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Dec 08 2012

Revising the self III: History, cistory

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.

- Revising the self: The names we use

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.

Social Security name rankingsThat 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.

Wolfram Alpha name statistics

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.

- Writings of a Trans Activist: Passing as a (cis) woman

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.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Natalie Reed

    I don’t know if it’s wholly fair to assume that attempts to “pass” or “blend in” are really so consistently about attempting to blend in as cis. Often, we’re just presenting ourselves in the way we feel is comfortable, and the degree to which the people around us make the assumption that we are cis is really something not wholly under our control.

    For instance, I don’t tend to dress in any way that “screams” trans. I’m quite frequently read as cis. But I often wear a little trans symbol pendant, or a little trans pride flag lapel pin, or something like that. Technically speaking, I’m making no effort whatsoever to “pass as cis”, and in fact am incorporating little signals of trans-ness into my presentation in such a way that it doesn’t require compromising the basics of how I like to dress, but the people around me go right on reading me however they read me anyway.

    I’ve also increasingly come to feel like “passing” and whether we’re read as cis or trans is really something we have much of any control over anyway. We each will dress a certain way, in line with our relative comfort, how okay we are with standing out, our sense of style, our sense of gender, etc. … but that’s about us, and ultimately it doesn’t have all THAT much effect on how we get read, which is such a hugely contextual and variable thing, and always in the hands of whoever is doing the reading. It’s often very very random. You get treated perfectly one day, get laughed at and “sirred” the next. I feel like a lot of what we end up thinking of as “things we do to pass better” are honestly just magical thinking: “I was wearing this shade of eyeliner on the day when they laughed at me, but this shade on a day when everything went fine, so obviously this one ‘passes’ better!”

    Many trans people are trying to appear as cis as they can, yeah. But it’s not at all a fair assumption to think that simply because the world may read someone as cis, and you may read them as such, that that’s the actual goal they were attempting to achieve. Nor is it fair to assume that the only trans people who have abandoned the myths of “passing” are the ones who dress in blatantly non-normative or non-binary fashion.

    1. 1.1
      Zinnia Jones

      But it’s not at all a fair assumption to think that simply because the world may read someone as cis, and you may read them as such, that that’s the actual goal they were attempting to achieve.

      Yeah, when I went with a random popular name, it wasn’t really with the goal of cis mimicry in mind, but rather primarily age-appropriateness and the other psychological needs mentioned – a sense of realism, of “things probably would have been something like this”. But I was surprised at how much it coincided with a mentality of cis-passing, even if that wasn’t the explicit intention behind it.

      It’s sometimes tough to separate things we only do because we’re basically forced to, from things we would have done anyway. If transphobia was over tomorrow, I’d probably still present as I do, for the most part – but I’d be able to go swimming again, too. Basically, to what extent are our choices genuinely what we want, versus something we just have to do because of how ugly the world is? It seems like we’re still forced to keep in mind that there are currently certain constraints we’re subject to – and the world is happy to let us know if we stray outside of them.

      1. almulhida

        Basically, to what extent are our choices genuinely what we want, versus something we just have to do because of how ugly the world is?

        I don’t think anyone has a clear answer to that when it comes to gender performance. If anything I feel the transphobic ugliness that influences our presentation makes it easier for me to figure out some of the boundaries there, because it’s easier to notice that I’m afraid to go out in a particular way than it is to figure out whether I like something because it’s coded feminine or whether I’d like it even if it weren’t.

  2. 2
    Natalie Reed

    P.S.

    Wanting to be seen as a woman may or may not have anything to do with wanting to be seen as a cis woman.

  3. 3
    sc_43598d7a9185fb7de53e94601c54059d

    My last name came from a friend I loved, which means “Ram” (male sheep) in Russian/Polish; my first name, “Raquel” means ewe or female sheep. Coincidentely I noticed the daughter of a popular TV evangelist has a name similar to mine: Rachael Lamb.

  4. 4
    left0ver1under

    Zinnia is an interesting choice of name because it is at once both exceptional and commonplace. The name stands out and fits in.

    It’s rarely given, as explained above, yet the names of flowers (e.g. Rose, Lily, Daisy) are given often enough to make Zinnia not sound strange to anyone hearing the name for the first time.

  5. 5
    Susannah

    Re: blending in so that no-one notices you’re trying:

    (For the record, I’m a cis-female.)

    I have often pondered the way we identify people as male or female, at first glance, sometimes without noting any other characteristic, apart from general age. We see a person two blocks away down the street, and instantly, without thinking of it, label him/her as “old man”, “woman”, “teenager”, “old woman”, etc. (Teens seem to be a special case; sometimes we know at a distance, often we don’t.)

    What is it that we’re seeing? I don’t know.

    I have known a few trans people. The first one, long ago, was a shock, when the “man” turned around and was a woman. Not that it mattered in any real way, but there was an initial re-assessment as to how to respond to her; again, it seems that I speak differently in the presence of women than with men.

    I wondered for a while, years ago, about whether I could pass as male*. I don’t think I could. But why not? Back then, when I was young, learning a new way of walking wouldn’t be hard. I did that, anyhow, for the sake of my career. And dressing? A few years later, I was wearing men’s clothing, and perfectly comfortable in it, more than I ever would be in dresses and the usual accessories. But what is it that instantly defined me, in others eyes, as female? I still don’t know.

    *(Because of issues of safety, going into hiding, not sexual preference.)

  6. 6
    samanthashanti

    Sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder if this is much ado about nothing. Sometimes I’m certain that people have forgotten their Latin, and have turned prefixes into identity politics.

    (For the record I’m a CISFemale of integer’s history)

    Which means that having been born in rural farm country New England where the town doctor made house calls and the nearest hospital was at the time not exactly sick bay on 1701 Prime, when I was born much was assumed, and I was assigned a gender at almost random. My parents were equally parts open, healthy, wise, and chillin and deeply mental disturbed, anti social, homophobic lunatic. Mom was amazing and loved me no matter what, dad didn’t even want me. I suspected something was wrong when I was two, was certain when I was five, and had “the talk” with my folks. Mom was fine and knew it was coming, we’d already had conversations over the years about it. Dad exploded and spent the next 12 years violently abusing me.

    Through this time I had ongoing medical issues that the small town country doctor had no real answers for other than, “Well for whatever reason, your child gets dangerously I’ll without large quantities of salt. So when the cravings come, let it be.” Which meant Mom keeping salt packets in her purse, putting lots of extra salt in my food, and letting me just empty salt packets into my mouth while we were out somewhere and I needed it. I was the salt monster from star trek growing up.

    I was also forced to pretend to be someone I wasn’t and could never be growing up. Long story short I had to deal with things on my own until one day I couldn’t take it anymore and I stopped pretending. I did what I could, when I could, the way could to get were I am today. When I was little, I wanted to grow up to be like my Mom, or Samantha Stevens. Either would have been fine. Turns out had I been assigned female, Samantha would have been my name anyway. So that was a no brainer for me. Sure it’s so common that if you looked up my legal name online, you’d find hundreds of my. Less common, though more weird is I apparently have three dopplegangers right here in Ohio. One who has the same first and last name, looks, sounds, and acts just like me. I met her in the grocery store once, it was kind of weird and amazing for both of us. didn’t I dive into the whole history of being a freakasaurus? No, of course not, because it wasn’t important. Did I get into being IS? Of course not. Why should I? Did I turn it into an opportunity to expand someone’s mind whether they wander it or not? Hell no.

    I’m a woman with a past, and that covers so much ground. Domestic Violence, Rape, my Intersexed journey, it’s all my past. Right now as I write this, I’m a cisfemale because factually, in terms of the real meaning of words, inside and out I’m on one side of the gender divide and have no interest in being somewhere else. I’m not trans anything. Because trans is a prefex of Latin origin meaning moving from on side or place to another. Cisco is also a Latin prefix, and it simply means on the same side. In the purest sense of language, trans-sex or trans-gender, are both idiocy created by someone who would fail High-school English. Gender is stateless and open until fixed with a modifier, as in “Samantha is of the female gender.” Same thing with sex. It’s open, without form or definition until modified. Again, as in “Samantha is of the fairer sex.”

    Identity politics gets in the way of living. Splitting hairs about who did what WHEN in the past? Also making a mess of things that serves no purpose. Unless there is a pressing need for it, I don’t get lost in who or what I may have once been. My friends don’t, my family doesn’t, I don’t walk around with an alphabet soup of letters on my chest to make it clear I’m different, instead I make sure I’m wearing clean clothes and underwear, smile at other people and treat them with respect and INCLUSION not exclusion. Folks might want to try that.

    More time you spend on details that enforce differences, and encourage “othering” behaviour, the less time you have for living life.

    I don’t revise my self or my history, I just don’t nitpick it to death. And the undiagnosed weird medical circumstances of my birth have since been diagnosed as a Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. Which means amount other things, that lucky me, I get to take steriods for the rest of my life.

    We all talk about our stories of the past, my friends, family and I. We just don’t bother with disclaimers ahead of time like “that was your weird tomboy phase that lasted to long.” Hech, when I “came out” to a person everyone said “Oh, finally,your going to stop with the drag and trying to get us all to believe you’re a guy?”

    My big damn secret was that I spent all those years hiding and living in fear of a secret that wasn’t a secret.

    But I learned a lot too. Zinnia, you do some amazing work. You do. I watch and read, and like to think you’re helping make the world a better place by knocking on minds and hearts, giving folks who will, an opportunity to see and grow. This is a good thing.

    But don’t get lost in identity politics and made up terms that morons came up with and use as a war cry for exclusion and othering of people. Don’t buy the spin.

  7. 7
    samanthashanti

    Oops, that was supposed to be Intersex history… damn auto correct.

  8. 8
    alicerosewater

    I chose my name in a similar fashion, I think. I became frustrated that no matter how nice I thought a name was, it always felt imperfect. And I realized that this was going to be the case with any name that I picked based on how much it “felt like me”. So, I decided to go modernist and reject rationality in choosing my name. I decided to pick it as arbitrarily as possible while having it still be pronounceable and without needing to spell it every time I talk to someone. So, I picked it using numbers and phonology. I have always had an irrational penchant for the number 3, so I crafted my name so that it has 18 letters (9 and 9 interlocking vowels and consonants) and 6 syllables. Those 6 syllables consist of 2 dactyls (long-short-short three-syllable poetic meter) so that it also has a pleasant phonology. My last name is borrowed from a character in one of my favorite books and it was actually the first part of my name that I decided. It lends my name a literary, Nancy Drew-esque, texture that makes it feel individual to me.

  9. 9
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    I’m old enough that my parents had male and female assigned names decided upon prior to my birth (no intra-uterine ultrasounds back then to get a ‘sneak preview’!), so for my everyday-use name I’m using one of the ones that wasn’t assigned to me. It seemed the logical choice when I came out as trans* as it had been in my head since about the age of five or six — I’d known that it would have been my name had I been assigned to the opposite binary gender. My birth name is classical and not too overused; my current name is incredibly commonplace (and there are dozens of variants of the same basic name).

    Samantha at #6, just because YOU feel comfortable being on ‘one side of the gender divide’ seems to give you little or no insight or empathy for those who find it to be very uncomfortable to be on what they perceive to be the wrong side, and whose identities are repressed by thousands of micro-aggressive transphobic negations from the binary-enforcing cis majority on a daily basis. Don’t disparage the identity politics of others when it’s not YOUR status that’s continually at stake and being questioned as legitimate.

  10. 10
    nathanaelnerode

    “Like everyone else, we want to be seen as women or as men,”

    Well, except for the genderqueer, who deliberately don’t want to be seen as women or as men. I think that’s a potentially impossible project, but I want it to work. :-(

    1. 10.1
      nathanaelnerode

      By the way, I’ve noticed how *incredibly apologetic* people get when they misread my sex, often for trivial reasons like seeing long hair from behind. My reaction is “So what?” Since men and women have equal rights and should be treated equally, why should I care whether some random person on the street “reads” me as female or male?

      But most people seem to have a deep, deep need to accurately “sex” people! I don’t get it. It’s sort of like the veteranarian who habitually checks the sex of each animal immediately, without even thinking about it, whether it’s relevant or not. What’s going on in people’s heads?

  11. 11
    almulhida

    I had three rules for picking a name;

    1)Had to be an Arabic name
    2)that monolingual English speakers can pronounce
    3)that is also too short to create a diminutive for

    That narrowed things down considerably. I wasn’t particularly concerned with how common the name is, though I eventually settled on a very common name (Laila).

    There’s a few thousand words to be written on all the considerations that went into my name change, but briefly; an Arabic name makes me seem more ‘ethnic’ (because white people don’t have an ethnicity, don’tcha know) and invites racial microagressions (and probably a weaker resume), but despite being very acculturated here in the US, Immigrant and Arab are large enough fixtures in my identity that I don’t want them erased. Passing in a racial context is also complicated, but needless to say having an English name would get me read as very westernised (like ethnic, I’m not happy with the word, but haven’t found better language) and I’m already irritated at how hard it is to get people to speak to me in Arabic (being a long haired Saudi ‘man’, among other things, doesn’t make you look like you’re too concerned with your mother culture).

    2 and 3 are pretty self explanatory I think. I don’t like nicknames, and I’m sort of tired of hearing my male name mangled. People can’t quite say Laila either, and say Layla (like the Eric Clapton song), which is close enough for me.

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