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  • Writer's pictureHarley Preston

Finding My Name

The choosing of one’s name is a life-changing milestone for a transgender person as they embark on their transition. A process that is not universal, but a part of my own transition journey that I have found illuminating.

All of us go through life being told who we should be. From society, to our parents, to the things that have happened to us. All of them projecting expectations onto us either directly or indirectly. This pressure is forever there, even from the moment our name is chosen for us by our parents. Some people and parents forget that instead of letting life be created, they try to create the life they wanted for themselves in us.

From the start of my transition 21 months ago, I had felt that keeping my birth name, Preston, was an act of pride and rebellion and served as a badge of honor. It felt as if choosing another name would give the message that I was ashamed of where I came from, my transness, or my childhood. That’s never been the case for me. At the beginning, not changing my name felt like a political stance. I’ve since learned that choosing a new name is not me being ashamed, but rather a chance for me to declare who I am to the world instead of simply accepting who I’ve been told to be.

This journey has taught me the power of transformation, something that we all possess. Transformation is hard, ugly, beautiful, and slow but it can also be intentional. While it can be physical, it will always be mental, emotional, and spiritual. We are afraid of transformation because it forces us to move away from what we know, what we’ve been told, and who we believe ourselves to be. Transformation requires you to answer the question “who do you want to become?” My transition has given me the chance to answer that question. This line of questioning, while beautiful, can also feel insidious in the way that it latches to every passing thought.

In the moments when I began contemplating my name, I noticed myself feeling guilty. Where it is challenging is that I’ve lived nearly 30 years as Preston and there is a human attached to those memories. With that there are expectations, hopes, and dreams projected onto that name that are no longer mine (and arguably never were). I was afraid to disappoint. Being faced with a gender transition is largely a physical manifestation of transformation but it is not what makes it difficult. The toughest part is often the lives we’ve lived prior - our pasts. Shedding my old name, while symbolic, is challenging and the past can sometimes feel insurmountable when embarking on a brand new future.

For a while I kept my desire for a new name to myself, making scribbles, playing with signatures, and jotting notes in my journal with all the new possibilities. I was gatekeeping my desire to truly transform for reasons I was unsure of. What was holding me back from fully embracing what I’ve clearly wanted for so long?

It’s funny in hindsight because it’s clear to me now what held me back. The motivation for my hesitation was easier to identify because I had experienced this before at the beginning of my transition. The feeling I was experiencing was reminiscent of the moment that I had come to terms with my own transness years ago and the initial fear that consumed me. At that moment, I was afraid of the change. I was afraid that the people around me would no longer know me, that I would no longer know myself. Everything I feared was external. My whole life I had been inundated with who I was supposed to be despite the desperate pleas to myself to be free. Even with my desire to be my true self the fear of letting go of everything I knew felt as if I was hanging on a cliff, clinging desperately. I was afraid to fall.

Fast forward 21 months and here I was yet again, at a crossroad between what I knew and what I wanted. The choosing of a name is more than mere semantics or legalities but rather a declaration of who you are to the world. All I had to do was let go and I’ll never forget the moment that it changed for me.

Two months ago, I had finally decided to share my name change with my longest, closest, and dearest friend asking for her advice. While her lived experience is different from mine being cisgender, I continue to admire and appreciate her opinion. When sharing my name change, I expected a similar reaction to when I came out as transgender. I was preparing myself for a lengthy and heavy conversation, explaining my identity and validating my rational behind my decision. To my surprise, that wasn’t what I got but I got the response I needed.

While these aren’t her words exactly, the sentiment was “do whatever you want, you don’t owe anyone a goddamn thing.” The directness in which she said this threw me off guard. Based on all my multiple "coming out" experiences, I was expecting something different. I had come prepared with my thoughts and opinions on the subject in the event that I needed to explain things further. None of that was required, no explanation necessary. At first, this threw me off guard but as I sat with it a moment longer something happened.

The words “do whatever you want, you don’t owe anyone a goddamn thing” vibrated within me. At that moment I didn’t know it but those words liberated me and I had become grateful that she said them. I had been so consumed with fear, the fear of fully embracing my transformation, as if I was distracted from why I embarked on my transition in the first place. The vail had been lifted and I realized she was right. I had once again grown distracted by expectations, grown afraid of disappointing those who knew me, and afraid of the unknown. I was focusing too much on these external circumstances that were causing me to remain stagnant, to resist change, and was pushing me farther away from what I ultimately wanted for myself.

I had forgotten that while I don’t owe anyone anything, I do owe it to myself to be happy. And so I did just that. Preston Souza had become Harley Preston. Choosing my happiness is in no way a personal attack to my parents or a rejection of my past but rather a re-priotizing of what really matters to me in my life.

Through this experience, I’ve come to learn that transformation and change will continue to happen no matter who you are and at the moments you feel as though you’ve got it all figured out. Resisting it is futile no matter how terrifying the other side of change might seem and it rarely hurts as bad as we think. As I continue on my own transformation, I hope to better embrace change and listen more closely to the compass that lives within all of us that points us in the direction of exactly where we need to be. Transformation is possible and necessary for everyone. If we are not careful, our pasts are weighted with expectations that have the power to become present day reminders. What I’ve learned is that the most challenging moments are not due to physical transformation, but rather from the acceptance, reconciliation, and departure of the past and the bravery it takes to embrace the new.

Life is filled with opportunities to declare who we are and I am no longer afraid.


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