Several years ago I participated in a course of focused education offered by a local kink-oriented group. I chose to participate for several reasons and found it educational in several ways, not all of which were necessarily positive. Near the end of my time with this group, one woman – ostensibly in a leadership position – chose to challenge us on the topic of names. Though I suppose her reasons for doing so were grounded in some sort of altruistic aspiration, that aspiration was also tinged with a deep ribbon of selfish desire for control and leverage.
Names in the BDSM and kinky communities have some similarities to names in the greater Pagan and polytheist communities. We choose the names we use in these circles to represent something very particular about ourselves and to communicate with our peers in a way that is specifically meaningful to us individually and us in a community sense. Names are also a safeguard against being outed and against plain old social awkwardness when two radically different spheres of our lives collide.
Though this instructor’s desire to help us strip away false fronts and confront our emotionally authentic selves was, in its own way, altruistic, it was driven by a desire for private knowledge. There are some people in this world who love a secret. They love to hold it and cherish it like it’s some kind of hidden treasure saved up against a day when a secret will be needed to leverage some advantage. And that’s exactly what this woman was doing. Her desire for our secret names was about much more than the moment we were sharing in this discussion.
This kind of behavior is actually quite familiar to transpeople. Though anyone who has deliberately chosen a name for themselves later in life might well face this sort of conflict, there is a particular malevolence surrounding the extraction of a “real” name from a transperson. Even if the coaxing is sweet, gentle, covered in lovely sentiment, the desire and the attempts to draw it out is virtually always at the expense of the person whose name is being challenged.
These attempts at naming are weird, rude, intrusive, and in my case at least, spiritually violent.
Many years ago I had a different name. Someone gave it to me and it stuck firmly in place. Even if it sounded strange sometimes and if I couldn’t mentally grasp its contours if I thought about it too hard, it was mine and I knew that fact when I heard it. I could encounter it written and that little cerebral jump of recognition would result. I knew what that word meant. It meant me.
Nearly ten years ago I took a basket of baked goods to Helheim. I handed it to Garm and continued on my way. Not much later I was laying on the hard rocky soil of the grey-brown-red underworld with an enormous spear stuck through my chest. My eyes were plucked out by slender white hands. I bled out and died.
My physical body woke up and I was empty. The meat was electrified but there was nothing inside. I seconds I was asleep and I don’t remember dreaming.
What followed were several years of slowly, painfully, gradually learning the finer points of embodiment. I learned how to reoccupy the mortal world and tried to get my spirit to fit my body. The mental journal of those years were exceptionally painful, not the least because My Lord was absent for a long period. I wasn’t the same person that had gone to sleep. I had woken up different. I didn’t recognize the memories in my head even if they were attached to me. The best metaphor I was ever able to come up with was that of inheriting an enormous and richly furnished mansion that had belonged to an elderly aunt I never even knew existed and it was suddenly my job to handle all her things after her passing.
Of all the things lost and found during that transition, perhaps the strangest and most fundamental was the loss of the name. I didn’t have one. Hearing it was the worst, most cutting insult, the most alien and inappropriate sound ever made. It slid off, bounced off, simply dropped away from my psychic person.
I tried on different names in my head but none of them quite fit, either. I discussed all this with the Lady In Question, who had conducted me through this exchange, who had taken my brown eyes and given me gold ones, who lurked in the corner like a lonely hologram when all other Powers went away. I knew I had to earn a name but that was the only guidance I was given.
I did, eventually. I pursued the course set in front of me and as soon as I took the first definitive step, I was given a name. And I knew that name was me and I knew that I was that name. It stuck firmly and would cut through any surrounding volume of sound and yank my attention. I would see it in writing and my eyes would flick to it; I knew it deeply and I recognized it.
I earned it. It was mine.
So when this unpleasant woman demanded my real name, I told her. She said no, and I said yes. I knew what my name was. I had earned it. The goddess of death and rebirth, of rot and renewal had given it to me. Anything less than that was a false front, a matrix for engagement in systems that would crumble into dust while Her appellation remained.
Today the name doesn’t work quite so well. As My Lady giveth, she taketh away. When I was kicked out of the company for failing at some task, she took the passcodes and protocols that let me journey with relative freedom and safety. All company property was revoked, including my name. It still functions in a very limited way but each time it’s spoken I hear the inauthentic quality behind it. No one believes it. No one believes it. It’s a hollow noise, not much better than any other word. But I still recognize it in writing. I see it on the page and I still know myself.
Last week Facebook took my name away. It took away the face I use to interact with a large portion of my social world. I hadn’t even wanted an account in the first place but in college I had a leadership position in the queer kids’ club and I needed to use whatever social media was most popular so I made an account. That was in 2008. For seven years I’ve used FB without ever being challenged on a first and last name that are both incredibly silly.
But see, it wasn’t just Facebook that took my name away. It was someone who decided that my name was inauthentic, unreal, false, contrived. Someone took it upon themselves to police the naming of others, to judge if our names – whether earned, given, or chosen – were real or not. Someone did this to me.
This isn’t the first time that someone has felt entitled to decide which name of mine is real. It won’t be the last. I accept My Lady’s right to give and revoke; I’m subject to Her decisions of what name of mine is real or not. Currently none are. That’s my own fault and my own problem. As far as human-level engagement is concerned, the name is still valid. It’s still real.
I miss my FB account because I miss my friends, their pictures, and their pets. I miss what they’re up to. I miss the convenience of knowing which social events I’ll be too tired to go to and I miss staying in touch with people who live a long way from me. But I lived many years without FB and I will live many more years without it. It is not necessary even if it is rather convenient. (It’s also an enormous time-sink!)
My relationship with names is somewhat unique and I imagine that the story of my name is not over yet. Maybe someday I’ll even earn it back. In the meantime, I don’t get to forget the complexity of the authentic and the desire of others to control the deployment of authenticity. I just shrug and know that when they and their systems are dust the fact of my naming will remain.