Call Me Gabriel

The complicated story behind my deceptively simple name change

Photo of the writer, G. L. Balend

In early 2020, I began the process to have my name changed legally. Again.

This is a common rite of passage for most transgender people, as we come to terms with our identities and seek to find a name that better suits us as we begin our transition journey. However, I have changed my name legally twice before, and neither of those changes were for gender related reasons.

Childhood confusion

To begin with, my deadname was Gigi. However, this was never my legal name. It was a nickname my mother and grandmother called me. It was the name of their favorite movie, and somehow, they thought it suited me. Why my mother never legally named me that, I don’t know. When asked, she would merely shrug and state she hadn’t thought of it when asked at the hospital.

However, I had no idea that my name wasn’t Gigi until I received my social security card when I was twelve. When I received the card, on it was the name Gabriela. At first, I thought this was a mistake, and the card belonged to my mother, as she had the same name. That’s when I found out that Gigi had never been my name. Legally, I had always been Gabriela.

Another interesting thing to me was that somehow the name Gigi had also gotten into my school records. This is why I didn’t find out what my legal name was until I was twelve. Because of this, all my teachers and other school officials always referred to me as Gigi as well.

Parental problems

Here’s where things get even more convoluted. Gabriela wasn’t my mother’s birth name either. My grandmother had spelled her name Gabriele, which is the more common spelling in Germany. However, when they immigrated from Europe to the US, somewhere along the way it became spelled Gabriela. So, when she was around nine years old, my mother started going by Gabriela, even though her birth certificate clearly showed her name was Gabriele.

After I started college, my mother, who had a lot of financial problems, opened several credit cards in my name, maxed them out, and then didn’t pay them. This was easy enough to do as we had the same name and she had access to my social security number.

Obviously, this was identity theft, and it took me a couple of years to sort out that mess. That’s when I decided to change my entire name, first, middle and last. For my grandmother’s sake, I still kept my first name. However, I changed it to the German spelling of Gabriele that she had originally named my mother. While I wasn’t out as transgender yet, I felt more comfortable with the new spelling of my name, because in Europe it’s seen as gender neutral.

Unfortunately, in America, most people see Gabriele as feminine. I believe that was because many people saw the name as Gabrielle. All too often people misspelled the name, and I was constantly correcting it. It became a habit of mine to always spell it out and to clarify that I spelled my name with one “L,” not two.

When I went through that name change process the first time, I was fortunate to have access to a law office through my university. They helped me file the paperwork and accompanied me on the day I had to go before a judge and explain why I was changing my name. However, they counseled me not to mention the fact that my mother had previously stolen my identity.

Instead, I explained how my last name had been my mother’s ex-husband’s family name. She had divorced him about six years before I was born, and I had no relation to the man or his family. I had chosen to take my maternal grandmother’s maiden name instead. I had several reasons for this, but primarily because she had been the one to raise me from infancy. Her family was the only extended family I knew or had any connection with, and so it held a lot of meaning to me.

Besides changing my last name and the spelling of my first name, I also changed my middle name. My mother had intended to name me after my grandmother, by giving me her first name as my middle. However, my mother had spelled it hilariously wrong, and she never corrected it. Also, no offense to my grandmother, but I wasn’t fond of her actual first name either. Instead, I took her middle name as my own, and she was happy with that choice when I told her.

Marriage

The next time I changed my name was for a far more ordinary reason. I got married. My husband and I had been together for over six years when we finally tied the knot. There wasn’t much fanfare, we merely went down to the courthouse and self-officiated our union. We were in and out during his lunch break from work. It may not sound romantic, but we were always practical people, and it worked for us.

This time around, I dropped the middle name I had taken during my last name change and hyphenated my last name with my husband’s. I wanted his name, but because of how much meaning my grandmother’s name had, I wanted to keep it as well. I still wasn’t out as transgender, so I kept Gabriele as my first name.

Transition

It wasn’t until after my husband passed away that I began the introspective journey that led me toward coming out as transgender and my most recent name change. I once again changed my entire name, and I merged my hyphenated name into a simpler single name, keeping elements of both. I also took my father’s first name as my middle name. For my first name, I could have chosen any male name, but after having been Gabriela and Gabriele for most of my life, it was simpler to change to the masculine spelling of the name, Gabriel.

Unlike most transgender people, I didn’t have the same negative association with my birth name, despite the problems my mother brought me. Using the masculine spelling of my name also made accepting my name change easier for my friends and family. While this isn’t about them, it made me happy to make this transition I was undergoing easier on them in a small way.

That’s the convoluted story behind my name, Gabriel Leonard Balend, and why I go by G. L. Balend as my nom de plume.

Transgender writer and author. I primarily write on LGBTQ issues, with a focus on the transgender community. http://glbalend.com/

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