I won’t pretend to know what makes us who we are. It’s hard to pinpoint because people change. I was born with certain identities pinned to me. For instance, the certificate issued upon my birth states that I am American. It also says my given name is Jessica Elizabeth. But both of these pieces of identity didn’t sit well with me, and for a long time, I didn’t understand that they were making me feel uncomfortable in my own skin.
My parents decided I’d be called Beth, which is fine. Beth is a great name. But why they chose to call me that and not make it my official name has remained a mystery. For years I had to correct anyone who called me by my first name because it was so foreign to me that there was a good chance I’d not answer to it if they made it a habit. The first day of school each year was always a pain, and not bothering to look up when the nurse called out the name Jessica in the doctor’s waiting room was a bit embarrassing.
I was in my 40s when I decided to do something about it and was delighted to learn that in the UK, all I had to do was change my name by deed poll. I filled in a form, paid a small fee, had a witness attest I was who I said I was and my name was changed. No more Jessica. I’m now Elizabeth and no longer have the baggage of a name I neither used nor liked. It was like a weight had been lifted, and I instantly felt more like myself with it gone.
My nationality, I’m sorry to report, was not easy to change – and it was a part of my identity that bothered me the most because it came packaged with certain rules and expectations I did not want applied to me. Why should I have pride or an affinity for a place just because of an accident of birth? I didn’t feel American. I didn’t and still don’t believe in many of the trappings of American identity. For instance, I hate guns. Being made to swear allegiance to a flag never felt right to me. In God I do not trust, and supporting foreign wars is not something I’m willing to do. I’m just a human being trying to live a good life, treat others well, and not be judgemental about the harmless choices of others. Americanism didn’t fit my values, but this was only an annoyance. It was when my citizenship became an unbearable liability that I knew I had to do something about it.
FACTA, a Draconian law ostensibly designed to catch tax evaders, was coming into force and would put a huge strain on my day-to-day life. It essentially turned every bank in the world into a de facto arm of the IRS. Banks were to be forced to report American-held accounts to the American Justice Department or face huge ‘taxes’ on their American earnings. Instead of compliance, many banks simply refused to serve Americans. As a business owner, I couldn’t do without an account. I was also terrified of the life-ruining fines if I made a mistake declaring my UK bank accounts or taxes. Furthermore, US inheritance law put my Scottish spouse at risk if I were to die before him. Despite never living in the US or holding citizenship there, he’d be liable to pay taxes on half of everything we owned together here in the UK which would mean selling our home, and I wasn’t willing to let this happen. The choice between my husband and my citizenship was easy. Renouncing the latter was not.
First, I had to not fall out with my family (several of whom have military backgrounds), as I knew they’d be upset with me. Some were. It was heartbreaking. Giving up my citizenship didn’t change Beth the human. But it changed the way they viewed me, and I’m fairly sure it still does all these years later. Americans are taught from a very young age that giving up citizenship is on par with treason. Only Very Bad People do it.
Secondly, I had to jump through some pretty humiliating hoops. I’m not a big fan of forms, and there were many to complete. I had to show that I’d paid my US taxes for several years, and I was required to prove my net worth (which was a bit personal as I’d not lived in the US for over fifteen years by then and held no assets there). Once that was done I had to pay a hefty fee (which has since risen by 422% to discourage others from doing the same). I was threatened with being put in a list of renouncers so that I could feel some extra shame in case anyone ever checked the list. These bits were annoying, but the real in-my-face humiliation occurred when I attended my appointment at the American consulate.
I don’t remember what I was required to say, but I have a vivid memory of being asked to look at the flag before raising my right hand. I know it wasn’t the consular officer’s fault, but the ordeal was carefully designed ensure I felt guilty about what I was doing. Renouncing was designed to be difficult and expensive, and I was meant to feel judged for it.
It’s been years since it happened and it’s not something I think about too often, but it gives me an appreciation for the plight of other people born with an identity they’re not wholly comfortable with. The bottom line is that as newborns, we don’t get to decide. And as we grow and age, we might discover the identities imposed on us don’t fit who we are – and there may be times when these identities become unliveable. Having had to do the admin of identity twice in my life, I believe it should be made as easy and painless as possible, because reaching the point of actually tackling that admin can be a hard enough journey. Imposing extra humiliation, pain, and hardship is not what a civilised society should do.