Tl;dr Having two names is different from the mainstream trans narrative about names, but the most important thing it has shown me over and over again is that polite, considerate asking is always the best option when you’re confused about a name.
I have two names.
This is a bizarrely controversial statement for a trans person to make, which is why I want to say it before cis people get too married to the predominant narrative about trans names.
There are, of course, many trans people with one name. Trans people with dead names that need to be burnt and then buried underground. Trans people that wish to legally change their name, but don’t have the money yet, but we’re sure as heck never going to call them by that terrible, awful legal name (side note: if you want to help a trans person change their name, here’s a great New England-based project to donate to!)
I’m not one of those people.
I live between and with two names and I love both of my names. And, even though I technically have defined uses for each name, it’s always still ambiguous, it’s always fluid, and I’m not always sure which name belongs where.
Sometimes, it’s just my damn ornery nature that means I’ll demand someone use one name over another. I admit it quite willingly. I did that when someone decided to submit some of my written work without my consent and I wanted to make their life a little difficult because of that.
Sometimes, I choose to ask people to use a different name for me because I know it’s a learning experience for them – the name they’re using is fine, but I know they need to get better at respecting people and calling them the name they want to be called and I can give them some low-stakes practice. I have done that with many of my classmates and my teachers over the years, especially ones I wasn’t explicitly out to.
Sometimes, a name is a way to call someone out. If someone is being transphobic, asking them to call me a different name makes their stumbles more visible, to me, and to others, who may need more blatant proof that someone is transphobic. I had a teacher last year who was still calling me the name on the register halfway through the year. By clarifying that as transphobic behavior, there was a tangible, clear line drawn concerning her unacceptable actions, as opposed to my vague, unprovable awareness that she was transphobic.
Sometimes, a name is about my personal autonomy. My mother once asked my grandparents (and the rest of my family) to start calling me “Jo” without checking with me first. Asking my family to call me my legal name was as much about taking back the power of choice she had taken from me as it was about my name.
Sometimes, my name is about anonymity and personal protection. There’s something nice about not always going by my legal name. There’s something comforting about knowing that my legal documents (especially my passport) may not immediately lead to all of me. I know it’s not hard for anyone to make the connections, but the ability to have disconnections in my presentation of self (the person, the artist, the employee, the writer, the academic, the friend, the family member…) and delineate that with a name is both useful and reassuring. I can be both, or I can be one, and that flexibility makes me feel safe (it probably doesn’t make me actually safe, but feeling safe is important too).
I purposefully organize my presentation of self to make people ask what name to call me. I prefer to be able to make that choice than to allow someone else to make that choice for me.
This has led to moments of other trans people looking at me in confusion going “you know, we can just remove this name and call you what you want, if you like” and having to explain “no, I am both, I want you to ask”. And I have met so many well-meaning cis people fumbling and being too embarrassed to ask. And, of course, there are the ignorant cis people refusing to call me the name I’ve asked them to because it doesn’t fit their worldview and understanding of me.
Every trans person is different. We all have unique relationships with our names. But, if there’s one thing that I’d like someone to take away from this it’s that asking is good. If you are confused, ask. If you think you know what someone wants to be called, but are not completely sure, ask. Ask politely, without drawing public attention to the person, and then go with that answer. The biggest harm you can do is to act as if you know more about a trans person’s name than they do, either through ignorance, uncaringness, discomfort, or unwillingness to ask.
And, most importantly, no single narrative about a trans person will ever act as your blueprint for every other trans person you meet.