Since Caitlyn Jenner, Renaming Ceremonies Gain Visibility
By Hannah Seligson
Earlier this year, Patricia King was presented with a prayer shawl by the Vista Grande Community Church in Colorado Springs that is typically given to women at their baptism. But this wasn’t a baptism; it was a Christian renaming ceremony signifying Ms. King’s spiritual passage from Peter to Patricia.
“The heart I gave to Christ is still the same, it’s the outside that is changing,” said Ms. King, 35, a transgender staff sergeant in the Army infantry. “It was so affirming for me to be recognized as a woman by my church. I don’t have the words for it.”
For some transgender people, celebrating one’s name change has become a major rite of passage, along with transitioning medically, legally and socially.
“Especially for people who don’t have access to hormones or surgeries, naming can be a very empowering act,” said Felix Endara, 43, a filmmaker in New York working on a short documentary called “Untitled Trans*Names” about how transgender people name themselves.
Renaming ceremonies are gaining visibility among transgender people, especially since Caitlyn Jenner showcased hers in the season finale of “I Am Cait,” the E! reality show, which was recently renewed for a second season.
“Faith has been really important to me in going through this process,” Ms. Jenner said during the episode, which was broadcast in September. The ceremony, filmed in July, was held poolside at Ms. Jenner’s Malibu, Calif., home with guests wearing all white, and included a performance of “Amazing Grace” by Candis Cayne, who transitioned in the 1990s. A transgender pastor officiated.
Similarly, Sheila Trachtenberg, 56, a retired New York state tax auditor, wanted her gender transition to be recognized by her religious community. At a 15-minute ceremony last month at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a synagogue in New York that serves the L.G.B.T. community, she ritualized her new Hebrew name, changing it to Simcha Bat Tziona from Simcha Ben Tzion.
“I wanted my identity to be effectuated through everything I’ve been involved with,” said Ms. Trachtenberg, who kept her Hebrew birth name, Simcha. “I needed to feminize the name, but I wanted to have the similarity carried over and not withdraw the respect for the relatives I was named for.”
During the ritual, which took place during Saturday morning services, Ms. Trachtenberg was called to the Torah as Simcha Bat Tziona. A specific transgender renaming blessing was given by Georgette Kennebrae, a rabbinical intern at the synagogue.
“The blessing actually includes very traditional language,” said Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the congregation’s spiritual leader. “It talks about ‘guf’ and ‘nefesh,’ which are very Jewish concepts of body and soul, and uniting them.” The benediction, written by Cantor David Berger and Rabbi Ayelet Cohen in 2007, also encourages the person to “succeed in his or her way.”
Rabbi Kleinbaum added that her synagogue typically holds two to three renaming ceremonies a year. “It’s still a cutting-edge thing,” she said, “but I can’t tell you how many emails we get every year, some from other rabbis, asking for a trans-renaming ceremony blessing.”
Renaming ceremonies are held at different stages of the transitioning process.
Ms. Jenner, for example, held her ceremony about two months before she filed a petition to legally change her name from Bruce. Both Ms. King and Ms. Trachtenberg held their renaming ceremonies after they had changed their names legally.
Ceremonies also take place at a variety of locations. Some, like Ms. Jenner’s, are held at home. Others are held in churches, synagogues or even independent event spaces.
In 2013, about 10 months after she legally changed her name, Constance McEntee, 46, rented a room at the Women’s Building in San Francisco for a Wiccan renaming. “It happened where I could afford to rent a room with a door that could be closed,” Ms. McEntee said. During the ceremony, she was wrapped in blankets to simulate a grave, and a eulogy was delivered for David, her birth name. Afterward, there were cookies for the celebrants.
A few weeks later, Ms. McEntee, a divinity student at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., was rebaptized at the Congregational Church of San Mateo, part of the United Church of Christ.
“It was pretty powerful and moving to be baptized in a tradition of my choosing,” she said. “And to be able to say, ‘My name is Constance’ into the microphone when they asked me, ‘What is your chosen name?’ ”
Allyson Dylan Robinson, a transgender pastor in Washington, D.C., used similar wording when she officiated at Ms. Jenner’s renaming ceremony (to which Ms. Jenner answered, “My name shall be Caitlyn Marie Jenner”). Drawing on liturgy from the Old Testament, Ms. Robinson also included a homily from Genesis 32, in which God gives the patriarch Jacob a new name, Israel.
But rebaptisms for transgendered congregants are still somewhat rare.
Justin Tanis, managing director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., wanted to find an alternative to the practice.
“I didn’t want to do that because a rebaptism would symbolize that the person had fallen out of some promises,” said Mr. Tanis, who wrote a Christian prayer for a transgender renaming in 2000, while he was a doctoral student at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
For some, the renaming ceremony is simply an opportunity to celebrate their new names and gender identity with the ones they love.
“It’s amazing to me that a lot of the girls never really celebrated their name change,” Ms. Jenner said in the season finale, whose renaming was followed by a party. “They just got their new driver’s license, new name, new gender marker, and just kind of went on with life.”
Similarly, Ms. King, the Army staff sergeant, invited her friends and family to a reception at her home after the renaming ceremony. “I didn’t get a sweet 16 or a homecoming as a young lady,” she said. “I have yet to walk down the aisle in a wedding dress. So I felt very much that this day, my day, would be my opportunity to feel that.”