‘You are who you are’: Panelists discuss the power of a name in the LGBTQIA+ experience


Rachhana Baliga | Staff Photographer

Pitt hosted an event Monday titled “What’s in a Name?: Legal Names and the LGBTQIA+ Experience with Rosalynne Montoya” that explored the legal name change process and how a person’s name defines them. Pictured is speaker Rosalynne Montoya addressing the audience.

By Abby Cardilli, For The Pitt News

Rosalynne Montoya said even after legally changing her name, her restaurant job continued to list her deadname on documents, such as customer tickets she used during her shift. Montoya was going by the nickname Rosa at the time, and spent a month fighting with both her boss and the human resources department about the dignity of her name.

“And I said no, my name is Rosa,” Montoya said. “And it is my right to change my name in your system.”

Pitt hosted an event on Monday titled “What’s in a Name?: Legal Names and the LGBTQIA+ Experience with Rosalynne Montoya,” which explored the legal name change process and how a person’s name defines them.

Several groups, including the Global Hub, the Center for Latin American Studies, the Global Studies Center, Student Affairs, Office of Residence Life, Latinx and Hispanic Heritage Month, Rainbow Alliance, AQUARIUS and the Latinx Student Association sponsored the event.

Montoya, the event’s keynote speaker and a Hispanic, bisexual, nonbinary transgender woman, said her journey to self-love and acceptance was not a simple one. Even though by the age of four she was already calling herself Rose — a nickname that stuck with her through her gender identity journey — she had to suppress her femininity and hide it from public view.

“My community, my church, my school, my family told me this really strong message that I wasn’t good enough,” Montoya said. 

Born to a religious family in a small town in Idaho, Montoya recalled her love for playing with her sisters’ Barbies and Polly Pocket dolls. Although she was the only one playing with these toys, her parents characterized these as her sisters’ toys because they were seen as “girl” items. Montoya said in order for her and her brother to convince their parents to purchase a Wii for a holiday, her parents said she had to get rid of the Barbies and Polly Pocket she loved — which she did.

“I was taught from a very young age to hide my femininity, and to ‘man up,’” Montoya said. “And that never felt right, that’s so so forced, and that’s not who I am.”

Montoya said in the eighth grade she realized that she was attracted to men, something that was not talked about in her small, conservative town. She said in high school, she hid herself from the whole world. 

“I was living in shame,” Rose said. “You know, I thought that I was an abomination.”

After being outed to her family near the end of high school, Montoya attended college, where she was able to express herself. After discovering drag for the first time, she realized that her femininity was not simply a costume — it was who she really was. 

“It was like looking in the mirror and recognizing myself for the first time,” Montoya said. “It taught me that being feminine is not wrong. People will still love me and accept me for who I am.”

Montoya said she officially came out as a transgender woman to her friends in 2015 at the age of 19, the same year she started the process of changing her legal name. A court worker she met during jury duty — whose relative just transitioned and legally changed their name — guided Montoya through the name changing process. 

After one glance, the judge immediately granted Montoya a legal name change. 

“And he waived all the fees so I didn’t have to pay a cent to change my name, because that’s who I’ve always been,” Rose said. “And that’s what I deserved.” 

Stefan Dann, an attorney who works with the Name Change program — an initiative that pairs pro-bono attorneys with trans or nonbinary people who are looking to legally change their name — said the legal process of a name change often seems arduous. Dann, who also works for McGuireWoords LLP, said while the process in Pennsylvania is not incredibly challenging in comparison to other states, it can be grueling. 

“It’s very daunting and overwhelming for many reasons,” Dann said. “And people would rather try to force through the process on their own, then wait six to 12 months for an attorney.”

Drew Medvid, a 2019 Pitt alumnus and regional organizer for the Human Rights Campaign, experienced Allegheny County’s name change process when he came out as a trans man in college. Since Medvid wanted his Pitt degree to list his real name, and did not want to wait an extended period of time to receive counseling from an attorney through the Name Change program, he located a lawyer on his own and raised money to pay the fees. 

“It took a while,” Medvid said. “But I went to the court and they did it, and the judge was super affirming.”

A legal name change is just one step in a long process for trans and nonbinary people to reclaim their identity through official institutional channels, according to the panelists. In certain states, such as Idaho and North Carolina, a trans person cannot legally change their gender marker or name on their birth certificate unless they have received bottom surgery — a procedure that reconstructs a person’s genitalia. As a result, a trans person who wants to change their name on their ID, Social Security card or passport must undergo an incredibly tedious process. 

Montoya said she hasn’t been able to change her birth certificate in Idaho because of the bottom surgery law. Because of this, the process to change her name on other documents was extensive. When she went to change her name on her passport, she said she needed her birth certificate, a note from her therapist about her gender dysphoria and a letter from her doctor stating they administered her hormone therapy.

The three documents connected to Montoya’s court ordered name change, which then linked to her driver’s license. Montoya then changed her Social Security information, and then finally her passport.

anupama jain, the facilitator for the event and executive director of the City of Pittsburgh’s Gender Equity Commission, said while not every trans or nonbinary person will ultimately decide to go through the legal name process, names are a universal experience. She said taking power of that name is what’s really at the heart of the event.

“Our name is our humanity,” she said. “People should be able to have a name that represents that feeling of joy and rightness.” 

From her legal name change process, to her recent reconnection and reconciliation with her family, Montoya said she continues to reclaim her name and the identity that is attached to it. 

“Your real name is your real name, it doesn’t have to be legal for it to be real,” Montoya said. “You are who you are.”