These two interactions happened maybe five minutes apart in the same institution and are nearly perfect examples of what to do and what not to do. 

How Not To Do It:

I’m a regular here and have a bit of rapport with the security folks at the front desk. This morning they tease me because it’s been a while since they’ve seen me, and I joke about the difficulty of university as one of the guards writes down my pass number, logs my entry. Another hands me a small key to a temporary locker to store my coat and bag. As he does, I point at a sign in the foyer indicating the registration desk has moved to the second floor.

“If I need to update some information on my ID card, do I do that upstairs now?”

“Yeah, second floor, just past the elevator there.”

“What, you been gone so long your card’s expiring?”

“Um, no, actually my name has changed.”

For a moment no one says anything, then one of the guards quips,

“Hey now! The appropriate thing to do is congratulate the lady, if she’s changing her name she’s either getting into a relationship or getting out of one, and either way, she’s happy about it!”

They’re all laughing at this as I take back my pass and shift my backpack to the other shoulder. None of them notice that I don’t laugh.

How to Do It:

I walk up the stairs to the second floor and slip into the registration office through a heavy glass door. “Hi.”

“Good morning.”

“Good morning, I just need to update some information on my pass…”

“Sure.”

I sit down in front of the desk and take off my pass, then pull my wallet out of my back pocket and remove my temporary driver’s license and the matching piece of paper that identifies my legal name.

The receptionist takes both cards from where I’ve let them fall on the desk and brings up my profile, presses a few keys on her computer. She looks at the paper for a moment and a crease appears in her brow.

“Sorry, did you …. which part of this needs to be changed? I see … Katherine … on both,” she says, and to my amazement she even looks a little embarrassed, voice dropping to nearly a whisper when she says my old name.

“Oh, um… it’s Eliot. I wanted to keep Katherine as my middle name but, um –”

“Oh, I see that now! Sorry, sorry.” She says and she quickly updates the file. She’s quiet for another second, hesitates, then says, “Was your name the only thing you needed changed on your ID?”

Somehow, I can tell she’s asking if I want my gender marker changed. She doesn’t look at the paperwork at all, just at me. The entire decision is in my hands.

It should always be this easy, but it never is.

“Oh. Um. N-no, just the name for now… thank you…” I stammer, voice dropping in volume until its nearly inaudible at the end. Why am I so embarrassed about this? I think back to the guards downstairs.

“It’s no problem, Eliot.” the receptionist says, firmly, putting my cards and the paper back in front of me on the desk. I slowly take them back and fold them away. “It’ll be nice when your new cards come, get all that paper out of your wallet,” she adds. She’s just making conversation, but the words are weighty–we both know not everyone would be so casual.

I smile a little, then a lot–it feels like my whole face has been taken over. “Yeah,” I say, a bit more confident, standing up to leave the office. “It’ll be great.”

– – –

I want to leave these interludes for people to interpret on their own more or less, but I couldn’t resist one small comment–

I don’t think the security guards on the first floor meant anything negative. In fact, I know they didn’t. We joke around a lot, even rag on each other a little. I’ve teased about having favourites and commented when one guard or another disappears for a few weeks. We’re quite friendly.

But you never know what’s going on in people’s personal lives, and some things shouldn’t be joked about. Some should be left alone. And you shouldn’t make presumptions about people based on how they present on what their name “legally” is. I know plenty of people who don’t go by their legal name for a variety of reasons. And it’s better to be respectful of those invisible boundaries. Because you never know how you might hurt someone.