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Friday, December 30, 2016

I Legally Changed My Last Name-But I Didn't Get Married.


Just like the girl in Mamma Mia, I grew up hearing about how I had three possible Dads. Yep, my Mom got around.  So when I was born, I was given the same last name as my unmarried mother for obvious reasons. To make matters more complicated, that last name wasn't actually her family (aka maiden) name. Confused yet? 

The story goes, my mother had gotten married at sixteen years old and changed her last name. The guy turned out to be crazy, and ended up becoming extremely abusive to her. She left him a few years after, and at one point he showed up and put a gun to her head telling her he would kill her if she didn't go back to him. My mother says, she told him to go ahead and shoot her-but he didn't. She never saw him again. 

That relationship ended in divorce a few years later in the late 60's, but my mother never changed her last name back to her birth name. When I was born many years later, I was assigned that last name from her first husband, which was completely meaningless to me family wise. 

Growing up, I would often try to come up with different last names that I liked better. My diary entries as far back as age seven show me signing my last name in over eight different variations. It was very, very obvious that from a young age I was unhappy with my name. Growing up, I hated always having people ask if I was related to so and so who shared my last name, and always having to say no and explain my awkward situation.

By the time I was a teenager I had decided on a few different "stage name" options, but had never thought about legally changing my last name. The process seemed daunting and expensive. So, just like my mother had for so many years, I lived with this last name which had no connection to me.

I did eventually get to meet my real Dad in my early twenties before he passed away, but I didn't feel the relationship was strong enough to change my last name to his. And since I am very against the patriarchy of women changing their last names at marriage, that was never an option for me to look to in the future. 


So there I sat, over thirty years old and still pining away with this last name I hated. 


Through my years of searching for a random last name to replace my own, I had never found anything that fit or felt just right. The day my new name finally came to me, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was going to change my middle and last name to become Renée Nicole Gray. 
Gray felt more right to me than any of those other last names I had thought of replacing mine with over the years. Because Gray is my actual blood family. My grandparents on my Mother's side were Gray's and it was my mothers birth last name. I had been looking everywhere for something that was right in front of me all along. I knew that if I ever make a mark on the world it would be most meaningful to me to have it be with my actual family name. How had it taken me so long to figure this out? 



Because my old last name was a variation of Nicole, everyone had mistakenly called me Nicole my entire life. Heck, I even answered to it sometimes. It felt natural that I would replace my middle name with Nicole since it already felt like my name, as well as an homage to my old one.

I started using my new name on social media and non legal documents for about six months prior to making the legal change. In an odd way, I felt like "me" for this first time in my life. I finally felt proud of my last name because it actually belonged to me. I could finally say, "MAYBE!" when someone asked if i'm related to a Gray. I was also happy to find that the email, Twitter, Website, Instagram etc were all available with my new name. Something I didn't even have with my old one.

So after my six month trial, I knew I was ready to make things official.

I gathered all of my documents and made my way to Brooklyn court where I submitted my application to the clerk and paid the fee. Changing your name in NYC courts is exactly what you would expect. The staff is rude and doesn't give a crap, so you have to be patient and make sure you have documents you think you might not need. There were a few things needed like utility bills for proof of address that they did not list on the website as requirements. I had brought it all just incase. The clerk actually seemed disappointed and annoyed he couldn't send me home like he had the four people ahead of me. The big surprise was, I thought I would be told to come back weeks later, but apparently in NYC seeing the judge happens immediately. I nervously sat in the court room for about an hour waiting for my turn. The judge glanced over my paperwork, signed it and handed it to a clerk for me to sign. I didn't even have to answer questions. My application was now stamped and approved by the judge. But of course the process couldn't be just that simple. There were a few more hoops for me to jump through before I could legally be myself.

The next step was going to a clerks office to submit my judge approved papers. The clerk gave me a list of five places I would need to send certified mail notifications of my name change to (including my mother, The DMV, Passport and SS Office). I would also have to pay $35 to publish my name change in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. Once this was all done I would need to come back with the photocopies as proof. This would make my name change legal.

I immediately went to the newspaper office across the street to get the ball rolling. While waiting, I met a young man who I had just seen at court. He was overflowing with excitement about his new last name. He told me that his family was from Egypt, but since 9/11 they had suffered extensive discrimination because their last name sounds Muslim. He was only 21 but said he had trouble getting job interviews just because of his name. He told me he was sick of getting pulled aside every time he flies. When I asked him what his new last name was going to be, he beamed and said "Lucas. Because I love Star Wars and it sounds very American." After finishing our paperwork, we wished each other the best with our fresh starts and went on our way.

About a week later, I hurried back to court with proof of all of my missions completed. A few lines later I was sent to another floor to get my certified name change papers which I would need to change my Passport and all ID's. I had survived the many levels of bureaucracy and was finally officially, legally a part of my own family! 

But it didn't end there, the next few weeks of more bureaucracy to change things like my insurance, bank account, Social Security number, license and Passport were also tedious, but very worth it.

When I look back at my 2016, being handed those papers with my new name was by far the most memorable moment of the year. For the first time in my life, I can say that my last name matches my blood, and I now write and say it with pride and meaning.


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