What’s in a name? Your name is a peculiar form of public-use private property, in that it unmistakably belongs to you, and you can legally defend where and how it’s used… But at the same time, your name is not for you. It exists because other people need something to call you. If you were the only person left alive, your name would fall into disuse, just a curiosity you preserved out of sentiment if you chose to. Your name is yours, but you’re usually the last to use it.
This is why we wield names the way we do in our relationships, as a form of soft power, a gentle way of reinforcing social bonds and hierarchies. We can reference our relationships without having to mention them explicitly. Your mother calls you by your name, but she also calls you a cute nickname you had when you were a kid. When she calls you that, she’s saying, “You belong; remember the time we’ve spent together?” Maybe your name is James, but your coworkers call you Jimmy. When they do that, they’re saying, “You’re ours, see? Because we address you differently than other people do. When we call you that, remember that you’re one of us.”
We reference shared experience to reaffirm the bond there. Your name can be used to praise you, to lift you up, to confirm your status. When someone calls you by your full name, you straighten up, take notice; something serious is happening! It can be used to diminish your status in a friendly way, to put you on the same level as someone – when a salesman calls you by your first name, he’s trying to establish a rapport, trying to make you feel connected and equal to him so he can sell you something. These are all what you could call prosocial ways we wield other people’s names, and we do it subconsciously.
When we use someone’s name to put them back in their place, we usually do that subconsciously too.
The trouble with referencing shared history is that, like our names, our history is a kind of communal private property. Your life is yours, and yet other people do feature in it, and the way they remember their lives can affect how you remember yours, especially if you’re very young or in a subservient position. For great portions of our childhood, our parents write our history. They tell us things we experienced – “your first birthday! The time you got bitten by a dog when you were three!” – and over time we come to “remember” those things as if we were truly conscious for them. But there’s no distinction, to your brain, between things you remember and things you imagine. When you read a story, or someone tells you about something that happened to them, what your brain does is cobble together a false memory of an event you didn’t experience out of other sensory experiences you’ve had, writing you a memory of something that never happened to you.
This means that your history can be rewritten, overwritten, or erased by others, if they’re strong-willed enough to convince your brain that their perception of reality is the right one. This means that when your parents spend most of your early years dealing with you as a larva, something that must be taught and given everything, including its understanding of itself… it makes a kind of sense that they think of your history as something that belongs to them, something they built for you out of whole cloth, that you had nothing to do with. Your history feels like theirs. Your identity is not just shared property but their work, their invention. When you say, “I am not yours, I am mine,” they feel that as a loss, perhaps even a theft.
When people invest their ego in who you become, they make your life a barometer for their self-worth.
This is the environment a trans person who wants to change their name walks into: one where your family is deeply invested in denying your identity and reality, where your family feels robbed when you declare your body your own property, your name your own choice, your gender your own experience. Let’s lay out how this situation looks from both sides to understand why your family is knowingly choosing to hurt you and claiming it’s love:
As a trans person, when you say, “I’ve changed my name; this is what I’d like you to call me now,” what you’re saying is, “The person I am now is different enough from the person you remember that in order to fully honor and love who I am now, you’ll need to reformat some really subtle shit about how we relate. But I’d like you to do that because I love you and want you to know me, really know me, not just know the child I was. I want to love who you are now with who I am now – can you do that?”
Your family answers: “You’re erasing our history, rejecting our love, throwing the years we spent caring for you back in our faces. It’s so little, to let us call you the name we know, to let us keep our memories of you as a child unaffected by your perceptions of it or anything that’s happened in the meantime. It’s so little, and yet you take it from us, as if you don’t want to know us at all.”
And if we were talking about any other kind of shared property – a book you borrowed, a car you bought together, a project you worked on as a group – that would fly. In any other case, you and your family will equally share in the benefits of having that thing so long as you choose to share it fairly between you. Your family is arguing that your name is the same as any other kind of property, something each involved party should have equal stake in and control over. But it’s not, is it?
Your name isn’t a possession you have, it’s a privilege you grant others if you choose… the privilege of summoning you.
Most of the benefits of your name usually go to other people – the benefit of securing your attention, soliciting your interest, affirming your position in the hierarchy, recalling and renewing your bonds, all those are things other people gain when they dictate the name they use on you. What do you gain in this scenario, when others choose your name? Well, ideally, you gain all the same things – the ability for others to include you in their lives, call you close, remember you. If your name and your history from the outside is fairly similar to what you experienced inside, you don’t feel any disconnection or discomfort when people reference that history or use that name.
But you have no input on the quality or content of any of those memories, any of those bonds, any of those hierarchies, when you’re a child. You were assigned your place, and your family’s ego is invested in keeping you there, because it’s comfortable for them. That doesn’t make them bad people – they didn’t establish the hierarchy, that’s just part of having an infant who is fundamentally a dependent for years on end. But if those hierarchies were established to meet the caregiving needs of an infant… and people are still trying to force you to live in that hierarchy as an adult…. they’re not actually trying to serve your needs, are they? They’re trying to serve their own need for control. In order to give our children room to grow, to become their own person instead of the person we expected and hoped they’d be – almost always a glowing caricature of us, funny how that works – we need to actively work against the subtle ways we shove people back into their places.
This is very much like the situation that obtains in the wider culture – the dominant group is having their privilege questioned and stripped away, and feeling robbed thereby. When all your life you’ve been given 80% of the pie as a matter of course, and someone tells you that really you should be getting 50%, it makes sense to feel like you’re losing something. But we, as adults, need to remember that we’re not losing. Reestablishing equality in an unequal situation is not an attack on the person in the privileged position, it is an attack on the inequality.
Losing your privilege only hurts if your privilege is all the identity you have.
When you view changing your name one way and your family views it another way, ultimately, their view can’t matter. Because it’s your name. It’s your life. They don’t have to sign it on the line, they don’t have to answer to it when their doctor calls them back from the light, and they don’t have to lie under the tombstone stamped with it for eternity. No one but you will ever swear your hand or promise love or accept the Nobel Prize under that name. So what really matters is that your name works, serves the first and most important purpose that names serve – it summons you. When someone calls to you by your name, it should make you respond rather than flee.
That seems fairly uncontroversial, right? A person who truly loved you and was thinking clearly would agree, one has to imagine. Your loved ones surely want you to feel joy when they call your name, rather than pain. If they’re not narcissists, they must want you to feel the same warm affirmation of bonding that they do, rather than hearing it as a shackle closing down, a mold you’re failing to match. So if they were able to set aside their defensive reaction, surely they would want to use whatever words best communicate their authentic warm feelings to you, right? That’s what communication is – we translate our thoughts into words our listener can understand, and it’s an imperfect process, but if we don’t let our listener tell us what they’re hearing, it’s impossible. If you spend all your time in Spain telling people they should have paid attention to your intentions, listened to what you meant to say… will you ever learn Spanish?
What it’s like to be deadnamed
For most transfolk, being called by the name assigned them at birth – their deadname – is very painful. By this time, you should be able to understand why. It’s often the unspoken shove that puts us back in our place, a place that has become so unlivable for us that we’d rather kill ourselves than stay.
Transfolk tell their family: “The history you remember fondly often caused me pain. I want to enable us to have a non-painful relationship now, but in order to do that, I need you to affirm that you see me now, see that I am not the same person you called by that dead name. That person never existed – that was your invention. This is the person I have truly been the whole time, and this person still loves and values you, and would like to share themselves honestly with you now.”
The people who love us respond: “I value the memories I have of you much more than what you’re doing now. I would rather continue to love and remember the child you were than know the adult you’ve become, which is why I’m deliberately making a choice that you’ve explicitly told me hurts you. I will continue to call you by the name and pronouns that make me comfortable until you conform to my expectations and affirm that my perceptions of you are the correct ones, more correct than yours.”
It’s painful for your family to acknowledge that happy memories for them might not be happy memories for you. They’d rather believe literally anything else – that you’re going through a phase, that you incomprehensibly reject and despise them, that you’ve been taken in or brainwashed, that you want to hurt them. All of those interpretations relieve them of the responsibility to listen to you or adjust their behavior. We all rely on excuses like this to avoid doing hard work…
But when we avoid emotional work at the expense of our loved ones’ emotional health, we are being abusive.
Let’s be clear – this kind of pugnacious resistance to change isn’t the same thing as making a mistake, using a deadname or pronoun as an accident. Trans people can tell the difference, and though the internet would have you believe otherwise, we’re not all waiting for the next opportunity to jump down your throat for an innocent flub. Shockingly, we also would like to get through this conversation without having to correct you, because we don’t like doing it.
What’s important when this happens, as when you are accused of hurting someone in any other way, is not what you already did but what you choose to do next. Think about it – Twitter piles on some poor rando because he said some dumb edgy shit about women, and so Rando Calrissian doubles down. “I’m NOT a sexist, and therefore if you’re saying I am, you must be a bad person! Never mind what I said, because I didn’t mean it the way you thought! I should be judged on my intentions, rather than my actions!” Aaaaand… Twitter comes down even harder. The internet will crown that kid High King Douchebag and remember his name next to the word “sexist” forever, because he insisted upon defending himself instead of apologizing. If he’d just said, “wow, you’re right, that tweet makes me look like a real asshole, I won’t say shit like that anymore” – where’s the clickbait? Where are the retweets? Nobody cares. He’s forgotten in an hour, because drama is thrilling and being a grown-up is boring.
When you screw up a trans person’s name or pronouns, this is what you say: “Hey there, Deadname. Oh, shit, sorry, I meant <your actual name>. Hey there, <your actual name>, how’s it going?” Apologize, correct yourself, and move on. Don’t loudly agonize and make it the trans person’s obligation to comfort you about your mistake. Don’t beg for praise because you were so saintly as to make a very minor verbal effort on behalf of someone you love. If you don’t make it a big deal, we don’t have to either. We’d rather it not be a big deal. This is not fun for us. It’s mostly awkward and painful, like being born usually is. If you show that you’re genuinely trying, we know that you love us. Think about it – you know what it looks like when someone close to you is making a good honest try and screwing up, and you also know what it looks like when someone’s unwilling to make even the most basic effort to treat you with respect.
These unspoken implications, the way we affirm social power structures… the funny thing about them is that we all know what we’re doing. We might not have thought about it too specifically, or put it into words, but we all understand what’s going on, we manage to convey these unspoken things pretty clearly, and we’ve all agreed that it’s more polite to pretend those power structures don’t exist.
But you can’t pretend inequality away.
We have choices in how we treat other people, all the time. The choices might not always be easy to make, and sometimes all the options are bad, but regardless of the circumstances, it’s on us as adults to choose consciously and own the choices we make. When we don’t acknowledge how we’re choosing to subjugate others in order to remain comfortable, we choose to continue doing it.