(a guest post from Rani Baker)
“In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for–the stories go–once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer’s true name, then routine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful.” – Vernor Vinge, True Names
Show of hands, how many people know Freddy Mercury’s birth name off the top of their head?
Yeah I thought so.
What’s in a name? What does it mean? It can mean quite a bit, really. It can affect all sorts of aspects of how we navigate through life. Actors change them to further their careers, musicians and performance artists adopt monikers that bestow an air of mystery. But even regular everyday people choose names and reinvent their identities all the time, and it’s something most people get to take for granted. If someone suddenly decided to, say, go by their middle name instead of their first or preferred an informal shortening of their name, nearly everyone would take it in stride without a second thought. My boyfriend changed his name to one that sounds like a super-villain. Someone calling out their previous or full legal name would sound like an uncomfortable and needless formality at best and an unwelcome imposition at worst,
Yet, as a trans woman, I’ve seen scores of acquaintances, potential suitors, and even outright strangers asking what my birth-name was. After death, families have intervened and overridden the wishes of their deceased (and legal name change) to literally bury them under the old name. People on the internet treat digging up and publicly announcing mine and other trans folks old names like an actual game (4chan-types have taken to referring to it as a “Power-word”). In the trans community, we colloquially refer to the former name as our “deadname”.
Dennis invited me to this Writer Workshop specifically to talk about trans folks and names, specifically regarding discussion surrounding Caitlyn Jenner. Well, articles have already been written about that, and have done a really fine job. Also, I’m just really bad at doing the whole “Trans 101” song and dance. The stuff I usually write about is a bit more complicated. For this, I’m gonna toss around some anecdotes and analogies on the subject that I’ve bounced around in my head for years now at this point, and I guess we’ll see what sticks.
How many times have you seen an article that takes the time to spell out the birth names of folks like Lady Gaga, Snooki, Bono, etc? Or even folks like Che Guevara, Joseph Stalin, or Mother Theresa? Bob Hope? Jack White? Unless the name change is directly related to the premise of the article, rarely if ever. Yet this is a constant in coverage of trans folks whether they are celebrities or murder victims. The birth name remains in there as a deliberate invalidation, a rhetorical anchor to “who they really are”. And it’s transparently one-sided; Nicolas Cage can name himself after a comic book character and that’s ok, yet trans folks lived existence is considered invalid and respecting it is frivolous somehow.
This sense of entitlement to ownership of trans folks birth names is both condescending and paternalistic. Think back to a time when a parent referred to you with your full name: first, middle, and last. It implied you were in trouble, right? It implies disapproval. Like you are about to be put in your place somehow.
Not to mention that frequently the birth name carries a lot of heavy emotional weight. An alarming amount of trans folks are alienated or estranged from their families, or may have been disowned. Some of us cough were originally named after family members we’ve had decades of tension with. If someone were to change their name after a divorce, would you consciously continue to associate them with the spouse they left? I’d prefer to believe not.
Now I’m not talking about accidental mistakes by folks who knew said trans folks before transition. I’m referring to distinctive efforts to reveal or coerce out a previous name, or insistence on use of a name they no longer go by publicly. What are you really intending to say?
And this is regardless of your opinion about the variable “truth” of transgender lived experience, identity and perspective. I’ve watched in fascination as folks that famously disbelieve “born this way” narratives of inherent identity appeal to the birth name of trans folks as if the name itself contains an aspect of their true nature. Like a strangely spiritual totem of a narrative they desire to reframe them under.
What is in a name, really?