“So, what’s your real name?”
“No, I mean like, your real name, the one you were born with.”
“My assigned name?”
“Yeah, your real one.”
“It wasn’t real, and it’s none of your business.”
I’ve always found it interesting, this idea of a name’s “realness”. That a chosen name is not real but the ones arbitrarily imposed on us, before our selfhood had been in any way articulated, before there was really an “us” to name, are. To me it seems like such a silly, weird inversion of everything the concept of a name actually signifies, at least in my mind.
Names carry a great deal of weight and significance. I’d almost go so far as to say they have a nearly metaphysical power. A name is ultimately just a word that, like any word, is really just arbitrary sounds and squiggles that only carry any potency or meaning by way of the associations and significance we, cooperatively, invest in them. But a name is a particularly powerful word in that the significance we’ve poured into it, the association it makes, is with us, with our selves. That overarching, aggregate, emergent coalescence of our cognitive processes, the singifier that signifies not only all we are, but also the being of all we are, the are-ness itself (without which all the other signifiers dissolve back into noise… if not less. If not less than less.)
The name is that which signifies the self.
We have a habit of denigrating and dismissing chosen names. We’ll put little scare quotes around them, speak them in a satirical tone, engage with their use in the context of humouring someone. It seems like there’s this immense, subconscious drive to dismiss the possibility of a name that extends from the self it signifies. This dismissal becomes particularly strong when we refuse to accept the premise on which the name was selected. For instance, if we reject new age principles, or hippy / environmentalist culture in general, we’ll happily mock someone for having chosen the name Sage or Dharma or Windleaf. If we think it’s silly for people to convert to Islam, we’ll mock their conversion names. And yes, if we deny the legitimacy of someone’s transgender identity, one of the most cutting, hurtful and easy ways to make that position clear is to deny a trans person’s chosen name.
While the fervency with which we engage in these denials can vary, and sometimes we’ll be content to accept the legitimacy of one chosen name while mocking another, the underlying propensity we all have for categorizing some names as “real” and others as “fake”, “silly”, “pretentious” is nearly universal. This picking and choosing kind of creeps me out, as it ends up nonetheless implying that although someone is willing to, say, accept MY chosen name on the premise that trans people’s names “count”, that acceptance is conditional and they reserve the right to strip someone of their name if they choose.
As an example, there was the whole thing a couple months ago when Be Scofield attacked Greta Christina as being an imperialist and, to paraphrase, the “worst form of evil”. I’ve since come to seriously, seriously despise Be Scofield, and consider him an intensely intellectually dishonest, manipulative and hypocritical person, but nonetheless it didn’t sit well with me AT ALL when some of the Pharyngulite Horde began putting little scare quotes around Be’s name (not least of all because Be is himself transitioning – and yes, he has an explicit stated preference for male pronouns until he’s “fully transitioned”, whatever the hell that means).
The justifications that inevitably followed my calling people out on this centered mostly around claiming ignorance of Be’s transgender status (which I think was the truth, but doesn’t necessarily let someone off the hook), and saying that what they were really mocking was the “pretentiousness” of Be’s name. And throwing in some talk about how horrible Be is so why should I care?
The overall message, apparently, is that while they would never, ever do something horrible like knowingly invalidate or mock a trans person’s name, or describe it as less “real” than their assigned name, that it’s still totally completely fine to invalidate and mock people’s names for other reasons, such as deigning it to be “pretentious”, or because you just don’t like that person.
I’m sorry, but that’s STILL really messed up. So… what if my name were deemed “pretentious”? Would it suddenly be fair game to be denigrated and placed in scare quotes?
And aren’t ALL names “pretentious”? They just vary in the degree to which their meanings are explicit within the first language of whoever is named.
Like let’s take Natalie Reed for instance. Nice normal looking name, right? It’s not like I called myself something “weird” like Jadzia or Diamanda or Idris or Faye, yeah? Well… I chose the name Natalie for a number of rather specific, “pretentious” reasons, likewise Reed. Natalie was chosen a) for the latin word for “birth”, something I felt I was undergoing in transition, b) it’s a name traditionally given to girls born around Christmas (Natale Domini), and I had begun my HRT on December 20th, and c) I was poking a bit of fun at the word “natal female” which was, in 2002 when I first began researching transition, the accepted term for a woman who wasn’t trans as “cisgender” had not yet been popularized. I may not have been a “natal female” but at least I was a Natalie female!
Reed is even more explicit. It’s quite simply a play on the word “read”. It’s what I chose as the pseudonym under which I’d write non-fiction, essays, criticism, etc. since that kind of writing foregrounds my role as a reader, someone who takes things in and thinks about them. It was meant to contrast against Wright, the ‘nym I’d be using for my poetry and fiction and comics, which would in turn foreground my creative role. Sadly, I haven’t yet published any of that kind of stuff since transition, so Natalie Wright has yet to make her debut.
Regardless, when the meanings are unpacked, and it becomes explicit that in calling myself Natalie Reed I was basically saying “Reborn Reader”, it all of a sudden looks exactly as “pretentious” as our Bes, Sages, Dharmas, Windleafs and Jadzias.
Assigned names, while not having the same degree of self-directed intentionality, nonetheless consistently bear meanings too. Admit it: you almost certainly know exactly what your name means in its language of origin. Parents often know those meanings too, and intended them. Else the names are meant as homages to relatives, friends, heroes. Then we even have those names that do have explicit meaning in English but have simply become commonplace enough that no one quite reads it as “pretentious” any longer: Grace, Harmony, Rose, Dawn, Felicity.
We like to view assigned names as though they were simply rolls of the dice, just a name that emerged fully-formed from the natural essence of your being, and therefore wholly natural, wholly real, and behave as though this natural realness of the name would be tainted and compromised by any degree of intentionality. But that intentionality was always already there: even in the rare case that your parents literally just flipped to a page of the Big Book O’ Baby Names at random, that randomness was itself an act of intentionality.
Perhaps, at least, this intention wasn’t yours, and that’s what makes the name natural? Sure. The signifier of a self is TOTALLY more “real” when the self it represents in no way participated in the meanings and associations of the appellation, nor did the self even have any kind of form through which such meanings and associations could sensibly be located. That makes oodles of sense.
Regardless, though, the most troubling issue here is the presumption that there is EVER a context in which it is appropriate to deny someone their name. This gets so close to home in terms of some of the overarching themes I’ve been trying to convey about identity on this blog.
An individual’s body, gender and identity are theirs. Wholly and completely so. No matter what they’ve done with or to their body, what choices they’ve made about their body, how they identify and express their gender and sexuality, or how they’ve chosen to articulate their identity, at NO point does it become OUR domain to start dictating those things, or what of them were and were not worthy choices. You do not get to determine my gender, I do. You do not get to make decisions about what happens to my body, I do. And you do not get to say what is or isn’t my name. I do.
Likewise everyone else. Even for the silliest of reasons, their name is their name. Honestly? I would still call you an asshole even if you put scare quotes around someone who’d taken the name RainbowStar, Daughter Of The Moonray Roads. It’s RainbowStar’s call to make, not ours.
This intensity with which we privilege the supposedly “unintentional” assigned name as natural and real while mocking names that are elected -and almost in accordance with the degree to which their self-determination is overt or “flaunted”, such as how we’re much less likely to mock a trans person who picks a “normal-sounding” name, one that “fits” with cultural expectations and SEEMS assigned (like Natalie), than a trans person who chooses something that proudly does not to disguise its nature as chosen (like Jadzia)- reflects almost a resentment and distrust of self-determination itself. And that’s creepy as all get out.
The overall message we seem to send in these kinds of things is that yes, we’re supposed to simply accept our lot in life. Accept the identity and role we’ve been assigned. Accept our station. Accept who others tell us we are. Accept what they think we’re meant to be, and what we mean. Accept what they’ve called us, and never, ever stand up against that. Never assert the right to determine and define your own identity, life, role, meaning. Don’t ever claim the capacity to choose for yourself what kind of life you will have, nor ever say that what you’ve been assigned is not what you want for yourself. Don’t question- do as your told, and be who you’re told you are.
One of the most beautiful and powerful things I feel a human being can do is to reject that message. To assert that they’re more than the identity they’ve been told to inhabit. To go all Don Quixote, and become a knight errant, refuse to accept being a tired old gentleman of LaMancha locked in his study with his resignation reading books and yearning, instead sally forth to battle giants, protect the innocent, fall madly in love, and be the hero you know yourself to be… no matter how many times you get beaten up, how many teeth you lose, how much you’re ridiculed, how much you’re patronizingly humoured, how much you’re exploited, and how much everyone implores you to return to the “sanity” of the empty life you were expected to live (and yes, this does all happen to Don Quixote, and yes, I do consider him the absolute perfect archetype of the heroism of transition).
Which is his real name:
Alonso Quijano or Don Quixote?
If you answer the former, I’m genuinely sad for you.
What’s the Emerson quote again? “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Us trans peeps take our own names as extensions of our own selves. To signify the part of ourselves that although subjected to a lifetime of a world attempting to destroy it, or at least brutally suppress it, managed to survive and ultimately find its way to being proudly open in the light of day. It’s the part of ourselves that was most genuine, that was able to exist and be spoken despite every conceivable form of coercion that would have us keep it silent. These names represent the parts of ourselves that could not be compromised, and represent our capacity to articulate, determine and assert our own identities even at the risk of losing everything we have. What could possibly be more real than that? That part of myself, now named, was the part that persisted (through much worse than scare quotes), that needed to be named and seen. What could be more real than that?
Yes, I have a real name. It’s Natalie.
Are you sure yours is real?