It was early morning, late January. I sat outside of the courtroom waiting for my name to be called. The day had finally come.
I saw my dead name on the docket, posted on the door. “After today, it’ll be gone,” I thought.
“No one will use it against me after today.”
I didn’t realize that I was supposed to go in the courtroom and that no one would call me in. I almost missed the hearing for my name change, but luckily, he saw me coming in and beckoned me to approach.
“Are you Kevin?” He said.
“Yes,” I said.
“For now,” I thought.
He asked me the standard set of questions. No, I haven’t committed any crimes. No, I’m not a sex offender.
“Granted.” He said.
I was overjoyed. The moment had finally come – I was Katharine, legally.
Not that I needed any confirmation, but it certainly helped to be able to use my name – my real name, the name everyone, even my parents knew me by – in legal contexts. I’d been going by my name so long that even people that I grew up with forgot my dead name. It wasn’t me. It never really fit. No, Katharine was my real name – I just had to discover it.
I’d always liked the name Katharine. I grew up admiring Katharine Hepburn (hence the spelling) and her fearlessness, her style, and her transatlantic accent. She was everything I wanted to be as a woman, before I even knew that being a woman was ever a real possibility for me. I still summon a bit of Katharine whenever I need strength. I’ve even thought about emulating her way of responding to those who misspelled her name — circling it in red ink and returning it to the person who wrote it. Maybe then people would learn to spell my damn name correctly.
My great great grandmother was also a Katharine Marie. I don’t know a lot about her, but I wish I did. I learned that when my parents were choosing names for their baby, they had settled on Katharine were I to be designated female at birth. I only found out when I brought up the subject of female names to my mother in 2010, 2 years before I transitioned. I was astonished to hear her say that she had considered giving me the name that I had always been enamored with; the name I had always wanted as my own.
I’m a woman with a pretty amazing namesake – two fantastic women. And my name is just as valid as any nickname adopted by any individual at any point in their lives. My name is just as valid as that of any Hollywood star. My name is just as valid as any woman married or divorced who chooses to adopt or discard her lover’s family name. Those names are not up for debate, however. Somehow, transgender names are.
Our dead names, vestiges of a past from which we are pressured to flee, linger around like phantoms in the ether, and we, so often, stumble in the dark, fearing their next apparition. I, too, felt this fear. The phantom of that name carried all of the trauma of my childhood – the bullying, the invalidation, the memories of searching for an identity that, try as I might, I was unable to articulate. When I eschewed it for the name which I have chosen to define me, I feared that it would haunt me when some soul by ill will or by ignorance stumbled across the remains.
For several semesters of school, I fled from it, the lingering traces in my school’s computer system, outing me each time I participated in online class discussion. I had to clarify with professors before each semester started that there was a mistake on their rolls. I feared my name being spoken, heard, or invoked. It, along with all memories of my past being, terrorized me. I just wanted to live a new life. I just wanted to finally be free.
After my name change was official, and I had tied up all the loose ends with my past existence, being legally Katharine slowly became mundane. I had reached that major milestone. I was free, or so I thought. What I had succeeded in doing was burying my past. I hadn’t yet confronted it. I had to dig it up and stare it in the face. I had to come to terms with where I had come from to fully appreciate where I was and to feel whole.
And so, during the recent months, I returned to my past. I began looking at old photos from my past that triggered painful memories of repression and shame. I tried to put myself in my own shoes at a time when I didn’t understand who I was or who I could be. I began the long process of forgiving myself for the doubt that I internalized which was imposed upon me by a world unwilling to accept my legitimacy. I dove headlong into the deep, dark trenches of my existence and carefully mapped every inch in order to chart an integral whole.
My past is necessarily part of who I am. To some, this is interpreted as a “male socialization” that invalidates my claim to womanhood. My socialization was wholly unlike that of my male friends, however. I felt distant from them, uncomfortable around them, and above all, I felt a deep discomfort with my body that divorced me entirely from the possibility of navigating socialization from the perspective that they embodied. It colored my interpretation in a way that they will never know.
It is also true that my socialization was different than that of cisgender girls. I don’t think that invalidates my claim to womanhood, either. I interpreted the world from the perspective of a girl silenced and rendered invisible, or at the least, decidedly incongruent with the interpretation that I was expected to have. I had a transgender socialization, and while it is unique, I remain more than the sum of my parts. Reducing me to those years of my life is as useful in defining my identity as would be the narrative of any arbitrary period of time in my life. They do not encompass the whole. They do not reflect my continuing evolution and still developing beauty. They cannot capture the extent of my complexity.
Why then, is it such a common belief that invoking the former name of a transgender individual can negate their entire being? What need do we have to place this hex upon transgender people? Why is summoning the spectre of a name that is no longer attached to an individual viewed with more legitimacy than a transgender person’s declared identity, regardless of legal status? Why are transgender individuals referenced needlessly by names that no longer apply to them, when such mention remains wholly irrelevant?
I believe the answer is manifold. In addition to the entitlement of hegemony that those within the dominant ranks of the status quo wield to invalidate the marginalized when they assert themselves on their terms in order to maintain the hegemonic social power structure, I believe that, to them, allowing transgender individuals validity in their names and identities is admission that perhaps their own identities are more complex than they have been led to believe. If that realization is anything like my own, it can be somewhat terrifying having to confront the aspects of ourselves that we do not wish to see.
Just as we must conquer the haunted house to conquer ourselves, they too must step outside the comfort of their discourse, that which would position gender (and, by extension, sex, as sex in that discourse serves as an extension of the gender binary) as both an immutable and all-encompassing aspect of identity. Most remain unwiling to do so, without impetus.
The end result, along with the microaggressions and hurdles that transgender individuals face in attempts to assert their identities, is a nasty reaction to those who have publicly cast off the shackles of a hegemonic discourse. An example of which happened to me last night. Unexpectedly, I was confronted with the spectre of my dead name staring me in the eyes, shared publicly by a pseudoanonymous individual on a forum dedicated to reactionary hate and puerile aggression.
My initial thoughts upon seeing it revealed were something akin to shock. I had been diligent in burying all traces of my past. How could they have known? What mistakes had I made? Soon, I realized that in blaming myself and accepting the idea that my dead name was an albatross around my neck that must be cast off and never invoked I was only giving it power over me. I was allowing it to delegitimize me. Although I wondered if the breach in privacy came as a result of a breach in trust, I decided to own my dead name. I decided to publicly declare my sense of integrity.
What followed was of course the usual nastiness that accompanies any and all posts on the dark corners of the internet – the hate-filled, violent, and reactionary rhetoric of the virulent id of humanity enabled by a sense of anonymous invincibility. Namely, attacks on my identity, threats of and allusions to sexual violence, and general abusive, dehumanizing language intended to strip me of the agency that allows me to define my evolving being. The constant invocation of my dead name was meant to shame me and give me fear by forcing me to gaze upon my past uncovered and in their hands. It was, in short, the same behavior that our cisnormative society condones – the stripping of transgender narratives from those who live those narratives, and the theft of those narratives by hostile individuals whose positionality gives them unearned entitlement to dictate whether or not those narratives deserve validation.
Rather than become dispirited at their relentless abuse, I found that embracing the entirety of my narrative while refusing to concede my articulation of that narrative removed it from their hands. I saw this particular attack on my identity as a microcosm of my continuing quest to reconcile my traumatic past with my present. Just as I have in that journey, I realized that I could accept the trauma as a reality that nevertheless failed to compromise the entirety of my being. It was an experience that I had, but it was not who I was. As they continued to level a name at me that was no longer my own, I realized that they could not define me, only call to mind a definition that was once imposed upon me. Even when I had lived subject to that definition, there was an essential part of “me” that longed to cast it off and find another.
This is, at least in my interpretation, something akin to what Laverne Cox meant when she said that “misgendering trans women is an act of violence.” Misgendering is the willful reimposition of trauma upon the traumatized. I would extend the imposition of dead names to that category. As my experience illustrates, this imposition is maintained through violence, or at the least allusions to violence in violent rhetoric. It involves violation of privacy and exposure to harm. It is intended to cause pain.
While I think I’ve largely come to terms with my trauma and “worked through it”, it is important to understand the purpose and mechanism of these attacks, and to deconstruct them as attempts to reimpose a hegemonic discourse upon those who dare to transgress its boundaries. The trauma of our pasts is something that we all revisit on our own terms, and at our own rate of healing we confront and conquer it. When that trauma and the shame associated with it are wielded against us, it can end violently, with attempts on our life by ourselves or others.
I thought that the date of my name change was the final confrontation with my past. Instead, it was really only one stage of a confrontation with that past that is ongoing and which continues to shape my identity. Most people have to confront their past and square it with their present at some time in their lives. What is important to remember, though is that most people are not pressured to compartmentalize and distance themselves from their past in order to preserve their safety. With minor incongruencies, they are privileged with an unbroken narrative of self that is beyond reproach. This is why assertion of identity — current identity, whatever that may be — is crucial for trans people. It is as much self-preservation as it is self-determination. That assertion should be respected.
There will always be the negators of the world out there to remind us that our past indeed happened, as if we could ever forget. Their reminders should not be given the weight of invalidation, however. If our society accepted the multitudes within us as trans individuals (to paraphrase Walt Whitman) in the same way that the complexity of cisgender individuals’ identities were accepted, it would cease to be an issue. For this reason I have come to accept my dead name as one of my multitudes. My past is one chapter of my beautiful story, but it is not the entirety of it.
I am a woman named Katharine who was once called a boy named Kevin. If you find that contradictory, very well.
I contain multitudes, and there are multitudes within my name.