Although there will be a narrative trajectory to this blog, I reserve the right to step off the bus from time to time and talk about other stuff. Without, hopefully, being too preachy or info heavy. If you want to find a lot of hard information about trans issues, there is plenty of it out there. It’s experience I’m trying to convey, above all.
So, digression #1 … names. The writer Harlan Ellison has two stock responses to the question “where do you get your ideas”, one amusing and one more serious. His first response is that he gets them from a mail order company at ten cents a pop. His more serious answer, which I also like, is that he “purposely mishears” things. The equivalent question for a trans person is ‘How did you choose your name?”
Being trans, you do get to choose your own names. Of course we can all do this. My oldest friend decided at quite an early age that he wanted to be known by his middle name. Sometimes a nickname can stick and take over from a given name. And sometimes arriving at adulthood can trigger a name change. For a trans person, arriving at adulthood can be a bit different – different bits of you arrive in that happy state at different times, sometimes decades apart.
If you’re trans you get to try on names in private, to begin with, and see how they fit. Does that feel like me? Does that give a sense of who I am? Or maybe who I’d like to be, the sort of person I wish I was, but am not? When I identified as a crossdresser (hereafter known as the denial era) I adopted one name, got fed up or uncomfortable with it, chose another etc etc.
I set two rules to guide me. My female name should not resemble my male name – I didn’t want any connection between the two – and it should also be a name that didn’t have any recognizable male equivalent, it should be a name that could only be female. These are just my rules – some people consciously adopt a variation on their birth name, for reasons which are important to them, but I didn’t want that. Obviously it should also be a name I liked which begs the question of why you like a particular name, what you feel it symbolizes. I will stay away from discussions about the differences between femaleness and femininity just now, thank you very much (although I will come back to them). Although it is maybe worth noting that you feel, think and behave very differently when you are in denial and when you are not.
After trying on various names, I settled on Natasha over ten years ago. It’s a name I always liked very much and I arrived at it by testing it to destruction against my criteria. So … I had it before I became her, as it were. When I started to transition, there was never any question of choosing a different name, although the process of claiming it more fully felt challenging to begin with. I talked to my counsellor about my apprehension about sharing my name with people, particularly family members. If people were to laugh, I said, I’d find that very upsetting, because … because …
“Because it’s your name”, my counsellor said. One of the most empowering things anyone has ever said to me. In that moment I realized that this name, chosen according to my “rules” many years ago, had been shuffling shyly towards me, and I’d been shuffling shyly towards it, until finally it had asked to be owned, and I took possession. Having kept my female self at a distance for so long, that was a powerful moment. So then I owned it – and now I love it.
But then … middle names, dammit! I was christened with a male middle name, and when I started to transition I decided I would still have one in my new life. I settled on one quite quickly, but it seemed a bit prosaic – OK, but it didn’t have the sense of belonging to me that Natasha now had. Then I went to a meeting with the HR person at work who was supporting me through transition, a month or two before I was due to take some time away from work and return as female. We’d been talking about the various complexities of changing university records and had agreed that some changes could be made before I had my legal name change documents, and that as there were a lot of systems to change it made sense to make a start. So suddenly I needed a middle name! Panic …
I looked at a few more middle names … none seemed to fit. Then I remembered that Natasha was a Russian name, so I began to wonder whether another Russian name might fit, and googled “Russian girls names …”
Tried a couple on for size. Flirted with Anastasia which I like for certain fannish reasons, but which in the end I decided was too unwieldy. Then I stumbled across Elena, which I instantly liked. Distinctive spelling. Gave my name a nice ring … Natasha Elena Curson (I emphasize the middle syllable of Elena). Natasha means birthday or born at Christmas. Elena means light. Works for me …
As soon as I settled on it, I loved it. It feels like me. For me Natasha Elena Curson is both a joyous and a dignified name. Cool name for a writer don’t you think? It all slotted into place … that’s who I am, can be, can become.
Of course the names you are christened with come from your parents. And they come laden with values … some of which are to do with what associations there are in wider society. If you call your child Elvis, you are giving them baggage. So then, it occurred to me mischievously, if you change your name then in conversation you could retcon your parents …
My father was a qualified structural surveyor and worked for much of his life as an estate agent (US readers, that’s a realtor). Not the most beloved of professions in the UK. He was a political and social conservative – very right wing, strong supporter of Margaret Thatcher, even after she left office, very anti-European Union etc.
So it occurred to me that if I were to have a conversation with someone who didn’t know my history, and they asked why my parents had christened me Natasha Elena, I could answer:
“Well, you know my parents were really active trade unionists in the fifties, died in the wool socialists, strong supporters of Soviet Russia at the time etc … so they were adamant that their child would have good Russian names to show the depth of their support …”
I’ve had the opportunity to spin that yarn once so far, and I didn’t quite have the nerve to go through with it. Maybe next time.