Zinnia hasn’t appeared in the top 1,000 American names for the past century. This makes it an excellent and recognizable “brand”, but for me, transitioning involved finding a name that blended in, didn’t draw the wrong kind of attention, and was appropriate for my age.
How do you pick a new name for yourself? It’s a frequent question from fledgling trans people, as well as others who want to know more about us. Like transitioning, renaming yourself isn’t really a widespread practice, and when we do make that choice, it’s typically something we only do once. A lot of thought goes into it – after all, that’s going to be your name now, so you’d best choose judiciously.
So, how do people find new names? However they want, really. Just as with any time someone is given a name, there are plenty of considerations and sources of inspiration, and ideas can come from anywhere that names are used. What sort of associations and feelings does it bring to mind? How does it sound? Does it feel right, like it fits you, like it’s yours? Sometimes a name has a certain appealing meaning, or acquires it through one’s personal history. Some people ask their parents what other names were at the top of the list if they had been born differently. Some ask their loved ones and friends for ideas. Others might use a direct feminization or masculinization of their former name, though it’s probably nowhere near as common as popular depictions of trans people make it seem. Sometimes it can be as simple as picking a name that’s popular, or was popular in the year you were born.
That last one verges into another class of considerations. These don’t solely involve what you think of a name, but rather what you have to think about due to how the rest of society uses and deals with names, and the attitudes they hold toward them. For instance, how might everyone else feel about a name? Will they be able to spell it and pronounce it? Is it a common name or a unique one? Do you want something that stands out, or something that blends in? Is it typical of someone in your age group, or was it more prevalent among another generation?
In other words, just pick a name you like… within certain parameters. And wherever social norms come to bear on individual choice – especially choices made by a broadly maligned and misunderstood minority, involving something so personal as how we name ourselves – there’s probably some interesting stuff to explore.
Using the Social Security Administration’s records of popular baby names by year to find a name that was common around the time of your birth is actually a pretty well-known method among trans people. Certainly not everyone uses this trick, but it’s an easy way to narrow down your choices to a set of names that come across as more suited to your age, given how the popularity of certain names rises and falls over time. Most people I’ve seen do seem to take this criterion into account in some capacity, and in trans-focused forums full of people who’ve grown up using computers and the internet, you’re more likely to find plenty of women named Emily, Sarah or Jessica – and not so many named Mildred, Gladys or Gertrude.
Recently, I found another tool that provides even more detail: typing a name into Wolfram Alpha, which will show its peaks and declines and resurgences in popularity over time, and the most common age of people with that name.
When I shared this interesting find, fellow trans FTBer Natalie Reed pointed out something I should have recognized earlier: that this is just a way of ensuring that a certain name fits into – and implies – a personal cisgender history that never actually happened. It means aiming to choose a “normal” name, one that blends in with the rest of society and with people your age – which is to say, blends in with our cis peers.
I hadn’t thought about it like that before, and I don’t know why I didn’t, but it seems like a pretty accurate description of this particular constraint on name choice. Not only that, but practically all of my own personal criteria when I chose my name were tied into this mimicry of a cis history in one way or another. What I wanted was a name that shared as many key features of an assigned name as possible. I felt this would help make it easier for me – and, yes, others – to accept it as my own, for the same reasons that I had regarded my original name as my own for most of my life. I had to think about this for a little while, before I figured out what requirements this would entail.
The most important was that my name be as not special as possible, almost arbitrary. After all, my original name only seemed “special” to me because it was given to me, and not for any other reason. If it wasn’t mine, nothing about it would have stood out from my perspective. This also meant choosing a name that was effectively meaningless to me – not looking for a certain meaning in order to find names that expressed this, but rather ignoring this aspect entirely. I never really cared what my original name meant, I don’t think my parents did, and it’s not all that important to me now, either. (Most English names seem to mean something vacuous like “God loves” or “random Bible character” anyway.) Finally, one of the most difficult features of my original name to replicate was the fact that I didn’t choose it. I mean, choosing a name without… choosing? How the hell do you do that?
The closest I could get was, instead of even taking the time to search for a name, just going with one that I had randomly used on a whim as an example when asking someone else if they thought it would be better for me to pick a more common name. Obviously, the final decision was mine – but I didn’t bother considering many other options. I went with the first one I saw, ran with it, and it worked for me. I wanted it to fit neatly into all the mental nooks and crannies that the old name occupied, and it does feel like my name – it is my name.
Nonetheless, it’s unavoidable that wanting my name to share the features of an assigned name meant wanting it to share the features of a name given under the assumption that I was cis. When parents name their children, they recognize that the child is most likely going to keep that name for a lifetime – stuck with it for as long as they don’t feel like going through the personal, legal and practical hurdles associated with finding a new one. That’s just going to be their name, with the person whose name it is having had no role in deciding it. And so I, too, chose a name that gives no clue as to its self-determination and self-definition – as though I’d never changed my name at all, and this was my name from the very beginning.
Like an imaginary cis history.
It’s about looking like you were born that way.
Of course, this approach to choosing a name is only one of many practices that imply, or are designed to be compatible with, a personal cis history that never took place. Particularly in the case of the detailed name statistics, all the numbers and graphs do seem to reduce an intensely personal choice to a cold and clinical calculation, but trans people often do plenty of other things to blend in as cis: things meant to avoid tipping people off that they’re trans, and allow people to maintain the assumption that they’re cis.
Being known to be trans doesn’t mean that you’re any less of a woman or man – but in practice, many people will unfortunately no longer think of you as a woman or man if they know you’re trans, and those people are likely to think less of us in general if they find out. That can make life hard for us in a variety of ways, and outside of certain rare “safe spaces”, this is something we’re forced to deal with out of necessity. We have strong incentives to give the impression of that imaginary cis history, even if we shouldn’t have to.
It’s not always easy. Think about it, cis people: how much work would you have to go through not only to present as another gender, but to do it so well that nobody notices you’re even trying? Transitioning means running that gauntlet on a daily basis. Presenting as our identified gender isn’t the real challenge of it. The truly hard part is doing it with such precision that no one suspects our preferred gender is any different from the one we were originally assigned. And the difficult and personally compromising dimension of it is that in order to achieve that precision – to make our everyday lives easier in terms of interacting with others who more than likely don’t look kindly upon us – we may be forced to present ourselves in a way that we may not always be entirely comfortable with.
The need to blend in when we’re already at a disadvantage to start with can often mean having to compensate. Wearing certain things we may not want to wear. Acting in ways that sometimes feel awkward or pointless. Talking in ways that are challenging to sustain for any length of time. Shaving places that we might not really feel like shaving, if failing to do so didn’t jeopardize how our gender is perceived. And so we sometimes sacrifice our comfort personally, in the hopes of greater comfort socially.
We face the same restrictive gendered standards that everyone else does – the unpleasant realities that some of the distinct attire and mannerisms that are demanded of men and women are plainly frivolous, and should by no means be that important to anyone – and then some. Life is already hard enough in this regard for masculine cis women and feminine cis men, who often run afoul of these standards and suffer for it.
The difference is that their genders are still recognized: they’re being held to overblown social norms, but they’re the overblown social norms of their identified gender. Their gender is still considered legitimate and real, even as people may despise how they express it. But trans people face the additional risk of having their identity itself invalidated for any perceived deviation from these norms. In a world where being known as trans means being seen as “less real” in terms of your gender, people will instead revert to seeing us as the very gender we sought to escape, and holding us to that set of standards – thus reducing us to “men in dresses” and so on.
Given what’s at stake, it shouldn’t be surprising that so many trans people (in addition to cis women, and gay/bi people, and gender-nonconforming people) despise the social forces that demand we navigate this narrow, twisty, spiky maze of expectations that no one should ever be subjected to. And at the same time, it’s unavoidable that our own feelings and decisions are mediated and influenced by being immersed in a culture with some very ugly attitudes toward gender. If we really, honestly want to understand what’s going on in our heads and what’s going on in society, we need to recognize that – just as how women who protest that they choose to shave their legs regardless of social expectations should consider how much of a choice they were truly allowed to begin with.
Likewise, while I think my wardrobe is pretty awesome and makes me look great, I also have to think about how much freedom I really have to choose otherwise if I felt like it. And I love my name, but there’s no denying that I specifically tailored it to simulate the experience of having a name that was given on the basis of my presumed cis-ness. It fits people’s expectations, and it fits my personal needs as well. I did want it to feel just as real to me, as though it was always my name, even if it wasn’t. And the features that make it so imitative of an imaginary cis history – its arbitrariness, its meaninglessness, and the fact that I grew up around plenty of people who shared that name – are also what made it so easy for me to accept as my own.
I think a lot of trans people have similar needs. For much of our lives, however joyous or tragic they were at the time, we missed out on living as our preferred gender. We don’t get that time back. Many of us feel it would have been easier if we had a different body from the start, if we had a different name from the start – we want to have had a cis history. And while we can’t change the past, we do what we can to make ourselves as comfortable as possible now.
Sometimes, the things we do for ourselves conflict with the things we do for others. But sometimes, more confusingly, those things overlap, as in cases where our well-being is contingent upon how comfortable others are with us. The line blurs and disappears, and we’re forced to question who we’re really doing this for.
For the sake of our own comfort, but also for the sake of our own survival in a hostile society, we do often allow that illusion of a cis history to persist. We dress like we’re supposed to. We talk like people expect us to. We choose a name that won’t surprise anyone. And we let people make their assumptions, without bothering to correct them – because maybe the average person on the street doesn’t need, or deserve, to know all the really interesting parts of my life.
Maybe things will be different someday, and it won’t matter anymore whether people know this about me or not. It won’t matter whether anything tips them off, and it won’t matter what they think. We’re just not there yet. Like everyone else, we want to be seen as women or as men, and right now, this is what it takes.