Phil: Hey, this is Phil, aka Corrinne.
Alex: And I’m Alex Berg. And you are listening to …
Both: The I’m From Driftwood podcast.
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Alex: In today’s episode, we’re asking the question, what’s in a name? More specifically, we are hearing stories from two folks who both talk about their gender identity and why their names were so important to them.
Jaye: All right. So my name is Jaye and I’m born in Boulder City, Nevada. As a six, seven year old, I don’t really know the specific age I was living in the trailer park and it was just me and my dad and I was playing with the neighborhood boys. We were coming up on our roller blades down the street, sitting right in front of the driveway of my house. And the three of us were going to be playing Animorphs. And that is where we morph into an animal to fight crime, whatever that is. And we were going around, Jason said, “I’m a tiger.” And then Pete said, “I’m a lion.” And I was going to say what I was and Jason stopped. And they both were like, “You’re a girl.” In that moment I cowered away. And I just said, “I’m not half girl” and picked an animal and tried to play along and just pushed it away.
Fast forward, 10 years later, I have found a man in the moment and we were looking to get married and we were talking about what that would look like and how that would be in our future. And it was a really amazing time, but then came the discussion around our names and what we would be doing in a marriage. So we were hyphenating our names and ended up hyphenating his last name, and then my last name. With that name change was a new beginning. In this marriage years later, I started to kind of experiment with different things that were more on the feminine side versus the masculine side. I remember one night specifically, I was going to a comedy club with some of my friend and in the bathroom. I had eyeliner that I had purchased myself and had been in there for a couple weeks and I started to put it on and it was fantastic.
I loved how I looked with it. I knew my friends would love how I looked in it, but then I came downstairs and there was a change in behavior that my husband was seeing. And any change is going to say what’s going on, what’s happening. So there was a little bit of tension in that aspect. So that in combination with some other things, we ended up getting divorced. So two days after announcing the divorce, I was at home and alone on my couch watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. I had earlier bought a pack of acrylic nails from the local store, Jewel. And I sat there and I was putting them on, I was gluing them on learning how to do all that and just exploring what it was like. So when I finally finished putting on the nails and I had filed them into the shape that I wanted, I just kind of sat there and just kept looking at my hands.
I started taking selfies, just with nails on, because it felt empowering. It felt great. And I really enjoyed that moment of being able to say, this is what I love and I’m okay with that. And that kind of acceptance piece of seeing it for myself was fantastic. So over the next year and a half, I really kind of dabbled along with what my femininity looks like, what my masculinity like, who I was. And probably two months ago, I reached out to one of my best friends and I asked, “Can someone be transgender without transitioning?” And she said, “Of course, baby, of course.” And then she sent me this amazing article that she was working on.
But fast forward now to where I go to the spiritual center and I had officially come out and said to my current social circles, my name is Jaye. So I’m going to this new spiritual center. We’re sitting in a circle doing an introduction of who we are. And I introduced myself as Jaye. Totally fine. I’m good with the introduction. But what was really impactful was when after a gentleman came up to me and said, “Hey Jaye, can I borrow a pen?” And hearing him just call me Jaye, without any question, without any assumption or thinking it’s different that I wasn’t Jake or Jacob, but just being able to identify myself, me, make up in all, as Jaye, that first time was so rewarding and I didn’t have to do anything different. I just handed him a pen. It was no different. And it was fantastic. I didn’t have to have a conversation about a transition. I just got to introduce myself and be who I was.
At work I’m also in that middle of the transition. So I’m sitting in my manager’s office and I actually say to her, “I’m changing my name. So can you refer to me as Jaye now J-A-E.” And I kind of explained it’s just a neutral term when it comes to my names. So that’s what I’d like to be known as, and she was totally on board. She said, “Absolutely. That’s what I’ll call you and move forward.” So I’m sitting at my desk and I’m checking an email that my manager sends out to the whole leadership team. And I know it’s with a document that we’ve both been working on together. So under my portion, when I look at the email, she has that actually spelled as J-A-E on there, and I’m overwhelmed. I’m just like, got to the butterflies. I like, see it. I feel validated. I’m excited. Even though it was a small document and a small moment that may not matter to other people, to me, it was super empowering and super eventful. And I’m always going to that.
Phil: This, I love this story. You see Jaye celebrating, being seen for who they are. And I think that’s, what’s so important about names. I think it’s about this is who I see myself as, and I need for you to see me as I see myself.
Alex: And I also think their story just so clearly underscores how affirming it can be just in such a passing moment, when someone, I think for them, it was especially this group of people that they had more recently met, how affirming it is, just when someone gets it right. On the flip side of that is how awful it is when someone it’s it wrong as well. And just how easy-breezy it was for this new person to get it right. Right. Wasn’t that hard. Right. And so I thought that they just made that point just so nicely. I also really just loved hearing about Jaye’s, how they integrated femininity into their self expression as somebody who loves a little nail polish and eyeliner myself, I can really appreciate how they were experimenting and having fun with it and just seemed to have this kind of joyful path to figuring out who they were while also having the tenuous experience of having to deal with their partner, who seemed a little bit uncertain about it. And then also meeting new people and, and introducing themself.
Phil: You know, I love the part of the story when Jaye talks about speaking to a friend who they ask this friend. “Can you be transgender without transitioning?” And I was like, yay. Yes, do it. You know, it’s just like, do it. It’s just like, you really see them questioning this. Thankfully they had had this great friend who said, absolutely, you can do that. You can do whatever you want. You can take this as far as you want. This looks the way you want it to look. I just think it’s so important. This is why we have people look to chosen family because they need this container of support that will … It’s almost like a little greenhouse, in a way. I want to say it’s like having a greenhouse with the plants and just like the perfect environment for someone to grow and flourish into who they are. Yeah. And I’m just so grateful that Jaye had this friend that really saw them and was like, it looks however you want it to look, and I am here to support you in that. Yeah.
Alex: I love that they even ask the question to begin with, because I think that as a person in the media, when we tell LGBTQ stories, oftentimes they have a very specific linear narrative. And for a long time, the media was really, I think when it came to trans stories in particular, a lot of the examples people would see, they were very binary stories. So I think it’s really cool that Jaye had that moment to be like, wait a second. Do I even have to be going from one point to the other point to fall under this umbrella or for it to feel like the right identity for me. So I just love that level of inquisitiveness and also stopping to question the conversation that’s out there or the thing that’s been presented to you. I think that’s really cool.
Phil: Yeah. I actually wish I could have been up fly on the wall during that one evening while they were watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and painting their nails and just seeing the joy that came from seeing these beautifully painted nails. Can you imagine that must have been such a moment of, this is me, this feels so right. I think it’s just such a beautiful thing. Those little moments that you’re just like, oh my God, I am not having to live up to anyone else’s expectation of who they think I should be. I am literally just allowing myself to be exactly what feels right to me. And I think it’s so beautiful. Speaking more about names. I would love to talk about Danny’s story.
Danny: My name is Danny from Bronx, New York. In 2012, I decided to begin my physical transition from female to male. I was very scared. I was in a very conservative school and that was already very difficult. So to take this next step, I was asked, can’t you just wait till you graduate. I was graduating in six months, but personally, I didn’t feel like I could wait. At that time, I felt very ready. My school just never really took the steps to inform other people or even talk to me about it. Like, Hey, do you need support in talking to your professors? So when I was going to class, a lot of people were just misgendering me. I walked into my Investment Analysis class and I remember I got dressed up. I was presenting as male. I felt really, really good. I was passing from people that really didn’t know me. When I entered the class, the professor greeted me and called me by my birth name. I just remembered feeling kind of defeated.
I felt that in that moment, I didn’t get the right support. My transition was never communicated forward, which kind of showed me that the school just didn’t really take it seriously, or they didn’t want to deal with it because it was too difficult. One thing I wanted to do was change my name, so when I graduated, my new name would be said across the stage. All my friends were excited for that and I was advised not to change my name because it would affect my financial aid. I actually have friends that have changed their names and they it did it while they were in school. And even after changing my name, I realized I’m like, well, it wouldn’t affect it at all, once I learned about the process. I was just told not to do it because I don’t know if they didn’t want to deal with that.
My senior year I had already a position with the Target corporation and I was starting that July. As soon as I graduated and I received my diploma where my degree was confirmed, I changed my name legally. And I was starting Target sometime mid-July. And I remember emailing the HR business partner at the time who was aware of my transition and told me that Target could accommodate my transition without a problem. I told her, “Hey, I legally changed my name.” And they rushed to get all of my paperwork done. So I had to refill W2s, W4s, I had a folder with updated documents. They changed my email address. They changed so much paperwork in a matter of days, just so I can be comfortable when I get to work.
So, one thing. When I was at Target, I was supposed to be at one store, but it was my intern store, and I wanted a fresh start. The HR team was trying to give me some time to see if I felt comfortable. So I actually floated across different stores for a while. I was in one store for a little bit, and the manager actually, mis-wrote my name on the schedule. He put “Danielle” by mistake. I think it was just an error, but I remember feeling really upset about it.
One of my coworkers pointed out the issue and he came up to me the very next day and was very apologetic: like, “We know we’re really, really sorry. You know, we don’t really stand for making you uncomfortable, and we are totally…” He was very apologetic and just kind of like, “This does not happen here. And we apologize that I made you feel uncomfortable. It was an honest mistake.” In the moment it didn’t feel great, but afterwards I appreciated his accountability and just apologizing and I was being able to move forward. I felt like my experience at school was a bit insulting. I had given so much the school, not only monetarily, but just my own energy. I really feel like I put my heart in it. And then the last six months is what I mostly remember.
Phil: When you look at Danny’s story, what you see is somebody who went from a, an environment who could not be bothered to an environment that’s like, “we want you here. We want your experience to be wonderful. And we want to respect and support that.” It’s just like the stark difference between those two environments. I just can’t even imagine, the school even lying to him and saying you can’t get your financial aid if you change your names. Like really?
Alex: Yeah. Well also, I think word, “lie”, here is really operating because this huge corporation was able to get it together and the school couldn’t. That’s a choice there. That’s a real choice to either make it work or not make it work, and then not to implement those policies for your students as well. I think that the standard that the company that he worked for had, that should just be across the board.
Alex: Everybody should be able to go walk into any kind of company, your organization in that way. And the contrast between the school and his job, it is a very, very stark contrast. Oh yeah. From day one, feeling like you’re understood, feeling like there’s this element of dignity with the work that you’re doing, where again you are able to bring another part of yourself.
I’m not really convinced that anyone brings their full self to work ever, but you’re at least able to bring a very important part of yourself. And really, I hope one day we’re talking about how minimal it is to recognize someone as their gender in the workplace and recognize them with their accurate name. I feel like that is the bare minimum, is just getting those things right. And there are so many other things that we also need to be getting right. I recognize that also in many places, we’re not there yet.
Phil: Right. We’re, we’re definitely not. And I think that what we’ll see as time goes on is that that is going to become a lot more standard across the board, just because at the rate and the amount of people that are coming out and adopting an identity that is not part of the binary is unprecedented. Right. I think that is going to play a role in how the workforce shows up. Companies, corporations, places of employment have to be ready for that, because that is the reality that we’re moving and it should be uplifted. It should be supported. We have to change the way things are. I mean, paperwork, you think about applications when you go do applications is still very … There’s still this weird, male/female. We have to change because society, as a general, is shifting, and everyone’s got to stay on top of that.
Alex: But one of the other things that I thought was the right move with where he was working was it’s institutionalized in a way. I think it’s so important for workplaces to create actual strong policies around these things so that everyone is treated equitably in terms of getting the correct email address and having the accurate gender marker and having all of that stuff that I think it’s really important for this stuff to be codified.
Alex: So that it’s not, for example, in the circumstance when he was at school, so it’s not like you’re going to your student loan officer and it’s so subjective of whatever somebody’s decision is.
Phil: Oh, you’re absolutely right. That’s a good point. It’s a little startling to me to hear that his school handled this in this way. It just hard to hear that. I mean, I guess we were talking about a different time, but it’s just like, wow, is that … It’s hard to sometimes understand that that still is a thing that happens or happened.
Phil: It’s just hard to wrap my brain around that sometimes.
Alex: Yeah. I wanted to ask his school, “How much do you love the gender binary that you’re not going to let this kid be called by their name on their graduation day.”
Alex: There is just such a nefarious element of how dug in are you on some of these retrograde ways of thinking and being that on somebody’s graduation day, such an important day to celebrate their achievement, you don’t want to call them by the accurate name.
Phil: Right, right.
Alex: That is your problem. That’s not Danny’s problem.
Phil: It’s definitely not Danny’s problem, and by the way, you said loud and clear, I don’t see you. That’s what you said. Basically, if you did that, you’re saying, I don’t see you and I don’t acknowledge you in the way that you want to be seen. And I think that’s like a travesty. It’s insane. If that’s what he wants to be called, if that’s who he is, that is exactly what you should be calling him. He shouldn’t have to fight this battle. It’s ridiculous. It boils my blood. It makes me a little crazy.
Alex: Yeah. No, I completely hear that, because the other thing too, is that it was so upsetting for Danny. If you think about it seemed like almost in his story that it just gave him so much doubt around school and do you even want to do school? And the social barriers that it creates for someone, why do you want to even be in an environment that is going to be so upsetting for you to not recognize you in that way? I understand why people are like, “I’ve had it.”
Phil: Right. I totally understand. And one quote that Danny says is, “being in a supportive environment, I was able to be myself. I was able to gain confidence and learn so much about myself.” I think what you’re saying is right. That is not what he got when he was at school. That is what he’s experiencing at his job at Target. If you can support and foster them in that way, what kind of evolution are we going to see? Again, then Danny goes out in the world and becomes, like you said, a model for someone else. Right? So he becomes something that somebody else looks at and goes, “oh my God, I identify with that.”
Phil: It’s just a beautiful thing, because for his school, they don’t realize the far-reaching effects of what they were doing is. They don’t, they don’t realize, and thankfully his job showed up and made it right.
Alex: It just interesting to me that we live in a culture that is so obsessed with the binary.
Phil: We gender everything.
Alex: Yes. Yeah. Everything. Absolutely. Everything.
Phil: So many things.
Alex: So many things, it’s just another one of those reminders of the way that these things operate. This might seem like a silly question, but what about names … For our listeners, why are names so important? I feel like this is probably very obvious for so many people, but maybe less obvious for other people, because I feel like a lot of people just throw names around. If they get somebody’s name wrong, whether or not it’s even from a gendered perspective, they kind of will blow it off or whatever. But, like, why is a name … what is in a name?
Phil: Right. Well, this is the crux of what we’re talking about here. You know, coming from… being someone who is using a name that’s not my birth name, it’s interesting because I think for me, a lot of my friends were ready to call me Phil before I was ready to call myself Phil. And I was like, “All right, guess I’m doing that.” But it felt right. It’s not like I’m just going to go with the crowd. It felt right. But it’s interesting to hear a name that you no longer use … It’s almost like a shedding of a skin in some ways. It’s not like I hate this name. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s just not me. So I think the thing about a name is that … The thing about words in general, like in names, it’s just there’s a lot of weight that goes with it and there’s a lot of meaning behind it. I think the act of choosing a name that isn’t your name is saying, “I’m growing and evolving into something else. And I need you to keep with what I’m becoming. And I need you to understand that this is what it’s called.” This is the name I want to use. And I think it’s so important. If you mess up the name, then keep going. I have friends who are just learning to call me Phil. And they are just like … There’s a tip jar, everything’s fine. Every single time Corrinne comes up, I’m like, “Here’s your tip jar.”
Alex: But, owe me some drinks.
Phil: It’s a Venmo tip jar. But I understand, it’s totally fine. I don’t hate my birth name. It’s just not really who I am right now.
Phil: I was thinking that I really wanted to make sure that all of my emails and … Right now my emails, some of them, are using one name, some of … I just want to get it all right, across the board.
Phil: But I think names are important.
Alex: It’s a declaration, that’s what it made me think about as you were saying that.
Phil: It is.
Alex: It’s kind of your declaration, your way of putting your foot on the earth and saying, this is who I am, with your name.
Phil: Yeah. And There’s something so beautiful about it. It’s interesting. Because I think for me, I had a transition period where it was easier to say my own name and felt more natural to say that. And then they got to a point where I was like … Now I’m in a place where when I have to say it, I’m like, “who is that?” I’m like, “I’m not sure who that is.” It’s weird. It’s a weird thing. To change a name is a strange thing. It’s, it’s an weird thing that you, that makes you think … You’re constantly thinking about what you were and what you are. I think it really keeps that top of mind.
Alex: One of the things, because my name is Alex-
Phil: You have a cool name.
Alex: People would always be like … I remember in particular encountering, I think, generationally, older people who would be like, “Well, isn’t that a man’s name?” And it’s so funny to me because the gendering of names, how did that even happen? It’s just interesting to me that we live in a culture that is so obsessed with the binary-
Phil: But we gender everything.
Alex: Yes. Yeah. Absolutely everything.
Phil: There’s so many things.
Alex: So many things is another one of those reminders of the way that these things operate.
Jaye: I think a name is part of an identity. And for me having a name that fits who I actually am is extremely important. As a child and being Jake or Jacob with my dad and the kids in school that was fine, getting married and then having a hyphenated last name, I also felt in that moment kind of empowered to have a hyphenated last night and I’m married and I’m doing what society says, and then transitioning now again, into the divorce. And then my first name changing to really focusing on my identity as a gender non-binary person and that name and importance … I’ve spent a lot of time deciding what that transition would look like, because I want to have a name that is neutral yet still reflects who I am. That’s extremely important for my identity.
Danny: My experience at Target was just life changing for me. It made me, so I was able to just live. I was in the early stages of my transition, but no one made me feel like I was an outcast. I was just one one of the managers, one of the guys like, “Hey, you want to order lunch today?” Yeah, sure. There’s no big deal. Being in a supportive environment I was just able to be myself and I gained confidence and I was just able to learn so much about myself in different aspects of my personal life. I feel like being around people and transitioning just made me feel comfortable and that was able to just be life changing for me.
Alex: I feel like maybe there are two things that two big takeaways for us here, and two similarities between the stories, which is that, one: it is extremely important to recognize people as who they are. I feel like lots of cis people and non-LGBTQ people get very agitated when they’re called the wrong name. And so how about you reciprocate that behavior? You know, if you are agitated and upset when someone calls you the wrong name, imagine what that is like for a trans person. Because I feel like a lot of times you encounter attitudes where people are like, “well, it’s just hard or I don’t understand, or …” but, actually, if you are agitated because somebody got it wrong, imagine.
Phil: And repeatedly, so imagine?
Alex: And then the other thing is just to remember how painful it is when a person’s not called by their right name.
Phil: I also want to say for the people that are trying … I still have friends who just want to default to my old name. You can see them trying. I just want to say it’s better be trying than not to be putting in any effort in at all.
Phil: If you’re trying, right on, keep trying, but if you’re not putting the effort in, that’s a problem.
Phil: Someone can understand, if you’re trying. If you’ve known me for years and you can call me one thing and one day I switch it up. I get it. You need a minute, but keep trying.
Phil: Keep working on.
Alex: Yeah. I feel like definitely I’ve had friends who’ve changed their names or decided to use different pronouns and it can take a minute to get used to it. And I’ve had moments where I’ve slipped up and then I just try to be like, I’m sorry, repeat the right one.
Phil: That’s the least you can do, but make the effort. Make the effort and show the person … Because to me, the effort says, “I care enough about you to try.” That also says, “I see you and I’m trying, and I know that I messed up, but I’m willing to keep working at this.” So I think that … You can’t understand how important that is.
Phil: The I’m From Driftwood podcast is hosted by Phil aka Corrinne.
Alex: And Alex Berg, and is produced by Anddy Egan-Thorpe. It’s recorded as a program of I’m From Driftwood, the LGBTQAI+ story archive.
Phil: Its mission is to send a life saving message to queer and trans people everywhere. You are not alone.
Alex: I’m from Driftwood’s founder and Executive Director is Nathan Manske. It’s Program Director is Damien Mittlefehldt.
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Alex: The stories you heard today are available in their entirety, plus thousands more at imfromdriftwood.org.
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Phil: This program is supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs-
Alex: -in partnership with the city council.
Phil: Additional Funding is provided by the Humanities New York SHARP grant with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Federal American Rescue Plan act.
Alex: Thanks for listening, y’all.