By any other name
What’s in a name? Charles Dickens, for one, chose names carefully, as though anything but a character’s “true” name would affect its destiny. The “true name” is an archetype with roots in religion and philosophy, now a recurring motif in pop culture; it describes the essence of someone’s nature perfectly, and knowledge of the name gives one power over its owner. Ursula K. LeGuin wrote: “The name is the thing… and the true name is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing.” In the Harry Potter universe, Lord Voldemort’s name is thought equivalent to a summons, and those who fear him call him “He Who Must Not Be Named.” The power of names is spotted in bits and pieces in the media, from “Dr. Who” through “Game of Thrones” to “The Lord of the Rings.”
The trope is the basis of many fantasy worlds, but even linguistic studies support the power of names, or of their alteration. Even stripped of context and across cultures, the letters and syllables forming a word drastically affect a person’s perception. Adam Alter, writing for the New Yorker, said that studies on names suggest a kind of linguistic Heisenberg principle: “As soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it.”
So it’s not surprising that name changes are of great significance to trans individuals. Jake Zyrus and Angie King are making waves as the new names of trans individuals who happen to be celebrities. It’s a sort of rebirth, establishing a congruence between how one perceives oneself and how others do. As most transformations are propelled by a need for authenticity—a desire for one’s form to match one’s interior life, or, as Jake Zyrus once put it, one’s “soul”—a name or its revelation is not to be taken lightly.
What we forget, in the judgmental flurry that follows every time someone comes out as trans, is that someone’s true nature or name doesn’t belong to the public, or even to the government, but to the individuals. Celebrities in the trans community may wield their unique power of representation and may publicly reveal their names though it may expose them to ridicule or danger. One recalls the jabs inspired by the name “BB Gandanghari.” Caitlyn Jenner’s “coming out” cover for Vanity Fair was captioned “Call Me Caitlyn.” But whether it’s with Angie King or your next-door trans neighbor, names should be given the importance they deserve. Acceptance of the name and its pronoun is one, important, aspect in acceptance of the person.
While we make strides in acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, legal realities and documentation have a long way to go, here and abroad. Elsewhere, workshops are held by concerned groups to educate and assist trans individuals with the legal implications of name changes. It is not all about comfort: Jazz McGinnis, who helps nongender-conforming people to obtain their affirming documents in the state of Michigan, has said that for trans people, “legal name and gender changes meant being called the correct name at the doctor’s office” or avoiding workplace discrimination “because their name and appearance were incongruent.” The Filipino trans community has a long journey ahead. We have to find a more respectful way to deal with name changes and the paperwork that follows.
Maybe we know someone in the same boat. Maybe our transgender friend has thought long and hard about their name. Or maybe they haven’t. Or maybe some already have gender-neutral names, or don’t feel they need a name change. In any case, the ceremony with which they choose their names, as well as their manner of revelation, should be their choice entirely, and it’s a poor, backward society that still subjects them to ridicule or ignores preferred pronouns. In tribes across the world, children mark their passage into adulthood by shedding their names and exchanging them for their true, adult names; those names are told to close family and friends, to those who can be trusted. To know a true name is a privilege. To be able to call things as
they are is a privilege, and is the right of those on the receiving end. Maybe we should start treating it as such.
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