I used to work at a very Christian school back in the pre-transition days, and as a way to get through the misery of working with people who frequently made transphobic comments, I’d set up little inside jokes for myself. I had a little white board I had in my office in which I would write tiny subtle references to my real identity, and then hang the board on the wall, leaving them in plain sight.
One day I’d draw a fleur-de-lys, or another I would write on the board:
That which we call a Lily
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Which wasn’t particularly clever, but did cheer me up when I’d glance up at it in the middle of my workday.
As nice as it was, though, I completely disagree.
Have you read Romeo and Juliet? Spoiler alert for that if you haven’t, though I suspect the statute of limitations for Shakespeare spoilers is well and truly past.
In the story, Juliet is lamenting the fact that such a meaningless abstract thing as a name is all that is keeping her from her lover Romeo. If only his name were not Montague, they could be together (and then break up a few months later once they actually got to know each other, probably, because spoiler alert again, they’ve known each other for all of like 10 minutes by this point).
Anyway. The quote is all about the frustration of someone being judged and treated differently solely because of their name, and in particular wishing Romeo could simply have a different name. He’d be just as wonderful then, without any of the inconvenience him being a Montague also brings.
That’s true, to an extent. It’s evident changing someone’s name isn’t going to make someone a completely different person, but I personally believe very strongly in the power of names.
Have you ever read the Bible? Something I’ve always enjoyed is the symbolism of names in Biblical stories.
For example, there’s Abram becoming Abraham (which means Father of Many). God changed his name not just because he felt like doing it, but because Abraham was fulfilling a new purpose in life, and so needed a name that fit that.
There are also people who are given names before birth, whether by direct command of God or just their parents’ fancy (but probably God too), which signify what happens with their life. Samson is a good example*. His name means ‘sun’, which was supposed to signify a new start for God’s people, but in the end just meant he shone bright then burnt out.
*note, I don’t think that’s actually the purpose of his name, I just mentioned that as a set up for my YOLO joke. There are plenty of examples in the Bible of people whose names conveniently matched their personality or future actions, I’m just not completely sure Samson is one of them.
This isn’t limited to Scripture, naturally. There’s a fantasy series I loved as a teenager, in which there was a magical language that described things as they really were. For example, Brisingr wasn’t just a word for fire, it was THE word for fire. It was a name which captured its essence, and by speaking its name allowed you to control it. In the books there’s a race of magical creatures which can shape the world around them simply through their knowledge of this true language
This isn’t a particularly original idea. The example above is from Eragon, but there’s something very similar present in The Name of the Wind. In that book, speaking, uh, the name of the wind, could grant you dominion over it, and allow you to manipulate it for your own purpose.
That idea is nice, that everything has an essence which can be perfectly described in a unique word or words, but both series take it a step beyond in a way I appreciate. In Eragon, the hero is warned of the danger of someone else learning his true name. Just as he is able to control fire by whispering its name, someone else could control him by speaking his true name. What I like most, though, is that one’s true name is something best discovered by yourself, after careful consideration and introspection, and that knowing one’s name, which must describe both the best attributes in you as well as the nastiest ones, can give someone power. Not through magic, but simply through honest understanding of who they are.
The Name of the Wind has something similar. In that world, you can’t pick up a book and learn the true language of things; you can only name something after understanding its nature completely. It’s also impossible to tell others a true name, as they can only hear it and use it if they themselves have discovered it through careful observation of the thing being named.
Additionally, people have names, but there is a great danger involved in changing your own name. A name isn’t just a descriptor of something already there, but it also shapes what it describes.
As Terry Pratchett would say, it’s all a bit quantum.
My point with all this rambling about fantasy books is that I believe names work in a similar way in the real world. Sure, I can’t say “Stenr Reisa!” and force a stone to float in the air, but I do think we all have names that describe us as people. They’re not always our given names, in fact I’d say they’re rarely so, but there are things we choose to call ourselves or allow others to call us, that both describe and shape who we are.
I’m sure you can tell where I’m going with this; I only make 90% of my posts in some way or another about me being transgender.
Let’s take a little detour before we arrive at the inevitable destination of this post.
How about we drop by my old middle school, and listen to the way the other kids called me a nerd? I was a nerd, mind you, still am. The way they said it though, made it feel like a terrible thing, and made me feel badly about myself.
You can compare them to the me from one or two years ago, who had come to accept that word and make it their own.
While it was the same word, it originally hurt me, made me closed off, more insecure. It was a Name given by others, and it gave them the power to limit me and tell me who I was.
After some time, I appropriated the word and used it proudly, which gave me the power to decide what it meant, and how it would define me. It was a Name I chose for myself, and as such I allowed it to shape who I was only in the ways I approved.
We all choose which words define us. We can be jocks, geeks, fashionistas, bookworms, communists, conservatives, painters, writers, lovers, fighters, etc. Every word, every label, that we choose is very important, because it reflects what matters to us, and once we give it that importance, it will affect our personality.
I chose the name Lily for myself after much consideration. You can read the specifics of that choice here if you like, it’s pretty interesting.
What is important right now is that I chose it for myself, to allow myself a measure of control over who I am.
Instead of being defined by the name I was given at birth, and all it entailed, I chose to find my own name, something that felt right to me. Lily isn’t just a name that sounds pretty, and I didn’t just choose it to make people uncomfortable.
Lily is who I am, and by using that name, I refuse to be shaped by circumstance, by the way I was raised, or by the expectations others place upon me. Sure, I am the same person regardless of whether someone else’s mouth shapes the name ‘Lily’ or my dead name. It’s clear the sound waves aren’t going to magically modify my brain and change me. But I would not be myself if I allowed others to call me by the name I left behind.
Whenever someone calls me [redacted] or uses male pronouns towards me, they aren’t just ‘saying a name’, they are shaping the world around them, and attempting to define me on their own terms. It isn’t just disrespectful towards my careful decision about who I am, but also arrogant. What kind of person tells someone that they know who the other person is better than the other person themself?
The last 7 months have consisted of me trying to be patient. Mostly with my friends. (I don’t feel much inclined to take shit from people I don’t care for)
I realise adjusting to who I am is difficult. I really do. I try to be understanding, and I do my best to be as good a friend as I can without allowing others to walk over me.
At some point though, I’m just going to hit a limit. It has taken me years to discover myself, to find a name that is right for me, a name that fits me comfortably, and which empowers me. I love being Lily, and I love how it has changed the way the world sees me.
Because I love my name, I cannot continue to be around people who try to force their opinion on me, who try to tell me who I actually am.
Avoiding my name, something which has happened with depressing frequency, isn’t a good solution either. Being nameless is a horrible thing. I have lived it for months, over and over, with different people. It’s nearly inhumane, it makes you feel shorn of identity. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but it’s really not. Try living half a year with everyone avoiding calling you any name or any pronoun and then tell me how often you felt more like a thing than a person.
This post feels disorganised and ranting to me. I suppose that’s what happens when you write something in the middle of the night being low on sleep.
What is the purpose of this post? Names matter. What we choose to call ourselves, what we call others, and the names other have for us… they’re all important. They all determine the way we see ourselves, and how we see other people, and how we’ll treat them. No one has the right to name anyone else, and refusing to use the name someone has chosen for themselves is one of the most hurtful things you can do to anyone. It doesn’t have to be a literal name, it can simply mean ignoring a part of someone’s identity, or disrespecting something that is important to them.
This post is a rambling open letter to everyone who still has trouble calling me Lily. I didn’t write it with anyone in mind, but I have thought of several people in particular while writing it. I doubt most of you even know I have a blog; a couple of you I know for a near fact will never see this post. I didn’t write it for you to read, I wrote it mostly for myself, because I’m tired of hurting, of trying to fight for the identity I’ve chosen for myself, while people I care for refuse to respect who I am, or to even treat me with the dignity that comes from having a name.
I’m tired of so many things. I wish I didn’t have to worry or hurt about this one thing anymore.
I know this post is a bit of a downer. I’m sorry. I felt the need for some catharsis, and this felt as good a medium as any to express that. If you have a transgender friend you’re having trouble adjusting to… I know it’s difficult, but please, please respect them. I realise it’s going to hurt, but trust me when I say having to see them as almost a new person isn’t nearly as difficult as it is for them to have others grasping on to a ghost instead of accepting who they actually are, or refusing to respect their right to their own identity.
If you have any thoughts or comments to share, please write them below.