That's not my name

Changing name is a hassle. But what is rarely acknowledged is just how much the current systems place a burden on cis women and trans people that is not shared by cis men. Jane Fae reports

Jane Fae, 10 April 2011

Tried changing your name recently? I have - and it's a complete and utter pain.

Not just because of all the hoops that some organisations make you jump through. There's the sheer inconsistency of it all as well. Some want marriage certificates, deed polls, divorce papers. Some don't.

Some will do it on a phone call. Others won't. A number of organisations put up ludicrous barriers to change. A few have policies that would make even Kafka whimper.

Tesco ClubCard will change a surname on the phone, but need written proof if you wish to change your first name. npower, initially, would not change my name on a phone call: they needed documentation. However, they happily reverted my partner back to her maiden name with barely a blink. When we put it to them that this was probably discriminatory, treating a trans woman very differently to one living her gender, they gulped and hastily explained their call centre had made a mistake.

That's not my name.jpgThen there was the bank that told a woman who applied to change the name on her accounts six months after she married that she was now "too late". I could go on and on, and on.

The excuses are just as bad. Where organisations dignify their behaviour with an explanation, there is usually some mish-mash of argument containing words like security, identity theft, fraud and so on. None of which quite adds up. Organisations that will happily transfer tens of thousands of pounds at my say-so and on presentation of oh-so-secure details like my mother's maiden name will then go all coy at the idea that the same level of security is sufficient basis for agreeing that I've changed my name.

If I do attempt a moonlight flit, that makes me a criminal and I can be prosecuted for my crimes under whatever name I call myself at the time

No. They need at least a deed poll - a trivial document that anyone can pick up for not much more than a fiver in a couple of hours. Besides, they mutter, "it's the law."

Except, it isn't. In English law, your name is what you are known by: and so long as you are not doing so for purposes of fraud or pecuniary gain, you can call yourself what you like. Identity theft? Another nonsense excuse. Your identity is in practice a bundle of proofs that taken together show that you are the "selfsame entity" allowed access to all the privileges to which you are entitled.

Call centre.jpgProof that you are entitled to access particular bank accounts, or own a car should be as independent of your current name as it is from your account number or license plate. Amazingly, some of the best, most progressive organisations in this respect are central government bodies. When I changed my name for tax purposes, it took just one simple phone call, the provision of sufficient security information to prove that I am indeed me - and Bob's your uncle (unless he happens to have changed his name to Archibald in the interim!)

Ditto National Insurance and council tax. Ditto, amazingly, the NHS, who will even, for purposes of personal record-keeping, acknowledge a self-identified gender. (The one exception to this - the only part of the NHS to have decided that it knows the law better than anyone else - is the Gender Identity Service, which refuses to acknowledge new names until their bearer has jumped through a number of quite unnecessary quasi-legal hoops).

Some utilities, too, seem to have got the message.

The real foot-draggers in this respect are banks, financial institutions and a slew of organisations who cannot possibly have any good reason to be picky about name change. Take npower once more: the only interaction I ever have with that company is to hand over large amounts of cash to them every quarter to pay for my gas and electricity supply. As party to a contract with them, I remain liable for those amounts irrespective of what I choose to call myself: and if I do attempt a moonlight flit, that makes me a criminal and I can be prosecuted for my crimes under whatever name I call myself at the time.

So what's the problem? This feels like a strange concoction of appalling customer management, poor excuses - and sexism. Yes: the whole thing is an insult that, I suspect, would not have endured two weeks if it had been inflicted on blokes.

No Name Rd.jpgAnd there's a clue. I have spent many years working with systems, analysing, developing and streamlining processes. In many, many of the cases I have encountered, companies have real difficulty in 'changing' a name because as far as their system is concerned a name is a unique thing: something you have one of at a time and - again in system terms - a personal attribute without a past. Your name is what you are called now.

It is not conceptually difficult to set systems up differently: to maintain a personal history and an audit trail, so that individuals can change names, with some record of previous aliases for checking purposes. Passport offices do so, some benefit systems, too. That would make life that much simpler, less fraught for all those who do undergo name changes: mostly women and the transgendered.

IT systems, however, tend historically to have been designed by men, who have next to no experience of the sheer inconvenience that follows on a change of name. At the same time, they are just as likely to dismiss any complaint about 'the way things are' as no more than the usual feminine whinge. After all, its such a small inconvenience, why would anyone ever mind?

Except its inconvenience multiplied many times over for each individual who ever got married, divorced or re-aligned their gender - and several million times that for almost everyone who has ever undergone such a life change.

It's a gender issue so deeply ingrained within our social mores that half the time we don't even see it as such. But it's there all the same.

"That's not my name" photograph taken by flickr user i heart him. Picture of a call centre taken by Flickr user vlima.com. Picture of "No Name Road" taken by Flickr user NatalieMaynor.

About the author

Jane Fae

Jane Fae is a writer and sexual rights activist. She is currently putting together a paper and case studies for the equalities minister on this topic, aiming to demonstrate both the inconvenience and humiliation that women and the transgendered regularly have to undergo simply in order to change their name. If you have any personal experience you would like to contribute, you can contact Jane through the feedback form

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