What’s in a name? Empowerment

You may or may not know that I’m a Professional Writing and Editing TAFE student studying … well, writing and editing. This also includes publication production and design, computer skills and structural editing, and a whole class where we spend three hours talking about symbols and how to use them in our fiction … in addition to the actual writing units. It’s hands-on. I’d seriously recommend the Cert. IV/Diploma route to Aussie writers: I’ve gotten to learn In Design, be published, write a play, and be paid to test links in e-books for Pearson Education. (This involved playing with Android tablets and iPads. It also involved swearing like I’ve never fucking sworn before at the refusal of the campus internet to download … well, anything.) It’s hard work and insane-making. It’s also the best damn thing I’ve ever done in a classroom.

Believe it or not, none of this has anything much to do with my intended topic. I just love the fact that I get to go to school and do all this four days a week.

So. I’ve just started back at school for my last semester in my current course. One of my classes, Publishing Studio, involves the production of a PWE class book and a magazine, Platform. (It has a 2000 issue print run, quarterly. It’s not exactly a small-time thing.) Yes, it’s seven students and one teacher producing two publications: our classes are production meetings. It’s real-life experience on real publications. I ended up being the contact for submissions for Platform, so, over the past two days, I’ve had a party in my inbox. In order not to have a meltdown, I started up a spreadsheet in Excel. (In my past life, I did pick release in a warehouse for an Australian clothing chain. My thesis did not qualify me for this. What it did teach me is that you can’t keep track of things without a spreadsheet.) This turned out to be the thing to do, and our teacher wanted to know how we could make said spreadsheet easily accessible to everyone else in the group. I remembered that Google Docs can also do spreadsheets…

Of course, to access Google Docs, one needs a Google account.

I have those. They’re old email accounts under my old name that I don’t use (or check … should probably do that one day) and don’t want associated with me when, these days, I feel like I am nothing close to being the person that made those accounts and lived under those names. My legal names are as femme as femme can get. I don’t mind so much for my school account, because everybody now knows my preferred name (and one teacher went and changed my name on all the class rolls, which is just so amazing and wonderful), and it’s also only one femme name, but I don’t want to be doing real-life things with a name that’s doubly not me.

It’s not just about acknowledging my genderlessness: it’s also about acknowledging my transition from a quiet, shy, colourless, anxious girl who chafed under the label ‘girl’ but spent all her time hiding in her room and doing nothing about the chafing–to whoever it is I now I am. I don’t yet know all of who I am, but that’s a good thing. Life would be far less magical if I let myself be closed in by knowing who I am in a fixed, quantifiable way. I just know I’m not her, and that her skin and her name and her life was wrong. I have a few new words to describe myself that are more comfortable, and that’s enough to be going on with.

If I’m a new person, I really need a new name. I’m working on all these trappings a new person needs, slowly. I’ve started with a new blog. Now I need a new email account and a new Google account, so the person I am can author a spreadsheet.

(I could register my school account, but I do want a personal email address now that my school address has become port of call for submissions.)

It’s not hard to figure out that the K.A. Cook address at gmail is long gone. So were various permutations of initials and my use-name (the more gender-neutral shortening of my legal name, which I don’t mind) and my surname, which I guess is the universe kicking me up the arse and telling me not to take the easy way out: choose a new middle name, K.A.! Aren’t I a new person? Didn’t I just say three days ago that the first thing I’ll do when I have an actual long-term job is legally change my name? So why not create an account with that new name?

Of course, cue anxiety.

I’ve been saying I’ll change my name (for the last eighteen months) without ever thinking what my middle name will become.

This only leads me to the cold, hard truth: this requirement for a job and money is just an excuse to put off thinking about what I want in a name or doing anything that will bother my parents … or, well, doing anything but living in that warm, useless glow of ‘I will totally do this thing, but not now! Whew!’ … and isn’t that the same thing as hiding away in my bedroom and chafing?

(One day I will describe the complicated relationship I have with my family and why I’ll avoid doing something that will make me happy if I have even the slightest belief it will hurt them. This is pretty much why I’ve been seeing a psychologist for the past two years, in addition to the chronic pain and depression/anxiety.)

Names are a pretty big thing. They’re given to us, not chosen by us. Parents agonise over their future children’s names. To even contemplate choosing a name for one’s self feels wrong and strange and weird. It runs counter to all our social norms. It felt like this huge, towering, inviolable thing. Just the thought had me pacing for half an hour with my hands over my head while I made incoherent babbling noises and freaked out and wondered how I could actually go about doing this frightening thing, even as I knew, and told myself, that my family’s feelings on the matter are no reason not to do this.

Well. How easy is it to pick a name?

It took me thirty seconds to bring up ‘Behind the Name’ and hit the ‘unisex’ link, as I like gender-neutral names. It took me ten seconds to decide I wanted to keep my current initials, as I like those and always have–they’re ‘me’ in a way my legal name isn’t.

Do you know how long it took to find a name that felt right?

Five seconds, thereabouts. Two minutes more to skim the rest of the list and realise that none of the others felt right and the name that leapt out at me leapt for a reason. It was right at the top of the list.

Thanks, universe. I do try and listen.

(Interestingly, the Tarot card I drew today was The Hierophant. In my modern deck, it’s been renamed ‘Tradition’. I thought this had to do with honouring the traditions of Platform’s ethos, but…)

So I signed up, freaked out a little more, and uploaded my terrible selfie. Then I wrote this, because even while I was freaking out and pacing and being an anxious wreck, it occurred to me that this might make an interesting blog post. (Such is the life of a writer. Yes, I’m in the middle of a breakdown, but fucking hell, I can write about it!) As is the usual, though, by the end I’ve written myself to a realisation or epiphany I didn’t expect. (This is also the life of a writer.)

You see … names are big, inviolable things other people choose. FOR OTHER PEOPLE. For people who are cis and het and vanilla and ordinary and never feel the stirrings of not belonging in one’s given name/gender/body/skin/life, a name is something changed with careful thought, if at all. For those people, the idea of questioning a name is as impossible as questioning gender or sexuality–they’re the people who asked me if I’m sure when I came out, because surety is important to them. I’m not those people. I know that gender isn’t fixed or binary (or even extant in some of us) and that people can change genders, sexes, lives, names, sometimes with very little obvious thought. I know that people could, should and DO decide these things for themselves–that we, the queer, are bold enough and brave enough to say that the labels given to us since birth are wrong, fucking wrong, and that includes everything from our sexuality to our gender. It’s not a big thing. It’s a small, fluid, wonderful, lovely thing in a world that gives us umpteen possibilities for expression.

We take power for ourselves by choosing the words that define us rather than accepting those others give us. A name is no different.

I’m a genderless person who can take five seconds to choose a new name, and for me, that’s right–it’s empowering. Why should I be held back by a cishet world view that assumes name is as immutable as gender, when I know that’s just plain not the case for so many people?

And if I don’t like it, later down the track? I’ll change it. It’s not like I haven’t changed my gender twice already. A name is nothing.

Now, I have a new Gmail address featuring my use-name, new middle name, and old surname. (The old, the new and the modified. This appeals to me.) It’s not quite comfortable yet–it needs wearing in.

But it’s a sign that I am not the powerless person I was, and that’s pretty awesome.

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9 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Empowerment

  1. Also, do your professors respect your gender identity/use your pronouns? I’m interested in this because while I was in college, there was little if any acknowledgement of LGBTQ identities in the student body (even the GSA was renamed to be Club Unity and they were not allowed to mention sexuality or gender identity in their club description). I know this isn’t all schools, but I’m curious about how much recognition or lack thereof folks get depending on the school.

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    • The answer is complicated. Officially, no. On an individual level, it varies on the teacher. Some do. Some don’t. I’ve had teachers approach me going ‘Hey, I think you’re intersex or trans, what pronouns should I use?’ and be awesome. I’ve had others find out and talk to me about it. I’ve had teachers react as though expecting to remember my pronouns is the most difficult thing in the world. Some remember; some don’t. Some start off remembering and then forget. One or two just avoid pronouns altogether, which I’m okay with. I have students who know my pronouns and still forget because my voice is a very femme voice. I have students who know my pronouns and remember. I’m not as good at correcting teachers and students as I’d like to be–I struggle with assertiveness.

      Our representative body is literally something like ‘The Ally Group’, which does my head in. (How are queer people allies, again?) There isn’t much of a queer presence on my campus at all (which is a smaller offshoot of the main campus): really, I lucked out because of a few key staff members in my faculty who are made of awesome and changed my name on the roll. Support and recognition across the student body–in anything close to the same I get as a student with a disability–just doesn’t exist at my school.

      (I’d also love unisex toilet access. Pretty tired of getting stared at because I don’t fit either one.)

      So–well, at least for my school, I don’t think much has changed.

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      • Holy shit, unisex bathrooms? That is like the Grail in St. Augustine. I know of two in the entire town (even the drag bars in Jacksonville are gendered which isn’t actually surprising but still hurts my feelings >.<').

        Also, that sounds about right. I remember a bunch of the students at my school just rolled their eyes whenever I would try to explain my pronouns and gender identity to them until I just gave up which was the worst.

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        • No, I’m not that lucky – the only unisex bathroom I know of is the one in my own damn house (with my graffiti-ed toilet sign because I was going to make SOMEWHERE safe for me, damn it). I get a lot of stares from people who somehow missed the memo on basic politeness, hence the yearning for a place that’s safe. If making people stop and check that they’re in the right bathroom were a super power, I’d be Superqueer.

          I’m not surprised at that. The worst gender/binary essentialism I’ve gotten came from a binary trans person.

          I’m so sorry you got the eye-rolls. I know that every teacher who’s made a big deal of it has made me that much less confident in speaking up, so my ability to assert myself has gone backwards, but I’m pretty sure that eye-rolls would just break me. It’s sad that just being misgendered is kind by comparison.

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          • Yeah, eye-rolls are especially shitty. It’s like, it’s not enough to completely deny a person’s identity but then to shrug them off as something unimportant and annoying when they try to defend it.

            Also, on the subject of bathrooms – some really awesome Fine Arts students around here made up unisex bathroom signs and wheat-pasted them over the gendered bathroom signs in their building. Pretty sure the school still hasn’t managed to do anything about their improvements either. Just a thought on how to solve that problem without asking permission 🙂

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            • (I am slow to this because my ISP decided to spend four days not giving me internet despite the fact that I pay them.)

              Well, shrugging off someone’s identity as annoying or inconvenient doesn’t hurt them! I really don’t understand how people are so unable to go ‘Hmmmm, I wonder what it would feel like if someone told me that my gender wasn’t real and kept using the wrong words and making dismissive gestures’ – I mean, I do understand it, but it seems to me that to be that lacking in basic empathy takes actual effort.

              I think I have a crush on your Fine Arts students. SO AWESOME. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t work at my school (there’s no way it can be done without someone noticing … well, except for one toilet block nobody uses tucked away at one side of the campus and OMG I’m totally thinking about this now) but that is so awesome and wonderful and brave. Loud applause!

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              • Yeah, the nice thing for the Fine Arts students is that the building closes at 5pm to all other majors, but they get access until 1 or 2am for independent work shopping purposes so there’s a lot of mischief to be had when nobody is around. In order to get away with something like that in any of the other buildings, one would essentially have to hide someplace until the building closes in order to do anything without being seen.

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