Friday, May 23, 2008

What's In A Transperson's Name?

When a mother is pregnant with her child, one of the things that they think long and hard about during their pregnancy as soon as they have a general idea of the presumed gender of the child is the name.

African-American mothers, as descendants of Africans, realize that there's great importance to the name you choose for your child. It says a lot about the individual, their family and their connection to the community at large.

They spend a lot of time carefully putting together combinations of names, poring through various baby name books, and considering various factors in consultation with the father and sometimes the soon to be grandparents before coming up with that combination of three names that gets entered onto your birth certificate soon after you exit the birth canal and enter the world.

Names carry a lot of weight in our binary gendered society, and transpeople know this reality all too well. It's why one of the first things we do when we finally start making those moves to transition is choosing a name that accurately represents who we are. It's one reason why our fundamentalist enemies spend so much time making it hard for us to legally change our names and the gender markers to go with those names.

I believe that some of the negative friction that happens between transpeople and their mothers is fueled in one small way by the fact that many of us unilaterally choose our new names as part of the process.

Granted, some of that friction is caused by the parents rejecting their child in the early wake of the child's announcement of their wish to transition. But sometimes when we logically paint the worst-case scenario for transition and presume that we're going to get cut off from our immediate family's love and it doesn't happen, then I submit that one way to facilitate bonding of our families into the transition process is to allow them that input in the name change decision.

One of the things I would do differently in my own transition if I got the chance to start it over again would be to give my mother and my baby sister some input in choosing my new name. My brother and I got some input in choosing my baby sister's name, so I should have done the same and allowed sis some input in choosing my new one just to be fair.

One mild issue with my intersex roommate and her mother was that when it was time to choose a name that matched her new femme presentation, she went a different direction than choosing the feminine derivative of her old male name she was given at birth by mom. As V's mother saw it and told me in a phone conversation we'd had, she was hurt that her daughter didn't go that route. Some mothers see it rightly or wrongly as a rejection of them.

When I was going through the process of choosing my new femme name, I definitely wanted to keep my MKR initials, since they were my link not only to my family, but mom as well. I also decided to choose a feminine name which would have been popular during the decade I was born. I'd been to far too many gender conferences and attended gender group meetings in which 20-something, 30-something, 40-something, 50-something, and 60-something year old transwomen were running around with or had changed them to currently popular names of the 80's, 90's and 2K's that really didn't fit the person that was standing before me.

I knew too many people in the transgender community back home that had the feminine derivative of my old name and wanted to find another feminine name starting with M. I'd already settled on my middle name starting with K, which was a combination of the first and middle names of a female cousin who is more like a sister to me and I spent a lot of time in her and her two sisters lives on one level or another.

I then thought about the qualities I associated with various feminine names, and the name that I thought best fit the woman I was evolving into and wanted to project to the world while sticking to my 'it had to start with M' prerequisite.

One name that popped into my head as I was trying out various 'M' names with the femme middle name I'd chosen for myself was Monica. Most of the Monica's I'd grown up with or gotten to know were classy, smart, talented and beautiful women. I liked the name even more when I read one definition for it.

Possibly (Greek) "solitary" or (Latin) "to advise; nun". Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, prayed for her son and saved him from self-destruction. As a result, Saint Augustine became one of the greatest saints in history. The name is popular with Catholics.

As an activist, writer and blogger I definitely do a lot of advising. Writing tends to be a solitary activity along with my tendency to engage in a lot of solitary thinking. Some of the work I'm trying to do is along the lines of getting transwomen to avoid self-destructive things and behaviors. My spirituality is a major component of who I am as a person. I'm happiest when I'm either writing or curled up with a good book, and I'm a Phenomenal Transwoman to boot.

That's how I arrived at my new name. It not only seems to fit quite well with who I am, who the people that meet me see and the woman I'm continually evolving to be, I'm comfortable with it as well.

If you sat ten different transpeople down and asked them how and why they chose their name, you'd get ten different answers as to how they conducted the thought processes or the myriad reasons that eventually led to their new name. It's why we transpeople go off on the media so much when they disrespect us by putting our new names in quotation marks or parentheses or don't use the proper pronouns in describing us in various news stories.

We go through a lot just to get to the point where we not only evolve to become the persons we are, but thinking about the various ancillary aspects of manhood and womanhood.

So what's in a transperson's name? Plenty of hard, solid thinking, blood, toil, drama, sweat, tears, hope, history, roller coaster emotions and prayerful consideration that it will lead to the respect that we demand for ourselves and from others in the world around us.

TransGrior Note: women in photos are actress Monica Calhoun and singer Monica Arnold


Unknown said...

I did the "assume the worst" thing when I chose my first name. I chose it all as a big package, and it turned into a bigger process later when I came out and my mother was more accepting (I came out before as a teenager, and she did not take it well at all).

I chose my first name on my own, Cassandra, as a kind of joke to the people around me. One of the noteworthy things people say about me is that I listen to them intently, and give them advice which they summarily dismiss and ignore. Later, they come back telling me how stupid it was that they didn't listen to me. I thought back on my studies of mythology, and I found the story of Cassandra of Troy. Enough said.

My mother chose my middle name, Chelsea, from a name she'd intended to give to the child she'd have had if she hadn't been forced to abort by my grandfather.

And I hyphenated my mother's maiden name and my father's last name at the ending.

Monica Roberts said...

Interesting, Cass. Your story almost mirrors my own. :)

Zoe Brain said...

I chose the name "Zoe" after the Dr Who companion. The Pure Mathematics Genius, not the usual frothy bubbleheaded female whose only duty seemed to be to scream at appropriate times.

I was a Geek Girl even at 10.

I really thought I'd have a normal puberty then, you know?

I wanted to travel the world, to emigrate to Australia, to study Pure Maths and be a Rocket Scientist. To marry and have a large family. And to get my PhD, to be Dr Zoe Brain.

I'm still working on the PhD. And my endocrinal problems meant I could only have one child. A wife rather than a husband too, the whole TS thing got in the way there.

Not as much as you'd think though. After transition, my life remains mostly the same. Just... happier.

Unknown said...

Sounds awesome, Zoe. I'm working on my PhD, as well, but I kinda gotta finish that bachelors and masters first, ha ha. 3 years into college, probably 2-3 more to go (transition's forcing me to slow it down just a touch).

No husbands for me, though. Looks like I get to become the stereotypical Women's Studies lesbian. :P

Jackie said...

Interesting post, Monica. Wonderful point about a parent's feelings about having a part in naming their child, regardless of age. I could imagine that could actually ease some of the tension of transition.
Of course, I could be prejudiced, but Monica does perfectly fit, beautiful, classy, phenominal women. You chose well.

Monica Roberts said...

It's one of those subjects and posts that could go on indelfinitely, jow and why you chose yor name.

Jackie, one of these days I'm finally going to get to spend some quality time with you and Monica ;)

And speaking of names, Jacqueline had that air of class and sophistication bac in my era thnks to the then First Lady. I can't tell you how many Jacquelines I knew at every level of my school career.

E said...


Another Australian here. While growing up and then into adulthood, I was convinced my parents would spurn me. I began on the road towards transition early on, but stopped because of that fear. It's one of the ironies of coming from a close and loving family - which unfortunately became involved in a nutty fundamentalist church for a while.

Anyway, when I finally told my mum (dad died a while ago) not too long ago, I hadn't completely chosen my name. After the initial shock of her acceptance of me, we had a number of deep conversations.

Eventually, we came to the topic of names. The options that would have kept my initials did not impress me, so we had scope. Mum suggested my first name, then we struggled for a middle name. After I had returned home, she thought of my middle name while watching tennis: no, it was not one of the players.

My hope that she would pick a new name for me was fulfilled. Over time, she accompanied me for surgery and hers was the face I saw beside me when they wheeled me back to my room.

My only regrets about the whole thing are not doing this sooner and not doing this while dad was alive.


Monica Roberts said...

I'm glad you and your mother have been able to form a mother daughter relatiionship.

Mine has has been a struggle, but fortunately I had baby sis in my corner during the early days and now.

But your story ad others like it mamke me wonder just how different transition would have been if I'd done just that one simple thing.

Erin said...

I assumed the worst for a while, but interestingly, my reaction to that notion was to change my family name, possibly to one that had been a great-great-something or other. The first name was never a question for me, since my parents chose to be surprised on the sex of both their children and thus had two names picked out for each. My name now is what my parents had picked if I'd been born female. I figured, even if they never spoke to me again, it would be a way to stay connected, but at the same time I thought if I could tell them why I chose that name, it might make them understand that I wasn't doing this to hurt or reject them, either. The middle name took some work, though, since it got passed to my sister (but not the first name, as it had become too popular in the intervening years). It turns out that my grandmothers had the same middle name, coincidentally, so my mom suggested I take that as a way of connecting to my ancestors and there you have it. Now that I know my family are sticking with me, I've ended up keeping my family name after all.

Monica Roberts said...

I was adamant about keeping my last name, whether the family accepted me or not.