My parents have a small herd of Black Angus cows, small enough that they still name every calf born in the spring. Choosing names for the calves was always so much fun when we were children… until the year my younger sister named her steer calf Isabelle. I was shocked and horrified by her callous disregard for the unspoken but unquestioned rule that boys get boys’ names and girls get girls’ names, no matter what species of creature they are. I cried for a while, then tried to talk her out of such a ridiculous decision. But when she refused to change her mind, I promptly named my heifer calf John out of spite. So there, little sister.
It wasn’t until much later that I really started to question why our world divides first names into male and female, why we insist on saddling such innocent syllables with a gendered connotation. It began to feel so strange to hear expectant parents proudly recite two separate lists of possible names for their unborn baby, names for a girl and names for a boy, those two prenatal lists already hinting at a more sinister set of stereotypes settling into place while the fetal cells diligently divide and differentiate.
Had I been born with a tiny infant penis, a urethral ticket to a world of privilege, my name would have been Benjamin. Instead I was given the female name my parents found in a quiet grassy cemetery, my pregnant mother strolling with my father, visiting the graves of relatives, falling in love with my name on a headstone one row over. It is a beautiful lyrical name, it means “purple flower”, and it is so rare in North America that most online baby name databases do not even recognize its existence. It is a name that has garnered many compliments when I first introduce myself, a name that has been mispronounced a dozen different ways in a dozen different accents, a name that is more deeply and more permanently a part of me than a tattoo or a scar. I am neither proud of this name nor ashamed of it, I regard it with the neutral allegiance of 24 years of involuntary companionship. I withhold my name here only out of concern for privacy.
But as I explore the world of gender, I wonder if perhaps I have outgrown this name. Considering a name change comes with a confusing mixture of emotions: sadness about leaving one name behind, excitement at the prospect of choosing another, guilt that I am erasing the name my parents put so much love and thought into, fear that by choosing a male name I am simply reinforcing the gender binary that has been so damaging and restrictive my whole life. I want to make it clear that for me, gender dysphoria is an almost purely physical distress, centered around my body and the problematic anatomy that my brain resists so emphatically. For me, names and pronouns are merely a matter of semantics, relevant only to the extent that a stranger’s “sir” or “he” validates the masculinity of my physical appearance. The main reason I have considered changing my name is that, depending on the extent of my transition (which at this point remains uncertain), a female name will become confusingly incongruent with a male body in most public circumstances. Adopting a unisex or male name will make it simpler for me and for other people. Of course, the simplest thing is not always the right thing, so I continue to reflect on my motivations for choosing a new name. For many of my friends, my first name is irrelevant anyway, as they refer to me by my last name (McMurray) or by nicknames derived from my last name (mcmurr, Mac).
The list of names that I considered was drawn mostly from my favorite fictional characters: Peter (Pan), Jeremy (Finch), Dirk (Pitt), Owen (Meany), Jack (Reacher), Max (Rockatansky). But I kept circling back towards the name I used online for years before I even acknowledged transition as a possibility: Tom Sparrow. As a child I was intrigued by a story my parents told me about their wedding. They had a guestbook for guests to sign their name and record where they were visiting from. After the wedding, my parents found a signature in the book from someone they hadn’t actually invited, a Tom Sparrow from New York, New York. My dad suspected that his best man had written the pseudonym as a joke, but I always liked imagining that this itinerant stranger, Tom Sparrow, had actually crashed their wedding. And this story resonated deeply with my younger self because, like Tom Sparrow the wedding ghost, I so often felt like an invisible guest at someone else’s party. Tom Sparrow… the name was a quick little bird flitting restlessly through the thread of my thoughts. (I only recently found out that the name in the wedding guestbook was actually Todd Sparrow, I must have misheard it the first time my parents told the story, but it’s too late now because Tom has solidified in my mind over so many years).
So I tried using the name Tom in the few circumstances where people knew about my gender journey and did not already have a nickname for me. With one friend I started signing off my emails as Tom (thereafter double checking the name at the bottom of all my emails to avoid any awkward mistakes). I asked my psychiatrist to call me Tom. I introduced myself as Tom in therapy groups. The name Tom felt so strange and foreign in writing and out loud, so I gave myself nearly a year to get used to it. But the foreignness never waned and Tom continued sounding silly and contrived. Eventually – frightened by the mounting feeling of detachment from my name, frustrated by my continued uncertainty regarding transition, and struggling with severe depression related to other life circumstances – I stopped signing my emails to my friend and requested that my psychiatrist not call me any name at all. This namelessness was comforting initially, like the reassuring anonymity of a dial tone.
But namelessness was not sustainable forever, so I tried Thomas instead of Tom. And very quickly Thomas felt right. I’m not exactly sure why… perhaps the single syllable of Tom was too abrupt and harsh and Thomas has a softer sibilance, perhaps the formal tone of Thomas commanded more of my respect, perhaps I reached a more authentic acceptance of gender dysphoria and could then commit more fully to this aspect of transition, perhaps it was simply the passage of time and a thousand self-reflections that softened the shape of a new name.
So for now, I am Thomas, to myself (sometimes), to my psychiatrists, and to friends who don’t already have their own name for me – those cheerful nicknames that carry all the shared history of an ongoing friendship.
Thomas means “twin”, which has an appealing symmetrical symbolism. You see, I am twins in one body. I am two sexes, male and female – separated by time and perception, biology and convention – inevitably intertwined until death do us part.
“I know my name now. That’s some comfort.”
– Alice (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871)