Maybe it was the carefree, generative environment I’d been immersed in for a couple years as I worked toward an MFA in creative writing. Or maybe, as I reached my mid-30s, I simply stopped caring about what others thought of me. But at some point, for some reason, I had a delicious idea that I couldn’t shake: I could create my own name.
This idea felt intoxicating, irresistible and poetic. I was still riding the rush of changing careers and publicly declaring myself a writer in my early 30s, after years of mostly writing in secret, assuming what I came up with wasn’t worthy of sharing. I was also high on the confidence I’d mustered up to move across the country to study and teach creative writing, despite receiving discouragement from pretty much everyone I knew.
And now, if I wanted, I could write myself a new name? The idea felt symbolic, like the ultimate way to demonstrate that I choose who I want to be and how I want to present myself in the world, without bending to societal forces or the opinions of others.
My birth name was Jessica, and my parents had always insisted I go by Jessica, not Jess, Jessie or Sica, a nickname one friend suggested when we were in upper elementary school. I didn’t hate my name — in fact, I kinda liked it, especially because it began with the letter “J” — but it always felt unoriginal. Jessica was the most popular name for females during the 1980s, the decade in which I was born, and that was painfully obvious.
Growing up, I often felt like no one special, and my name seemed to reflect that. On our idyllic suburban street, I was one Jessica in a line of three living right in a row.
Growing up, I often felt like no one special, and my name seemed to reflect that. On our idyllic suburban street, I was one Jessica in a line of three living right in a row. That meant, on the block, I was usually called “Big Jessica,” “Jessica One,” or, if the speaker had met one of our neighbors first, “Jessica Two” or “The Other Jessica.”
At school, people often referred to me as “Jessica T.,” since there was always another Jessica in class. (Always!) This continued from elementary school into middle and high school and extended beyond the classroom. These other Jessicas sang in the middle school chorus with me, played on the high school tennis team with me, attended church youth group with me and, later, drank with me at parties. I always bristled and pushed back when people would say, “I’ll just call you Jess,” to distinguish me from one of the other Jessicas, so Jessica T. it was.
When I set out to choose my new name, I brainstormed on multiple occasions. I’d meditate first, put on music that made me feel happy, then dance around the apartment I lived in alone, savoring the life I’d built for myself, occasionally jotting down a few names that seemed to evoke the abundant, creative essence I felt I was finally living in.
I knew my first name needed to contain only one syllable — something no one could shorten against my wishes because, as I’d learned, many would try. I also wanted my name to start with “J.” It’s my favorite letter of the alphabet, plus it felt like a nod to my parents. Maybe I was shedding the name they’d chosen for me, but I could still honor it, in a way, by keeping this one letter.
Once I’d narrowed down these parameters, the names started flowing. Some, I eliminated immediately: Jude would be too weird, since a close friend had just named her baby that. Jade would be weird, because at the time I had a student with that name. Jo would also be weird, since I had a close friend named Joe. How do you tell someone you’ve known for years that you just legally changed your first name to theirs? You don’t, I decided.
I almost settled on Jane, liking the simplicity of it and thinking of it as ironic, as if it were a way to gently mock my birth name. Phrases like “plain Jane” and “Jane Doe” are used to describe the generic everywoman, but really, “Jessica” is a much more common moniker today.
I didn’t want my new name to feel like a joke, nor did I want it to have religious origins (Jane and Joan are both feminine versions of the Christian name John). One day, when I was reading and rereading my list of potential names out loud, I found myself saying, “Juh- juh- jaaay—" as I waited for more "J" names to come to mind. Then I stopped and thought to myself, why add to it? “Jay" is perfect. Simple. Complete.
I went through similar processes of brainstorming middle and last names, intuiting my way through potential meanings and associated feelings, until I came up with a fully new, original name: Jay Vera Summer. (And yes, I Googled it to ensure that, to the best of my knowledge, I was the only Jay Vera Summer in existence.)
Changing my name legally was fairly easy. I had to fill out paperwork, pay a few hundred dollars, wait a few months, then stand in front of a judge and ask him to make it official. The judge was excited — he said most of his cases involved divorce or parental custody agreements. Name changes were less common, and a name change done purely for fun was a first.
When he asked why I did it, I said something along the lines of, “I’m a writer, I’m a creative person, and I felt like it.” He wrote my name on a piece of paper for himself and said he’d keep an eye out for my future book. When I responded along the lines of “I wish,” he said he believed in me. Someone who had the courage to change their name could do anything, he told me. I couldn’t wipe the smile off of my face for the rest of the day.
I knew my friends and family might not be as enthusiastic about my name change as the judge had been, but I didn’t expect them to become suspicious of me. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
I told friends one by one, and the responses were often the same. At first, the person would assume I was joking. I’d describe going to court and show them my new driver’s license as evidence. Then the questions would come: Is there a warrant out for your arrest or something? You know it’s illegal to change your name to try and avoid debt, right? If you were transgender, you know you could tell me, right?
I’d explain that really, truly, I just changed my name for fun and self-expression. But the questions would always continue: Are you in a witness protection program? Are you sure you’re OK? If you were hiding from someone, you’d tell me, right? Who have you been dating since you moved to Florida? What have you gotten involved in that I don’t know about?
Even though I’d told my parents about my upcoming name change multiple times in advance, they had the most extreme reaction. Once my name was legally changed, they were bewildered. They said they had assumed I wouldn’t actually go through with it, and they’d hoped I’d only use it as a pen name.
Our conversations became tense and we argued for the first time in years — they were convinced the only reason I’d do something like this was to “leave the family” or try to make it look like I wasn’t associated with them.
In one particularly heated moment, my mom said, “You can change your name, but you can’t change that I gave birth to you,” as we drove together to a restaurant. Once in the restaurant, we ate our entire meal in silence, me trying to hide my face from other patrons, as tears streamed down my cheeks and onto my food.
Five years have passed since I legally became Jay Vera Summer. Nearly everyone who knew me as Jessica now knows me as Jay, and the seemingly endless tedious conversations have, for the most part, come to an end. Thankfully, my parents came around, though it took a few years. They now both call me Jay.
But when I meet new people, people who never knew me as Jessica, and I tell them about my name change, suspicion is immediately apparent. Jay is an unusual name for a woman, so people ranging from cashiers to dating app dates often ask what it’s short for, assuming it’s a nickname. When I reply that it’s my “real” name, the next question is usually about how my parents came up with it.
When I share that I came up with this name myself, people want to know my birth name. From their tone of voice, I get the sense they’ll be Googling it later. I understand the suspicion to a degree, but it feels unfair that I have to go above and beyond to prove myself as trustworthy simply because I chose to express myself in an uncommon way.
I’m still grateful I changed my name, but I now see that I was naive when I made that decision. We live in a more conformist society than I realized from within my little bubble of fellow creative folks, and doing things outside of the norm is often viewed as a red flag. However, I don’t have any regrets. Personal expression is an important value of mine, and I’m going to keep on expressing myself, even if the way I choose to do so sometimes comes across as weird.