stands in perfectly for the first name, and your child agrees with the ‘feeling’ of it as opposed to the gender of it, why not use one or both initials – especially if this is currently an exploration, and since, at 13, they may become more and more aware of themselves and the qualities they want to embody as they get older – and as they’re exposed to names that embody those qualities.
In short, go on a journey, and remind both of you that names have infinite possibilities – if your child finds a name they love, there’s no reason it can’t be both emblematic of who they are now and the person they’ve been up to this point. As much as I love names and think they have a monumental effect on how we’re seen in the world, I can also see a real benefit to thoughtfully considering the name you were given periodically to see whether it still fits the person you are (or, in your case, who your child is discovering themselves to be.)
In other words, though you’re embarking on this journey because of the specific needs of your child, you might also be starting a trend that many more of us should get behind as a matter of course.
I’m very excited to know what they choose, and also to hear from other readers who might have chosen names for themselves at some point after childhood (or not – obligatory mention of Picabo Street goes here.) Please let us know – and for what it’s worth, please know what a wonderful parent you are.