What’s in a name?
As it happens, quite a lot.
Think about it. Your name is a part of your identity. It’s a key piece of how you try to organise the puzzle that is yourself, and it’s right at the very beginning of how other people udnerstand who you are. Names, nicknames, pet names, even insults – the things we call ourselves and the things other people call us are important.
A name can tell someone where you’re from.
Most names can give a pretty good idea, or at least assumption, of what gender you are.
It can prejudice (favourably or otherwise) people towards you based on their perception of your background and status [consider the last time you or someone else scoffed because you heard that somebody named their child after a pop star].
It was no doubt chosen for you after at least a small amount of deliberation around root, history and meaning – both of the name and to the people bestowing it.
For a trans person this is especially important to be aware of. The name they ask you to call them is a part of the whole person they are, and to be incorrectly named is also to be incorrectly gendered. Doing that, while knowing the name they have asked you to call them, rejects everything that they are.
If you have gone through any of the transitional stages with a trans person, you know that everyone (probably even them) slips. You’ll automatically use the wrong pronoun or the wrong name, and thats ok – what’s important is acknowleding that you did so, and being willing to correct it.
Think about it, in the simplest of terms. Imagine every day somebody calls you by the wrong name. By the wrong gender. Every day.
Now imagine that happening after you have explained, in every way you can think of, and asked repeatedly that this person starts to learn to new name, and new pronouns. Imagine that this person continues to purposefully and intentionally refuse to do that, and to keep calling you by a name and a gender which you are not.
Imagine knowing that there are people out there who are so unwilling to accept your explanations of who you are, why it’s important, why it’s something you need, and so uncaring of you that they refuse to accept even the most basic points, much less actually try to understand.
I mean…can you even imagine that? Because it’s what trans people deal with all the time. People who refuse to learn a new name. People who insist on using a pronouns they know you’ve asked them not to use. People who make your identity into a stick to beat you with, because actually working with you would be too much trouble.
Imagine knowing that no matter what you do, there will always be people who refuse who you are.
Imagine knowing that being open about being trans comes with no small potential for being fired, rejected, beaten up, even killed, just for daring to be honest about who you are.
Imagine that those dangers come from people just like those who consciously and with intent refuse to accept who you are – who you’re actively telling them you are.
Imagine, on the flip side, the love you might feel for the people who do make the effort, who listen and even if they don’t understand the whole thing, are willing to understand enough, and care enough, to learn. You don’t have to be an expert in anything trans to get this – you just have to care about the person – the very brave person who has gone through kinda of hell you will probably never understand – in order to be able to tell you who they are.
Consider this – there is a version of your name, a common nickname which people use, but which you really dislike. How would you be feeling if you repeatedly asked people not to call you by that name, but they insisted on doing so anyway, every time they talk to or about you, every email, every message – wrong name. They know you don’t like it, they know it doesn’t fit you, but they want to call you that so they do, no matter what you say.
Are you wrong in requesting they stop, or are they wrong in their repeated insistence on using that name that simply isn’t you?
Every trans person is different, but I’d wager most will be understanding of the problems that come with trying to attach a different name and gender identity to them.
A trans person is not selfish, is not the bad guy, for asking you to accept their reality of who and what they are. In actual fact, they’re asking you to be part of their discovery – a discovery which in most cases has come at no small personal struggle and cost.
It is the role of you, the friend or family or colleague or whatever of a trans person, to decide whether the actuality of who they are telling you they are is more important than the idea in your head of who you want them to be.
The most basic starting point:
If I’ve asked you to call me Lee and refer to me in the singular They – then I’ve done so knowing it takes some getting used to, especially if you’ve known me for a long time as something else, and I’m willing to help if I can. I’ll understand, I’ll explain, I’ll teach, I’ll correct – whatever. I won’t beat you up if you slip – I promise, I do understand. But if I’ve asked, then you need to be starting to learn.
If your response to that request has been to ignore it or refuse it, then you’re making yourself part of the problem, and I already have enough of those. You can keep the version of me that you prefer, if you like but you need to be aware: that version is not actually me. If you really want to cling to that you can, but understand that it doesn’t really exist. You get one or the other – the real or the fantasy. You don’t get both.
Beyond that there’s a lot of fascinating stuff to learn, and a journey I will happily take with you, but that point is the first one you need to understand. Call me who and what I tell you I am, because I’ve asked it of you – not who and what you want me to be, because it’s easier for you.