December 2, 2013

What's in a Name

Once upon a time, I had just started dating my girlfriend Jacqueline. It was senior year of high school and my mom wasn’t quite used to me dating a girl yet.
I knew that; I expected most of her reactions – double takes, awkward pauses when someone at church asked her if I had a boyfriend, a slow sort of uncertainty when she asked me any question about my relationship.

She was good about it. She wasn’t really shocked to hear that I was gay even if she wasn’t quite ready for it. She might not have been delighted about it but she was never cruel or angry and she was always supportive, and I know that that is a blessed, lucky experience.
But as always, little golden accidents make the best stories.

Freudian slips are a natural part of life – little kids call their teachers “Mom” all the time, and all through high school I accidentally (and eventually on purpose) called Pep Rallies Prep Rallies instead.
So: senior year of high school. All my friends and I (and Jacqui) spent most afternoons at a little independent coffee shop near our high school. I lived near the coffee shop, so we ran into my parents as often as not.

Now, it’s worth noting that my parents had met Jacqui several times – they certainly knew her name. I saw my parents in the other room and we all went to say hi. They hugged me, greeted all my friends by
name, until my Mom got to Jacqui.

“Hi, Jackson,” she said.

And that was an awkward pause. Like the catch in your chest right after you fall flat on your back, a little forced moment of silence until she laughed.
“I don’t know where that came from! I was thinking about Jackson Pollack earlier, and I guess since you’re into art…”

What’s in a name?

It’s a good question. Obviously my mother hadn’t forgotten my girlfriend’s name. But she tweaked it just enough to be pretty unquestionably male.

Jacqui gets that kind of thing a lot. Just this past Saturday we went on a Thanksgiving hike – a frozen trail two miles up a mountain, but that’s another story altogether – and at a rest stop, a kindly old lady warned her that she was about to walk into the women’s restroom. Obviously she meant well, and she apologized upon realizing her mistake.

My mother, though, that was unique. I still don’t know what to make of it.
I saw it again over Thanksgiving. I was chilling with my favorite cousin, who is trans. He is not out as trans to his father’s side of the family – which is the side our relations are on. So I heard his “female” name half a million times over the meal. Considering the discomfort I felt, I can only imagine how he felt.

What is in a name?

According to my English teacher, a misfit name can lead to a crisis of identity, as in Faulkner’s short story “A Justice” and in Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day.”

“Ma’am,” and “Sir,” and misappropriations of our names often coincide with how we present. My name, Gabriel, is traditionally male, so it is misspelled and mispronounced as Gabriella more often than not since I present as fairly traditionally female – I have long hair, at least.

Maybe this anecdote doesn’t say anything significant about sexuality and society, but I think it speaks to our reaction to the disconnect between expectation and reality – or maybe I’ve just taken too many English classes.

What’s in a name?

Maybe nothing. Shakespeare wasn’t overly concerned, as long as the rose by any other name still smelled as sweet. But Faulkner’s Sam Fathers and Saul Bellow’s Tommy Wilhelm would beg to differ, as I would. I appreciate the androgyny of my name. Considering the assumptions I already face based on my gender, I like that someone reading an email from me or even an application can’t necessarily tell my gender by my name. In a situation where my gender is irrelevant, it’s not unnecessarily revealed. But names, nicknames, the way we choose to communicate with others, it’s all a part of our identity, our presentation. The way others react affects us, one way or the other – So I think I’m with Sam Had-


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