Thursday, June 7, 2012

There's a Reason We Don't Give People Numbers: Part 1

Note: this was inspired by a friend's post on names. This is part of a two-part series about how I struggle with gender and my own name.  The second part will be posted tomorrow. I hope.

Names are important. They can indicate our kinship ties and pieces of our identity. They can change how people perceive us, sometimes even before they meet us. In turn, as we wear our names, people color the meaning of the syllables that make up our name with the things they know about us. So, what do you do when your name doesn't quite fit?

My first name has never thrilled me.  (Sorry, Mom.)  It's a good name, a solid name, a name I could put on business cards.  However, it's also gendered, which makes me uncomfortable.  People can look at my name and say, "Oh, it's [Firstname]! She's a girl" and make decisions about how they're going to interact with me from that.

A couple things happened while I was in middle school:

  • A teacher pulled me aside and explained to me that wearing a bra* was not optional.
  • I began noticing that girls had Different Social Rules, like "you should shave your legs or people will make fun of you".**  These rules did not apply to boys, which didn't seem fair.
  • We started our foreign-language instruction, and I had to pick a name.

I was taking French, and the sheet they passed out had two sides: one labeled "Girl's Names" and one labeled "Boy's Names".  I skimmed the side with the "Girl's Names".  Jacqueline? I thought to myself. Blech. Way too girly. So, I turned the paper over.

A spark of rebellion ignited.  Our French teacher had instructed us to pick a name from the paper. She hadn't specified which side I had to use.  I didn't have to pick a girl's name, so I picked a boy's name.  I couldn't decide between "Jacques" and "Pierre" when she called on me to ask for my choice, so I simply concatenated them.

"Je m'appelle Jacques-Pierre," I told her.  She gave me a look.  I can't remember if she suggested I call myself a French version of my own name or not.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Oui," I said.  "Je m'appelle Jacques-Pierre."

To prove it, I began calling myself Jacques-Pierre in all my classes.  I wrote it on top of my papers.  I asked the rest of my teachers to call me Jacques-Pierre in class. I corrected my poor French teacher every time she called on me using a French version of my given name.

At some point during all this, I began thinking of myself as "JP".  The next summer, I made the switch and began introducing myself as "JP".  Friends would eventually ask where it came from-- my initials don't contain either "J" or "P", and I got sick of explaining telling the story of the French class, so I started telling them it stood for "Just Perfect".  This had the side benefit of making the name gender-neutral instead of a boys' name.

As I began participating in online communities, I chose yet another name because "JP" was too short for a log-in ID.  Eventually, I concatenated them: I am now jpnadia online. So, I had three names: one for on-line, one for my friends, and one for my professional identity.

In real life, I got tired of endless explanations of why I wanted to be called JP instead of my given name.  (Also, lecture halls got bigger, and professors stopped asking for nicknames and started calling on me by my roster name, so people would learn my given name and then there would be an Argument when I asked them to call me JP.) I gave up, and most people call me my given name now.  Still, I love it that people I met when I introduced myself as "JP" still call me "JP".  It's more comfortable, for me, to have a gender-neutral name.

Secretly, I still call myself "JP" in my head most of the time.
*In sharp contrast to the characters in Are You There God? It's Me Margaret, who wanted very much to wear bras, I found them and continue to find them uncomfortable.

**In elementary school, people made fun of me for reading too much.  I didn't care: I chose to read a lot, and I could tell myself that they were making fun of me because I was smarter than them. Being teased about having hairy legs while female, however, baffled me.

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