Names, labels, deadnames, signs, and portents
I’ve written a few times about my name. The tl;dr version: when my parents named me, they gave me a first name that I shared with my dad, paternal grandfather, a great-great-uncle, and a first cousin-once-removed who all lived in the same small town where I attended middle school. Which led to me asking (then demanding) that I be called by my middle name, which was shortened and that I legally changed to my first name as an adult.
That version of the story puts the emphasis on the annoyance and confusion of sharing a first name that doesn’t have culturally acceptable diminutives. Certainly that was a big part (in seventh grade in very redneck America it is no fun having school teachers and administrators regularly call you “Paulie” in front of the other kids; especially if you’re already the kind of guy who gets called sissy and much worse). But it was more than just about a preference. And it was more than a whim.
I’m used to hearing the concept of the deadname when discussing transgender issues. Being deadnamed may be the most common microagression trans people deal with. I became quite familiar with the phenomenon long before I met my first trans friend. I had more than one relative tell me that Gene was not my real name. One insisted that the people who really loved me would never call me by anything other than my birth name. One uncle said he’d call me whatever he damn well pleased, and if I had a problem with that, he’d smack me around until I agreed.
Many years later imagine my utter mortification the first time I slipped and deadnamed a trans acquaintence… to his face. It really was a slip. And in my defense, it had been years since I had seen him, pre-transition, I had been told by another friend only recently what his new name was, and I hadn’t expected to run into him at the social event in question. But I still felt as if I were the scum of the earth a millisecond after the name left my lips.
But to get back to the original decision to change my name: there was also an element that the identity of “Paul Eugene” (which is what a lot of people called me to distinguish from all the other Pauls around all the time) simply didn’t feel like it fit me. In retrospect, I think it is no accident that I became most adamant about changing my name after the hormones of puberty made it absolutely clear that I was not straight. My sexual orientation wasn’t the only way I didn’t conform to the expectations of my family and peers. I had been a sci fi nerd for longer than I could remember—much more interested in reading than sports, I scandalously believed in evolution and that the universe was billions of years old despite being raised in an evangelical fundamentalist church, and my favorite subjects in school were all the things other kids hated.
Not everyone resisted my requests. My maternal grandmother switched right away, and was quick to correct other people. My Aunt Silly, who had grown up hating her given first name and long insisted on being called by her middle name was another instant champion of my cause. Surprisingly, my dad (who had resisted a little bit at first) completely switched sides when his brother-in-law threatened to smack me if I objected to what he called me.
Recently, when I inherited a subset of my maternal grandmother’s vast photo collect, I was struck by the fact that on the backs most of my childhood photos, Grandma had always written my name as “Paul Gene.” As a child that’s what she called me, but given her accent and the idiosyncratic way she pronounced a lot of words, I had always assumed that she was just squeezing the middle syllable of Paul Eugene so tight that it disappeared. Nope. Maybe she was being a little psychic. I don’t know. But I also saw that she had gone back through some of the pictures and crossed out the “Paul.” On a couple of them she wrote, much later when her handwriting had become shakier than it had been when the picture was first taken, “he changed his name.”
I think Dad’s original resistance was half just being stubborn and controlling, and half irritated because he’d grown up being called “Paulie” and hating it so I ought to toughen up and take it. And it was very clear, when the uncle said he’d call me what he wanted and smack me if I didn’t like it, that Dad’s anger was very much of the “no one can beat my kid but me” variety. Many years later, you could tell when he was mad at me because he would deadname with extra emphasis on the “Paul” syllable.
I changed my name legally decades ago, and my maternal grandmother reacted to the news with a very enthusiastic, “Good for you! Gene fits you better, anyway.”
It wasn’t a totally unexpected reaction: Grandma always had my back.
So I try to abide by other people’s requests regarding names and pronouns, et cetera. And continue to be embarrassed when I mess up. Even though I do mess up, I will always defend their right to their identity. Not just because I know how it feels to be deadnamed, but also because I know how good it felt when Grandma defended me.