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The Power Of Claiming A Name For Oneself

For nonbinary and trans folks, stories about chosen names are often stories of self-knowledge.

When I shook Leigh’s hand, the first thing I thought was, “He seems wise.” Maybe because he looked poised next to my gracelessness. Shaking his hand was an ordeal. In one hand, I carried a folder containing the interview prompt questions and a consent form for him to sign. In the other, an old school tape recorder—and a pen and a pad, in case the tape recorder finally succumbed to old age.

The first thing I asked was whether Leigh would be okay with my recording our interview. I wanted to have an authentic conversation instead of frantically scrawling everything he said.

He paused. Then he said, “Sure, but I didn’t write any prompts for myself, so I might struggle to articulate some things.” It confirmed my initial perception of him as precise, careful to say exactly what he meant.   

I was interviewing Leigh for The Story of My Name Project, which I coordinated from 2014-2015. The project began as part of my job at FreeState Justice, a nonprofit offering free legal services to low-income LGBTQ Marylanders—including name change services. The call for participants was vague; it asked transgender or non-binary people who had gotten legal name changes if they wanted to participate in a project that celebrated their lives. If they were interested, they could email me.  

And emails came. From people who had gotten legal name changes, but also from people who hadn’t. A transgender woman who kept her birth name. A trans man who had been going by a chosen name for years, but never legally changed it. The mother of a transgender teenage boy.

Each one taught me a little more about the inherent power in claiming a name.

Leigh is transmasculine; he injects testosterone into his muscles so that his appearance will align with his gender. But when he got his name changed to Leigh, he chose the female spelling.

“The name Leigh was traditionally male, until it recently gained popularity as the female spelling of Lee—the female spelling of a gender-neutral name,” he said. “I like how that experience of gender plays out in myself, because I’m read as male almost 100% of the time, but I didn’t want to go with a name that’s unequivocally male.”

At the time we spoke, Leigh was learning not to knee-jerk reject any femininity within himself.

“I associated such negative things with my femininity: times that I had been victimized, times that I had been abused, times that I had been made to feel not good enough. But that’s not all there is to being female. Why should my femininity be something I hate or fear, something I exorcise from my being completely?… I don’t want to perform a caricature of masculinity. That isn’t me.”

Leigh named himself after a woman who was important to him when he was young, whose strength he admired. He said she had been able to help other people, even while she herself was struggling.  

I don’t want to perform a caricature of masculinity. That isn’t me. Click To Tweet

This name has a history of being used as both a girl’s and a boy’s name; Leigh spells it the now-female way—but when one says it out loud, the difference is undetectable. It also has personal significance. To capture such complexity in a name feels like an art.

Monica had known she was trans since she was a child in the ’50s—before there was a word for it. In the ’60s, she ran away from home. “I needed rebellion,” she said. “I never would have transitioned without rebellion. It’s how I found out there was something besides what I was taught growing up, in church and at home.”

For many years, Monica was trying to name what she’d always known on a non-verbal level. But she kept going back into hiding. She tried to be “the perfect man” in her romantic relationships. She got involved with drinking and drugs.

When she got sober, she did so in a men’s recovery house. While there, she kept hearing the name “Monica” in her head. She thought pushing it away would help her stop drinking and drugging; if she could just make it go away, all her problems would go away, too. But sobriety was what brought her out of hiding.

“What I didn’t know was that the more I worked on myself, the more I would find out about my true self,” she said. “In recovery, they talk about peeling away the layers. I was peeling away the layers.”

One night out after the recovery house, her friend made her up. When the friend asked what she thought, her answer was one word: Monica.

When you call a person’s name, you conjure them; their essence is supposed to be contained in that one word. Of the dozens of people I interviewed, no story is the same. For some, like Leigh, the process of choosing a name was more cerebral. Others tried on a few names until one felt right—a more intuitive decision. Another person, Angela, chose her name because as a kid she drew pictures of angels for her mom: “They were the one feminine memory from my pre-transition self.”

But one thing was consistent: Most people knew themselves enough to know exactly why their name fit. Stories about chosen names are often stories of self-knowledge. Perhaps in some cases the process of choosing a name helped people understand themselves. In others, choosing a name was a chance to honor what they already knew—an articulation of self.

In Iceland, they generally use a formula to name babies. Siblings’ last names can be different based on their assigned gender. If a baby is assigned female at birth, for instance, her last name is her dad’s name, followed by the word “daughter.” Both first and last names are usually gendered. Names must only contain letters from the Icelandic alphabet.

The Icelandic Naming Committee approves or denies names, and determines whether given names not used before in Iceland are acceptable. If the naming committee allows it, transgender people—if their gender falls within the binary—can change their name to be more aligned with their gender.  

Stories about chosen names are often stories of self-knowledge. Click To Tweet

In America, parents can give their kid any name. Often, they pick a name before they even meet the baby—let alone know who the baby will be. Grey, who I interviewed for the project, said, “You need something to be called when you’re born—but it’s a big deal for your parents to pick this thing that is going to be such an important part of your life and your identity. It’s a big thing for someone else to decide for you.”

I was given the name “Tyler” at birth, but I couldn’t have chosen a more perfect name. I’m non-binary, assigned female at birth, and was always put on boys’ little league teams as a kid based on the name alone. In early 2017, after years of wearing binders, I got top surgery. Hair grows on my cheeks, neck, and chest. This is from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome and “abnormally high”—according to one endocrinologist—testosterone levels.

Thirteen years ago, I stopped taking the spironolactone (anti-androgen medication) I was prescribed. I like the ritual of shaving my beard in front of the mirror. I liked when a cis male former roommate and I shared a shaving ritual. I like choosing how much facial hair I have at a given time.

I buy most shirts in the boys’ section. Usually when I go to a fancy event, I wear a suit and tie. But I like feeling pretty. I most often wear women’s pants. Occasionally I wear eyeliner, and even more occasionally, mascara. I feel like a slightly femme man, who is a woman, but not. Not all non-binary people think about or express their gender this way—there’s a huge, wonderful range.

Most strangers who aren’t aware of the nuance call me “ma’am.” Most queer strangers ask my pronouns.

“Tyler” fits. Even the cadence of my name, the way it sounds when it comes out of peoples’ mouths—like some people said during their interviews, just feels right.

Sometimes I felt guilty interviewing people who had to go through an arduous process to find a name that felt right. All I did was emerge from the womb.  

Before I entered undergrad, my school “mistakenly” roomed me with a boy. My senior year, when my school actually did begin to offer gender-neutral housing, a cis male friend and I lived together for a few months. But then residential life attempted to take it back, insisting they’d thought I was a boy because of my name. They’d been confused. I thought: “Me too.”

Transgender women are mistaken for boys at birth; they are usually given boys’ names and put on boys’ teams. The fact that something feels off about this is often informative.

Mine is the opposite story, in a way. People would always apologize for putting me with the “wrong” roommate or on the “wrong” team. But I’m not sure what the wrong team would mean.

While working on The Story of My Name Project, I got an email from a trans woman named Tyler, who had been given the name at birth and chosen to keep it. She didn’t know if her story was appropriate for the project, but when she was coming out as trans, she wished she’d seen a story about keeping a name that fit. 

Along with sharing my excitement about my connection to her story, I told her that it was very appropriate; the project had evolved to become more about the importance of having a name that fits, not solely about legal name changes. Hers fit, even if she didn’t have to change it to get there.

Sometimes I felt guilty interviewing people who had to go through an arduous process to find a name that felt right. Click To Tweet

I came to learn the many, layered reasons Tyler’s name resonated. Growing up, Tyler’s parents had been horribly abusive. She said they used the name Tyler as code for “be a man.” But Tyler had known and admired a girl with the name since middle school; she said she would often look at her and think, “If I were a woman, my name would still be Tyler.”

It was not up to Tyler’s abusive parents to decide what the name meant. As she put it, “The name belongs to me, and it always will.”

In Ancient Egypt, people kept their real name secret; it was believed that if someone learned your real name, they’d have power over you. A version of this belief exists in many cultures, legends, and traditions—throughout the world and throughout history.

In the story of Rumplestiltskin, Rumplestiltskin is defeated when the miller’s daughter learns his real name. In The Odyssey, Odysseus is careful not to reveal his true name to the giant, calling himself a word that means “nobody.” Later, when he does reveal his name, it plays a role in his downfall.

There is a belief in the western world, though it’s hard to pinpoint where it originated, that if you can name something, it loses power over you.

If knowing a true name is powerful, then naming yourself is giving yourself a kind of power. Not the kind of legends, where your power lies in having a leg up over someone else. The empowerment in saying, “This is me.”