Sister Luisa Derouen: For transgender people, a name is a deliberate expression of identity

Views Luisa Derouen, O.P. / November 21, 2022 Print this:
Dominican Sister Luisa Derouen (left) meets with transgender people in Tucson, Ariz., in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Luisa Derouen)

Editor’s note: This article marks the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which took place yesterday. Our coverage was pre-empted by the mass shooting in Colorado.

A few years ago, as I was enjoying a seafood dinner with my trans friends in New Orleans, the topic of names came up. One of them was sharing his struggle with members of his family who refused to call him by his chosen name. So I shared with them my own name struggle. 

I have always hated my birth name, so I was thrilled when I received the habit of my religious order and was required to choose a new name, a symbol of the new life that I was beginning. The problem I shared with them was that, for decades, everyone in my life called me “Sister Luisa” or “Luisa,” but I had never required it of my family. I hated hearing my birth name because that wasn’t me. My friends didn’t hesitate to remind me that, for all these years, I’ve encouraged them to respectfully require others to use the name that reflects who they are.  

Why didn’t I follow my own advice? I went home and sent an email to my family: From now on, please call me “Luisa.” While I had a real taste of what it feels like to be called by a name that doesn’t reflect my identity, my experience is miniscule compared to the profound trauma transgender people endure when they are made invisible by those who refuse to use their true name.

Throughout history, names have had great significance in the way a person is seen and known, or as a way of identifying their role in life. Scripture abounds with examples of how God changed people’s names to reflect their new role: Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul. The significance of names is no less relevant today.  

Our names are an incredibly important part of our identity. They carry deep personal, cultural, familial and historical connections. When we are called by name, with respect, we have a sense of who we are, the communities in which we belong and our place in the world. 

This is all the more important for transgender people, who are increasingly under attack by state legislatures and Catholic diocesan policies. In spite of abundant, data-based, evidence that transgender people are who they say they are, the voices decrying their existence, though a minority, are loud and persistent. 

Without exception, these harsh, and arguably unchristian, policies forbid the use of a trans person’s stated name and significantly raise the risk of harm, particularly to transgender youth. Studies show that when their chosen name is not used, they are at much greater risk for depression and suicide.

Scripture abounds with examples of how God changed people’s names to reflect their new role: Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, Saul to Paul. The significance of names is no less relevant today. 

Over the decades that I’ve ministered among the transgender and non-binary community, I’ve heard many profound accounts of why they chose their name, and their reasons are loving, sacred and powerful.

Some choose their name specifically for spiritual or religious reasons. Colt St. Amand is a family medicine physician and licensed psychologist. He experienced a profound affirmation of his name during the Palm Sunday Gospel reading in which Jesus instructs the disciples to untether a colt, for the Lord had need of it.

This was such a powerful moment in my spiritual journey. I realized then that the name I thought I had chosen for myself had really been chosen for me. Now, untethered and living in the fullness of my truth, I was the colt, liberated by Jesus’ request. He has need of me, both as a transgender person and as a child of God. He needs me to carry Him with me everywhere I go.

Erin Russ is a former Army infantry officer, corporate trainer, pastor and community leader. She followed her family’s tradition by carefully choosing her name.

Erin Marie is who I am, who I am becoming and in many ways who I have been. Erin comes from the Gaelic name for Ireland—Eire or Eireann. It traces back to the Greek εἰρήνην (eirenen) found in John 14:27, and refers to the peace of God; Marie means “sea of sorrow” or “waters of bitterness.” So, my name means “peace of God found through navigating a sea of sorrow.” 

Many trans people I know chose their name precisely to honor their family and maintain meaningful connections with those they love.  

Christine is a LGBTQ minister at her Catholic parish. She always speaks so lovingly of her mother, and chose the name Christine because that’s what her mother would have named her had she been identified female at birth. (I’ve known several trans women who named themselves Christine because it contained the name Christ.) Another friends, Maureen, the chief executive officer of an architectural sales company, also chose the name her mother had in mind for a girl. 

Michael is a parish employee at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola in Boston. He named himself after his uncle, whom he never met, but with whom he felt a soul bond. His family spoke often of him with love and respect. “We shared the same contemplative, soft-spoken nature and we both had a passion for reading,” he told me. As he began to transition, his faith deepened, so he chose Michael because “Saint Michael, as a champion of justice, inspired me to better myself and serve others.”

Scotty is an engineer and a 20-year Boy Scout leader. He took his name after Montgomery Scott in Star Trek. He took Saint Patrick for his confirmation name to honor his Irish ancestry; Patrick is the patron saint of engineers and of El Paso, where Scotty was born. He is also of Italian descent, and his great-grandfather was Giacomo, or James.

Scotty adds that “because Paul’s letter to James in the Scriptures declares that faith without action is dead, which is a core value of mine, I am James Scott Patrick.” Scotty called his name “a combination of my heritage, my ancestors, my faith, my profession, my calling, ultimately my being.”

Very often, an important consideration in the choice of a name is to honor a culture. Ben is a property investor and a musician from Jamaica. His name honors Louise Bennett-Coverley, a famous Jamaican poet and guardian of Jamaican culture. “She was a great example to me that it was okay to be confident in yourself as you truly are, and I’m proud to carry her name,” said Ben.

Maxx is a non-binary visual artist who chose two x’s in his name because he has two X chromosomes. He chose Maxx because it is a common name in his Jewish community. His description of significant harm done by not being able to use his true name is tragically familiar to many. “The name my parents gave me at birth never fit me,” he said. “As a child, it felt punishing, shaming and [it] held me back. I felt forced to be someone I was not, a girl. Changing my name to Maxx in my 30s made me feel I had the power in life to be myself for the first time.”

Yet others choose their name because of what the name itself means. Greer is a transfemme person whose birth name meant “the watchful one.”

As a shy child, a sense of gentle watchfulness oriented me to the world, noticing what others missed and lending a hand where I saw it was needed … I began exploring how to change my name while retaining my sense of identity. I stumbled across a different version of my birth name that held on to this sense of watchfulness, Greer. Relief washed over me.

Dylan, a writer who lives in New York, chose his name because it means “flash of lightning” and “rebirth.”His middle name means “man” and his last name means “proud.” Hilary, the founder of a site for transgender Catholics, chose her name in part because “it means laughter, and perhaps the most recognizable personal trait is my laughter.”

Some choose their name for its connection to values important to them. Jamison, an author and former president of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, chose his name because it’s “strong, graceful, solid, respectful and respectable.”

How many of us give this much consideration to our name, which declares to ourselves and the world who we are and who we strive to be? 

Daniel, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, associated his name with a classmate named Daniel, whose self-confidence was compelling. As he reflects now, he says: “If I was tasked with describing the meaning of my name to myself in a single term, it would be self-possession, including finding the courage to continue to explore and develop parts of myself, not directly related to transition, per se, but impossible to have pursued without transition.”

Nicky, a Catholic theologian in London, has several reasons for choosing her name, some of which are are similar to those already mentioned. Other reasons are more nuanced and equally important. First, in keeping with a naming tradition among some trans women, her first name, Nicolete, has an unusual spelling as an expression of creativity and self-determination.

Second, she originally thought the name was pronounced in an ugly way. “I liked this as it signaled that I was unafraid of the way trans women are seen as ugly in our society. It was a way of owning that marginalization, and finding empowerment in it,” she said.

How many of us give this much consideration to our name, which declares to ourselves and the world who we are and who we strive to be? Corbin, a social worker, describes how wonderful it feels to be called by a name that fits.

I felt something I’d never felt before. My heart would light up and I felt a deep connection. Up until that point, I didn’t know what it felt like to be called by my name, a name that resonated throughout my whole being. From deep within I could feel the truly alive response: “Here I am!”

The story was told of a group of children who were asked, “What does love mean?” To the great amazement of the adults, a four-year-old child responded, “When someone loves you, they say your name different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.”  

That’s what all of us long for, isn’t it? To know that we are seen for who we are, that we are safe and that we are loved. 

For more stories on transgender names, read this resource from Sister Luisa.

Correction, Nov. 21: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the date and location of the featured photo. It depicts Sister Luisa in Tucson, Ariz., in 2010, not New Orleans in 2018.

Luisa Derouen, O.P.

Sister Luisa Derouen is a Dominican Sister of Peace and has been ministering nationally among the transgender community since 1999. She is retired and lives in central Kentucky.

All articles by Luisa Derouen, O.P.

Outreach is part of America Media. To support Outreach you can make a donation or subscribe to America.
0 Comments
Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.