Natalie Reed is a Canadian trans-feminist activist, reocvering addict, and survivor of rape and sexual abuse. She’s written for Skepchick, founded Queereka, wrote for Freethought Blog, and is now working on independent projects, including an upcoming nonfiction trans-feminist work, a collaborative comic and a novel. She lives in Vancouver, loves comic books, poetry, and punk, post-punk and electronic music. She’s also fond of wearing clothes and scowling at people.
It’s interesting to question what we, in contemporary western culture, tend to consider to be our “real” names, and what we don’t. I’m not sure too many cis people have experienced this, but I’ve had people at parties, immediately after I introduced myself, ask for my real name. You know. The REAL one. That matches their assumptions about my anatomy and birth. That someone ELSE decided.
That’s not an innocent, or culturally or politically neutral, question. No matter how many “What do you mean that’s offensive? I’m not a bigot! I have lots of ‘LGBT’ friends!” responses are offered.
Generally speaking, the name that’s held as most natural, sincere, or most our own, is the one that was assigned to us as birth. Mainstream Western feminism, in attempts to address the patriarchal practice of a heterosexual wife assuming the surname of her husband, frames her prior name as sincere and “hers” and relatively above patriarchy’s treatment of gender (with the exception, perhaps, of sometimes considering the patrilineal traditions for the passing of surnames to children). What often goes uninvestigated is how our “real names” (our birth names) reflect cultural notions of gender themselves…for instance, the strict and binary categorization of “boys’ names” and “girls’ names”, with only a small set of unisex outliers (Terry, Robin, etc.)
When the new pope declared that he’d be taking the name Francis, a slew of cissexist, binarist (and subtly misogynistic) jokes flooded my social media feeds, concerning the (mistaken) notion that Francis is a “girl’s name.” (Strictly speaking, FrancEs is the name conventionally given to girls, but that’s sort of besides the point.) This idea of “boy names” and “girl names” is so pervasive that it tends to create an artificial ignorance even of how these gendered distinctions shift from culture to culture.
For example, I had an embarrassing moment recently where I mistakenly assumed a writer was male because she had the name Ariel, which is often gendered male or neutral in Spanish or Portugese speaking nations, having momentarily forgotten how it’s gendered in my own culture and language. I’ve enjoyed the comic I, Vampire quite a bit over the past year, and didn’t realize until recently that the artist, Andrea Sorrentino, is a man (Andrea is gendered male in Italian and several other romance languages). I make those kinds of mistakes despite being pretty invested in the importance of not making gendered assumptions about people. And where I grew up, in the Celtic-informed culture of rural Nova Scotia, names like Ashleigh, Robin and Leslie were common to boys. But people ignore this, and consider their domestic, culturally-specific gendering to be not only universal, but inherent, as though the name has an intrinsically “masculine” or “feminine” quality.
It’s also interesting to note that throughout history, and cross-culturally, the trend has always been for “boy names” to gradually be given to girls, and over time come to be understood as “girl names”, whereas the reverse process does not occur. We can even observe this in the contemporary USA, in names like “Jesse”, “Devin” or “Tristan.” But a boy named Sue still lives a tough life. This reflects the disparity in the viciousness with which gender non-conformity in people assigned male at birth is punished relative to gender non-conformity in people assigned female at birth, which itself is indicative of the widespread, usually subconscious, misogynistic treatment of femininity as inherently inferior, weak, shameful and a “step down” relative to masculinity, which can be interpreted as a “step up.”
My point here is that the assigned name, the name we’re “given” (or, if you’ll permit the bitter vitriol: “coercively shackled to”) at birth, is no more “real”, and no less a reflection of socio-cultural norms and conceptions of gender, than any future decisions about our name we make at an actual age of consent, whether or not those latter decisions are informed by patriarchal “tradition.”
A woman taking the name of her husband is making a choice. Her agency informs that. And the choice may be made for a wide variety of reasons. Absolutely, yes, it may be made as an act of conformity to patriarchal traditions. Sure. But it may also be an act of love, or an act of asserting independence from her family and moving forward into her own life (especially if she views her choice of partner as something very much her own, and an extension of her agency), or even just part of a desire for a “newness” in identity, an opportunity to symbolically move forward into a new sense of self and how she fits into the world. All of those are understandable reasons. The thing is that this act of naming is, at least, most likely an act of her OWN rather than act of someone else. Even as a concession or surrender, it’s her own. She can have reasons. She can have agency. No such possibility is permitted in the assigned name.
As a trans woman, yeah, I kinda have a bit of resentment towards the assigned name. And as someone also typically working under a pseudonym (which has sort of annoyingly decided to usurp the bulk of my life and relationships from my actual name… Natalie Reed is a bit of an imperialistic li’l bitch), the entire concept of the name has become a complex and emotionally, politically charged thing for me. But honestly? If there’s a single name that feels the least “real,” the most connected to social structures, cis-het-patriarchy and its assumptions, it’s the one I was given at birth. I had no say in it, and it wasn’t “my” name, it was the name of the expectations dumped on me, the presumed narrative of my life and gender, the costume handed to me before I could even say “no”… fuck, before I even had a conception of self with which I could contrast “costume” to “self”!
That name, my dead name? It had nothing to do with me (technically “I” didn’t even exist yet, given how I barely had a brain), and consequently was NOT something sacred, or special, or personal, or “mine”. It was fundamentally and deeply impersonal. It had everything to do with my parents, with my society, with my culture, with its attitudes of gender, with the assumptions that were attached to the external appearance of my genitalia… with everything everyone else thought or wanted or expected me to be, their idea of my identity. I mean, for fuck’s sake… that name just cold meant “man”/”masculine” in its original language!
None of this is to say that the debate of the patriarchal implications of women taking their husband’s names is irrelevant or misplaced. It’s an important conversation. But I defs bristle at the implication that the assigned name is more real or personal or significant that anything that follows.
And fuck anyone who ever puts a name in scare quotes.
Natalie?… um… Reed?
Let’s Talk About Names: Gaayathri is the previous post in the series.
Let’s Talk About Names: Laura is the next post in the series.