• Names have power and can be an important assertion of a person's identity

  • Therapist Cora Hilton reflects on what changing her first name meant to her

Using your middle name instead of your first name is something of an accidental tradition in my family. It started when my half-Geordie, half-Greek Cypriot grandmother was naming my mum: when my gran told her midwife the Greek name she’d chosen, the midwife responded with, ‘she’s far too pretty a baby to be called that!’ (lots we could un-pack there…) – so my gran instead chose an ‘English’ first name for my mum, and her original choice was assigned as her middle name. The same followed with my mum’s two siblings: English first names, Greek middle names. All three of them have always used their middle names, their first names an inky vestigial tail on their birth certificates. 

I came to this game myself much later in life, which now strikes me as quite strange, as I’d never really thought of myself as an ‘Emily’. The masses of Emilys I encountered growing up (and I mean masses – you could barely swing a Furby without hitting an Emily in the UK of the late 90s/early 00s) all seemed to be studious, serious, polished. In spite of feeling I didn’t fit into the ‘Emily’ club, I suppose I thought that would just be my lifelong relationship to my name: it didn’t really feel like me, but it was what it was.

So, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I first considered embracing my own Greek middle name, Cora. It started tentatively, trying it out during training sessions with my netball team. At first, it felt a little like a barely-lit ember that could easily blow back out. Early on, both my team-mates and I would sometimes forget to use the new name. There may have been weeks in which I switched between introducing myself as one or the other, not feeling entirely sure whether I could properly catch it ablaze and keep it burning. I was surprised by how vulnerable it felt – a sense of asking my team-mates to join me in something I wanted for myself, but also for them to affirm they believed in it too: that Cora could be who they would automatically think of me as, instead of always translating from Emily. When I would go whole sessions entirely as Cora, it would feel thrilling, and remarkably warm.

Looking back, it seems such a long time ago that I was on the Emily/Cora cusp. Among friends and family, I’ve been Cora pretty much since then; at work, I introduced it earlier this year (I kept my directory listings and website etc as Emily Cora for an easy online transition, but in all my sessions, I’m just Cora). 

Part of why it feels so long ago is that, somehow, ‘Emily’ now feels like a different person – I no longer think people are talking to me if I hear that name, and on the rare occasion someone does use Emily, it feels as if they’re referring to someone else. I couldn’t tell you what it is that defines that difference between Emily and Cora – it’s not as if they are worlds apart, besides the sorts of differences we all recognise between our present self and that from any given point in the past. Perhaps it’s something about Cora being what I’ve chosen for myself, a conscious assertion of identity that I’ve now advocated for over a sustained period. I made Cora, and Cora made me.

I think there may be aspects of my experience that many of us could relate to: the vulnerability of asking for something, but also the delight in the potential of an identity that feels right for us, and in sharing that with our loved ones. However, it is important to emphasise the differences between my process of changing my name and how it might be for others: my name change wasn’t connected to my gender identity, which meant I wasn’t facing the same risks and challenges that a trans person might. 

In spite of these significant differences, I wanted to write about this between the trans pride celebrations in London last weekend and Brighton this weekend, as it is a great time for cis people to reflect on how we can be good allies, friends, partners and family members to our trans comrades. 

If someone shares a change of name and/or pronouns with us, they’re not just asking us to use a different word in a sentence: that name has power, and when we use it with them, we’re helping to shape and reinforce that power. It an exciting and momentous process of becoming, and of finding home. It is a privilege to be invited into this journey, and being a good steward of that trust is important: joining someone in joyfully using a new name is one of many ways in which we can show our love, and how our love can be felt in turn. 

So, whether you’ll be celebrating yourself or your loved ones this year, I hope you have a very happy trans pride!

Cora Hilton is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in Central London and online

Further reading

A trans therapist's reflections on personhood

What is LGBTQ+ minority stress?

What counselling (and lobsters) can teach us about change and vulnerability

A therapist's reflections on identity and belonging

The naming of things: how words have power