Changing one’s name takes a lot of effort, anguish, work, and patience. So why do we do it? Why are names so important to us as transgender people? Over the last few years, but particularly the last few months, I’ve lived the experience of crafting a name for myself and then wearing it into the world. And sometimes I ask myself why I am going through all this stress.
They say that to name a thing is to own it. My dead name was given to me by people who cared for me, enforced by people and systems that had authority over me. So I wore it out of a sense of duty, resignation, and guilt at first, then habit and fear.
I feel about my dead name the way Ralphie felt about that pink bunny outfit in A Christmas Story – if I’d been given the option, I’d have worn literally anything else. It felt like every time I heard that name I was being mocked. By naming me that way others had declared ownership over me. My identity started with them and they told me what it was.
To be transgender is to be assigned. It’s to be assigned a gender, assigned a name, and assigned roles and identities that aren’t yours. At least at first. But as you come into being transgender, and out as a person, you reclaim yourself one centimeter at a time. You sift through the piles of identity forced on you and discard the parts that don’t belong. And somewhere in these piles of experience and learning that you’ve accumulated over the years, you find your name.
And so, you take this name and we wear it. Naming ourselves is a radical act because it flips the script – and the entire table that the script was resting on – about identity. Taking a name for ourselves says, “I own me now.” Most people never question their given names and identities, and here we are with the audacity to put that down and declare ourselves anew.
And the names we find are stunning. I love my name. I love my trans friends’ names and the stories and thoughts that went into them. I love every second of watching someone try on names until they find the one that fits, and they say, “Yes. This is mine now.”
To give someone your name – that’s a gift. It’s a shortcut to you and you say, “Here I am. This is me.” It’s like giving someone the phone number to your soul. And just like when you give your digits to someone, there’s vulnerability in that. You don’t want them to misuse it, take it wrong, or forget it, right?
And it matters because every time someone calls up my old name, that dead name, that says something. Maybe they don’t realize that name doesn’t go to me any more, or it was just a force of habit? It can be benign in that way. But too many times it’s an act of hubris, an attempt to define my identity on their own terms. They’re saying they own my identity.
And that is why this dead-naming hits so hard for a transgender person, right? We’ve lived that our entire lives and when someone refuses to use our real name – a name we nurtured and crafted for ourselves – when they refuse to come to us on our own terms using the gift we gave them, that feels violent. Because it is.
I’m so proud of my trans siblings for having the strength to take their own names, and for reclaiming themselves. And if you’re a cisgender person, I hope when a trans person gives you their name that you treat it with the honor and respect that it deserves both as a way to reach this person and talk to them, but for the radical art that it is.
- Evey Winters, writer and activist, graduated cum laude from Davis & Elkins in 2013 with degrees in English, History and Political Science. She works full time in web and app development and advocates for LGBTQ rights, economic justice and the environment, and for everyone to live their best life. She is a Hufflepuff who loves Bloody Marys, hot sauce, and crisp autumn and winter mornings. You can read her writing at eveywinters.com