The other day I found myself in a particularly uncomfortable position; one I still haven’t learned how to navigate so as to make both parties at ease. I was in a fast food restaurant (KFC to be truthful, fried chicken is one of my vices), patiently waiting in the queue, when I heard someone call out to me, but by my dead name.
Of course, given my unending, unadulterated loathing of my given birth name, I cringed in revulsion; and was simultaneously embarrassed, as numerous persons turned in the direction the caller was looking, wondering who was being referred to by such an abhorrent girly nickname that sounded like it belonged to the miniature dog of a vain, rich caucasian woman.
So affected was I by this incident, that I froze. I didn’t acknowledge the caller. How could I? I no longer go by that name, never had in fact. The only persons who know said name, were persons I went to school with; like the caller. I’ve always gone by one nickname or the other in order to avoid this kind of perpetual discomfort, and my friends were all okay with that.
A few minutes later, the caller came over to me. A tad haughty, she remarked, “How am I supposed to remember your “new” name huh, when I’m used to the other one? It’s hard.”
I stared at her incredulously for I could not relate. Even in my own life, persons have updated their names – both legal and monikers – as well as their genders. I might slip, but I certainly do not forget, nor view the transition to be arduous in any way. It is therefore unfathomable to me that this adjustment is exceedingly difficult; unless one is holding on to their own perception of the person, instead of who the person has explicitly told them they are, or the way in which they would prefer to be referred to.
She went on to ask, “So you would have ignored my attempts to get your attention, just like that?”
Of course I responded honestly; yes, I would have.
This response was not met kindly, as she felt “a way” that I didn’t return her greeting with as much gusto as I could have mustered. I honestly did not intend to offend, but I was akin to a deer in headlights. It had always been difficult for me to respond to my dead name; as I never felt like I was that person. I never identified with it; and as I’ve uncovered more and more truths about myself, the greater the extent to which this is true.
This incident could also be viewed as insensitivity on her part. A refusal to even attempt to “remember” my name; or at the very least, be conscious that since I have changed it – given my discomfort (as I had relayed to her previously) – she should perhaps approach me in a more private manner, instead of shouting the name I explicitly told her I don’t use, prior to explaining precisely why I don’t use it. That’s wishful thinking I suppose.
Anyway, fast forward a few weeks to my second annual staff retreat of the company I work for. The retreat committee decided to provision us with customized company jerseys, with the company name at the front, and the office nickname of the wearer at the back.
The committee decided to brand my jersey “???”. That’s right; three question marks. I felt like it reinforced how disconnected I feel from my co-workers, and more or less the company culture of behaving like a family. I didn’t particularly appreciate it, but I tried to see things from their perspective.
Office nicknames are usually derived from instances of notable events; e.g. one person got “p** p**”, because of the time he was reading Spice’s “so mi like it” lyrics from the gleaner – and literally said “skin out mi p star star, p star star” – which everyone found hilarious. But I don’t have any stories like that. I stick to myself because I don’t feel like I fit in; and I don’t reveal much about my life, except for generic things I deem acceptable to become public knowledge. So basically, in some way, I am an unknown variable in the office.
I told the organizer’s that they had options – which were unarguably mundane, but options nonetheless (such as my actual name, or the typical nickname “Genius” which they seem to have conveniently forgotten) – that they could’ve used, instead of “???”; which makes me out to be some kind of unknown species; but I’m not gonna fuss over a shirt, you know?
I’d like to believe that it really had nothing to do with my gender, but that’s one way of looking at it. I guess it’s also a little sad that I’m used to persons just being “confused” by me in general, that this is just one other case in which people just didn’t know how to refer to me. Nonetheless, I didn’t take to it too kindly, but attempted to be a good sport about it.
In September, I participated in a campaign by whereloveisillegal, which sought to highlight the stories of a few Jamaican transgender community members. We had the option of sharing anything we wanted to; we were given complete control over the narrative submitted, and I chose to talk about my name.
You see, names are very important. Sometimes we conveniently like to pretend that names and labels somehow have no meaning; that we’re all “human” and therefore “equal”; but this isn’t true. Names (and labels) are powerful; for these are the things we associate with people; utilize in an attempt to understand our world, as well as our relationship to, and with each other.
When a transgender person chooses their name, it is a very significant (if not the most significant) part of their transition. And when I say transition, I don’t mean it in the physical sense. I’m referring to the journey a trans person embarks upon when they begin to live authentically.
The name a trans person chooses is of utmost importance. It signifies the way they view themselves and how they want others to perceive them. Selecting one’s name is not something that is taken lightly; after all, it’s like a rebirth of sorts. A shedding of the false, and the incarnation of one’s true, authentic self.
I figure that that this might sound melodramatic to many people, but it’s not. It takes a magnitude of strength to be one’s authentic self; more so when your very existence is a political act. So the act of naming yourself, claiming your identity and sharing it with the world, is profound. Therefore I ask these few things:
1. When a trans person tells you their name, remember it. Use it. Don’t belittle it.
This lets us know that at the very least, you respect us, and have enough humanity to treat us with dignity – as is our right. Don’t say it’s hard to remember; it makes us feel like your recognition of who we are is an inconvenience. We don’t expect that you’ll get it perfect immediately, but we do expect that you try. After all, it’s not that hard to remember your friend’s new surname when she gets married is it? It’s a similiar adjustment.
2. Never ask “so what’s your REAL name?”, or “so what was your name before?”.
This implies that we’re somehow adopting a persona, and feeds into the stereotype that trans persons are “pretenders”, hell bent on being “someone they’re not”. Or, that our dead name, and by extension our past, is somehow more valid than the person we’re choosing to share with you in this moment. That the identity we never truly claimed, is who we’ll always be to you; irrespective of who we’ve told you we are, who we’ve always been.
3. Use their preferred pronouns.
In short, #BeAnAlly. It’s not difficult and it costs you nothing to practice these 3 seemingly trivial things, that could mean the world to a trans person. We’ve already got enough personal issues and transphobia to deal with, we really don’t need any additional micro-aggressions on our plate.