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Names that flout convention: Advice for Jessica Simpson's daughter

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Tue May 8, 2012
Raphael Larrinaga "didn't realize the enormous impact my Hispanic name would have on my life until I started job hunting in the '80s." Larrinaga thinks he got much further in job interviews when he started going by the nickname "Ray." He was once even told by an interviewer that he didn't "look like a Raphael." "I think things have changed quite a bit for the better, but can't help but wonder how many people still judge someone they've never met simply by what kind of name they have," Larrinaga says.
Raphael Larrinaga "didn't realize the enormous impact my Hispanic name would have on my life until I started job hunting in the '80s." Larrinaga thinks he got much further in job interviews when he started going by the nickname "Ray." He was once even told by an interviewer that he didn't "look like a Raphael." "I think things have changed quite a bit for the better, but can't help but wonder how many people still judge someone they've never met simply by what kind of name they have," Larrinaga says.
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Raphael Larrinaga
Ryan Babarsky
Kim Manlove
Michael Howell
Allana Mathews
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • iReporters share stories of living with names associated with different race, gender
  • Playground bullies would ask Michael Howell's children why their mother had a sex change
  • Kim Manlove says being teased for his name taught him compassion for others
  • "People still have special ideas about what names mean," female Ryan Babarsky says

(CNN) -- Raphael Larrinaga was tired of sending out job applications and not getting a response, so he decided to try a different approach.

No, he didn't embellish a job title or fabricate a master's degree on his résumé. Instead, he swapped out his Spanish first name for something with more "Americanized," something that people would expect from a guy with blond hair and blue eyes job-hunting in Utah in the 1980s.

Almost instantly, Ray Larrinaga began getting calls back, he said. Within two weeks, he accepted a job with a bank and went back to the name his Spanish-born parents had given him.

"People said I was paranoid, but I'm not exaggerating a bit," said Larrinaga, now a self-employed graphic designer. "I went from almost a zero response to my applications to over 50 percent response."

In hindsight, the resident of Bountiful, Utah, said he's a little ashamed of his ploy. Sure, he could be a chameleon and scuttle his Spanish roots if he wanted to, but visible minorities can't get rid of their accent or change the color of their skin, he said.

"That was a real eye opener for me, as I realized how tough it was for minorities in my mostly 'white' community to get an even break," said Larrinaga, who shared his story on iReport. "I think things have changed quite a bit for the better, but I can't help but wonder how many people still judge someone they've never met simply by what kind of name they have."

Our names say a lot about us even before the first encounter, as Larrinaga and others can attest. Just ask Jessica Simpson, whose decision to name her daughter Maxwell Drew Johnson sparked criticism that she was condemning the child to a life of torture for having a traditionally male name.

In America: What does your name say about you?

CNN iReporters shared the good and the bad of living with a name that flouts convention. As children, they endured playground taunts and teases. By the time they reach adulthood, they've heard it all and spent countless hours patiently (or sometimes not so patiently) explaining their names to strangers. They're used to second takes from bank tellers and waiters, mail addressed to Mr. when it should be a Mrs., and vice-versa.

"It's hard for me to figure out why a parent does this," iReporter Michael Howell said. "Are they looking for attention? Because the only attention the child's going to get is going to be negative attention. I'm curious as to why mothers do this."

Howell never got a satisfactory answer from her mother as to why she gave her a boy's name. Howell said she could write a book about the lifetime of confusion and insults she has experienced because of her name, the hours spent convincing people that Michael is indeed her real name.

No, she was not dodging the Vietnam War draft in the 1960s. No, she's never had a sex change. Yes, that really is her name, she tells clients who call the real estate office where she works. Really.

Her children suffered a great deal for it, too, she said. They can laugh now at the cruel jokes, but at the time, it was devastating for them. Looking back, it made her a bit of a shut-in, she said. She avoided going out or engaging neighbors for fear of having to explain herself.

Top 10 baby names of 2010
1. Jacob and Isabella

2. Ethan and Sophia

3. Michael and Emma

4. Jayden and Olivia

5. William and Ava

6. Alexander and Emily

7. Noah and Abigail

8. Daniel and Madison

9. Aiden and Chloe

10. Anthony and Mia

Source: Social Security Administration

But by the time she reached 55, she was over it, she said, and she hopes the world is kinder to Maxwell Drew. Otherwise, the best advice she can offer is to stick it out and stick close to people who are nice.

"I've made it this far. What am I going to do, change my name? What would people who've known me all my life call me?" said Howell, now 67. "I came in with it, I'm going out with it."

One benefit is that people rarely forget her name, she said, a common sentiment from those whose names defy societal norms.

It might have been the worst thing ever as a child, but many say they have persevered and developed a thicker skin because of it. Some have even managed to embrace their traitorous names as a badge of honor that has shaped who they are.

"It has helped me understand and appreciate that we are who we are and not what we are called or named," said Kim Manlove, who shared his story on iReport.

The 60-year-old "decidedly heterosexual" male has experienced a fair share of taunts over the years. As a child, his last name was the bigger problem with "you must love men" being a common, if unimaginative refrain.

As an adult, his first name tripped up people who assumed it must be short for Kimber or Kimball. And, he still can't get those callers looking for breast cancer research volunteers to take his name off the list, he said.

"Despite a lifetime of teasing, snide comments and the occasional unwelcome advance, having the name Kim Manlove has helped instill in me a certain amount of humility and compassion. Compassion for others who through no fault or choice of their own may bear some disability or mark, seen or unseen, that draws the unwanted attention of others whose ignorance or prejudice leads them to make some hurtful or stigmatizing remark or gesture."

A snide remark from a customer service rep once caught iReporter Ryan Babarsky off guard at the pet store. Being accustomed to the drill, she obliged when he asked to see her credit card to look up her rewards number. But she didn't have a response to his question, "Did your parents want you to be a boy?"

"I'm not going to stand in the store and yell at somebody because they're narrow-minded," the 26-year-old business analyst said. "I share stories on my blog and tell my fiancé, just to have someone to confide in."

Otherwise, she feels her name suits her. As a child she was a bit of a tomboy and people seemed to give her a pass because she had a boy's name, she said.

As an adult, she enjoys standing out without really having to try, and wouldn't dream of changing her name.

"I've learned a lot about people and expectations," she said. "You'd think in 2012 that people would be open about gender and names ... but apparently people still have special ideas about what names mean and who they belong to."

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