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Clara Barnhurst

My mum renamed me without ceremony. We took a trip to her office where she had her seal and stamp. I filled in the forms, handed them in over, and she did her bit. Signed, stamped and sealed. Five times. I was already going by Clara for a month anyway, but writing has a magical way of making things feel fixed in thought.

I was lucky: the resistance I met to the change was shed quickly. Partly, that was a result of my abusive marriage: I knew very few people. Most of the people I know now, I’ve met since I came out and they have no knowledge of me other than what I’ve shared. The process of changing my ID over was also relatively smooth and what few bumps I hit weren’t to do with my name change document.

Had the US Embassy not required me to have a notarised deed poll to update my passport, I would have had my name day earlier. Had my mum not been a justice of the peace, she wouldn’t have been in a position to notarise the paper and she wouldn’t have ended up renaming me as she did. In the United Kingdom, you can have some friends sign a bit of paper printed off the Internet and your name is changed. There are no court dates, no monies involved. The circumstances that led my mum to be sat with me in her office passing bits of paper back and forth were rare.

“What would you have called me if I was a girl?” I would ask periodically as a child. I remember the question, but not how old I was. It would come up now and again.

“You would have been Clara,” my mum would say. Or a variation to that effect. I liked the name. I wanted to be Clara. I knew I couldn’t be. After a while, I stopped asking. It felt a little strange and I didn’t want to come off as odd. The name was corrupted in my memory to Lorraine, or maybe Laura or Lara. I didn’t quite remember.


The story of my name appears to be somewhat unusual in my personal sphere. Most of the folk I’ve chatted to about names didn’t go with their parents’ pick, when they involved their parents at all. None were in a position to have their parents rename them as mine did, both officially and socially, but that’s not surprising as the official process for everyone else wasn’t the same.

People mark all sorts of days. Medical anniversaries, coming out days, social occasions. People choose to remember all sorts. I find the name day to be the one I’ll probably never discard. Certain medical anniversaries I have already. They are markers for my doctors: important but they don’t resonate on a personal level.

Maybe it’s because names are power. It’s a surprise to nobody that I place great value in words, and names are the most powerful of words. They tell us the essence of a thing. Some of this might be influenced by my voracious appetite for fantasy. Many fantasy worlds speak of name days rather than birthdays. I’ve always liked the idea, so maybe that’s why my own name day matters to me. We’re born nobody, and then we’re given a name. We’re made somebody. When my ex terminated our daughter, my first act was to name her. Naming her made her stay.

My name day is slightly different because I had a name. But I never held it close. I held Clara close, or Laura, or was it Lara — or maybe Lorraine? It didn’t matter, in the end. The exchange with my mum mattered: I was meant for something else. I was given another name, it just was unused until two years ago. I chose that name as a toddler, even if I never said so.


Sharing a name gives it power. We can change our names privately and they sit quietly by. They might have personal meaning, but the public expression of a name creates a link to one’s identity that can’t be achieved any other way. Nicknames have this effect, too. I was Clara from the moment I heard it because I chose it. Even when memory failed me, that choice kept me from ever fully adopting the name people used. I liked it. It wasn’t me.

By the time my mum renamed me, my name was public. Informally, my name day would be the third of June. But the legal date is the one I choose to keep, some five weeks later. It wasn’t the first time my name turned up in print either. Actually, the first thing that showed up having my name printed on it was a Boots loyalty card, of all things. So why is the legal change my name day?

I think it’s the fact that the name was given. Many who chose new names for themselves feel empowered by the fact that it was their choice. And while I did choose to make my name public, it was always chosen for me. I like that. It gives me a sense of continuity: I carry the name my mum picked for me before I was born. There is a permanence in the thought. It’s also the fact that she was able to make it public in an official sense, just as she did with my old one. I didn’t change my name, I was renamed.

We all have feelings about our names. Many go through their lives using the name they’re given and don’t consider their naming, but they will still have feelings about them. Some will have conversations with parents about the naming process: what was said, what final contenders there were. At a meetup the other night, people asked me what my ‘top five’ were in my process. I only had the one. My process to my name is not unique in that: several others who have renamed themselves didn’t really have a list or an experimental phase. They had a name and they went with it. Whatever the process, the name holds power.


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