I’m pretty bad at being a geek. In my younger years, though, I tried pretty hard, and I got kinda good at faking it. So good in fact, that I even wrote videogame reviews for a local magazine for about 10 years. I started when I was 12. It’s not to say that I never enjoyed videogames – just that a lot of them really weren’t worth my time, or didn’t cater to my interests. Unsurprisingly, I spent a lot of time playing The Sims. And Spore.
Anyway, one of the games that I played in my youth that really made an impression on me was an underappreciated RPG called Planescape: Torment. It quickly became one of my favourites, and to this day, I remember it fondly – though, at the time, I remember being a little upset that I couldn’t make my character a girl (yeah, ok, so the videogames knew I was trans before I did. Big deal.)
The protagonist of the game is known as The Nameless One, and one of the central motifs of the story is an exploration of the concept of identity, and how one’s name ties into that idea of identity.
There are a few quotes from the game that I found especially memorable, and I think they lend a lot of insight to names within a trans context, actually:
You bear many names, and each has left their scars on your flesh
Has anyone ever told you, after you introduced yourself to them, that “you don’t look like a <name>”. It’s an interesting concept, isn’t it? That we all have some associations to most names, that just by hearing them we already have a mental image tied to that moniker? We have an ingrained idea of what a Julie looks like, or how a Steve acts, or what a Sam is. Maybe those associations are made because we’ve met people with those same names before. Maybe it’s a connection that we made with a character in a book, or on a TV show. Wherever the preconceptions come from, they serve to strip away a little bit of the subject’s individuality, don’t they?
Of course, the human mind likes to work by recognising patterns. I suppose it’s an efficient way of navigating the world, by drawing on past experience. And it allows us to learn from our mistakes… or to repeat them.
Names are an especially funny thing when you’re trans. The first time I was named, many many years ago, it was not yet fashionable to choose a gender neutral name for one’s child. So, unsurprisingly, like many of my peers, I had a name that was highly gendered. There really was absolutely no chance of mistaking it – it was a boy’s name through and through. It never felt like it was mine, though. It’s hard to explain or to properly articulate, but even long before I understood that I was trans, I was aware that the name didn’t fit. It didn’t sound right when I heard it, and it didn’t sound right when I said it. If someone called me, it wasn’t unusual for me to think, just for a split second, “is that supposed to be me?”
I used it, of course – after all, what choice did I have? But it always just felt a bit odd, and I never quite knew why. Looking back, it all makes perfect sense. But at the time I just wrote it off as another in my long list of idiosyncrasies (a surprising number of which turned out to be manifestations of gender dysphoria!). I had a middle name too, actually – and I was especially weirded out by that. I felt very self-conscious about it, in the absence of any apparent reason. But I never gave it out freely – less than a handful of my friends ever found out what it was.
In fact, as time passed, I began to even use my first name less and less, preferring when I could to just use my title and initials. Being a “Dr” helped in that regard – gaining a gender neutral title came as quite a relief.
Needless to say, the name that I bore for nearly thirty years did leave its scars on my flesh – how could it not? A name that was so highly gendered, and that resulted in so many unfair expectations on its bearer. Of course, the full extent of the damage became more noticeable the less I used the name. I’m still waiting for the finalisation of my legal name change, and so on occasion, I still need to use that name when I fill out a form – and that’s when I’m reminded just how tender those scars are.
Fear names. Names have power in identity. Others can use names as weapons. Names are a hook that can be used to track you across the planes. Remain nameless, and you shall be safe
One of those things that happens when you’re trans is that you get used to invasive questions. Unless you’re stealth, sooner or later someone is going to ask you
- What’s your birth name?
or, even better:
- So, what’s your real name?
Of course, that’s not all they’ll ask, but those are definitely up near the top of the list.
A lot of the work I do includes education around trans issues, and sensitisation training. One of the things I often tell my audience is that to you, it’s my “birth” name. To me, it’s my deadname.
It’s considered rude to go uprooting corpses from the cemetery, and the same goes for a name; like most things that are dead, you shouldn’t go digging it up.
That name has nothing to do with me. It doesn’t belong to me, and it never did. It simply wasn’t mine. It doesn’t tell you anything about who I am, and it doesn’t tell you anything about who I was. All it refers to is an idea of who other people thought I was, or who they expected me to be. And tied into that facade is a lot of pain, and a lot of anguish. The name is part of what held me back – all that baggage that came with it, and everything that people read into it when they heard it.
And it’s a name that still causes me suffering, every time I look at my ID, my credit cards, my university degree. I have enough reminders of it – I don’t need you to bring it up as well.
Our real names are what we tell you they are. Everyone with whom I have contact in this world knows me as Anastacia. It’s who I am, and there’s no discussion to be had. As for my deadname, there are any number of names that would have fit me just as poorly as mine did. You can tell yourself that I was a Steve, or a John, or a Bill – I wasn’t any of them. All I ever was, was an Anastacia.
There are some trans people who are okay with having their deadnames known or used – but as a general rule, unless you have explicit permission to do so, it’s a douchey transphobic thing to use someone’s deadname. And it doesn’t make any difference how out or open that person is, or how well known they were before they transitioned – we are who we have always been, and it’s not okay to undermine that by using the wrong names for us. And yeah, it even applies to Caitlyn.
A name is an integral part of anyone’s selfdom, so by deliberately using my deadname, what you’re actually doing is undermining my entire identity. You’re imposing your views of who I am supposed to be onto me… and because I’m trans, I already spend a good deal of my life dealing with just that kind of bullshit. Not only that, but it feeds into the damaging idea that we’re not really women, or not really men, or not really non-binary – and those are the ideas that get us murdered. So don’t be surprised if I interpret deadnaming as violence.
My deadname is out there, for anyone who looks hard enough. But call me by it, and you’re dead to me. That’s why it’s called a deadname.
— Anastacia Tomson (@anaphylaxus) January 25, 2016
As I’ve already mentioned, when I came out, I did so very publicly. A lot of people knew me, either because they’d been to school with me, or because I’d been their doctor, or because I’m one of the top Magic: the Gathering judges in the country (despite my failings as a geek!) And so, a lot of people know my deadname – and as much as I would love for it to just disappear forever, I know that probably there will always be someone who remembers it. But even so – in the words of the majestic Marsha P. Johnson, pay it no mind.
He doesn’t speak, but with his touch, you suddenly remember your name. …and it is such a simple thing, not at all what you thought it might be, and you feel yourself suddenly comforted. In knowing your name, your true name, you know that you have gained back perhaps the most important part of yourself.
So I knew my deadname didn’t fit, but I never gave much thought to what would fit me better. People frequently ask me why I chose the name that I did. I recognise that it’s a privilege to be able to choose one’s own name, a privilege that few of us have. And the name that I chose is one that doesn’t exactly blend in, of that I’m well aware. It’s a name that people associate mostly with Russian royalty, or sometimes with the pop-star. Or, somewhat less fortunately, with the character from Fifty Shades of Grey.
As much as I’m loathe to admit it, I’ve never been one to blend in. Somehow and someway, I always find myself making more noise than I’m supposed to. And I’m getting better at accepting that, truth be told. So I suppose having a blendy-inny kind of name would be the epitome of false advertising.
The name itself has its origin in Greek, actually, where it means a resurrection, or rebirth. Kind of fitting, isn’t it? This time I’m living my life the way I was meant to, instead of the way everyone else expected me to.
In knowing your name, you know yourself, and you know, now, there is very little you cannot do.
But all the academic reasons aside, it’s a name that just fits. And I know that, because for so many years I carried around one that didn’t. This name is me. It’s a name by which I know myself, and now that I do, there is very little that I can’t do.
P.S. I really just want to say a big thank you to everyone out there reading my words week after week. This blog has only been running for a little more than a month, but the feedback that I’ve been getting from some of my readers – and I’m tearing up even as I write this – it’s heartwarming, it’s wonderful, it’s amazing. It reminds me that there is so much to be gained by making myself vulnerable. It reminds me that I’m not alone. It reminds me that there are people out there who just want to learn, and grow, and understand more. And it reminds me that even when I’m overcome with doubt and hopelessness and I wonder what it’s all for, that there’s someone out there who’s gaining something from this, someone who feels just a little bit less isolated, and a little bit less out of place… and it makes it all worthwhile.