“Fear names. Names have power in identity. Others can use names as weapons. Names are a hook that can be used to track you… Remain nameless, and you shall be safe.” (Planescape: Torment)

Of course, very few of us remain nameless – our administrative systems and social expectation are geared to everyone having a name. When Prince adopted a symbol to stand as his name, the most common reaction was ‘how do you pronounce that?’ and ‘what do I actually call you, though?’ [not exact quotes, but gleaned from an interview I watched] The world seemed desperate to re-name him after his voluntary dropping of a recognisable name, and he soon became ‘The artist formerly known as Prince’. See – we cannot exist for long in the world without folk either seeking what they consider our ‘real’ name, or making one up for us.

I’m not really talking here about the common problem faced by many trans people – when those we know use our birth name rather than the name we have chosen for ourselves (Tip: Don’t.) I’m more interested in the power that our birth name can have over us, and how hard it can be to escape from that.

In many examples of mythology, literature, lore and belief systems there is a common notion that knowledge of someone’s name gives power. We’ve all come across Rumpelstiltskin, described as an ‘imp’, who held all the power until his name was discovered. At which point his plans fell apart, and depending on the version, suffered a horrible demise. Some believe that power can be gained in the knowledge of a name, and this can certainly be the case in the trans experience. Knowledge of a name can make all the difference socially, in a relationship, at work, turning a safe situation to an unsafe one in the blink of an eye. Horrible demises come in more than one form.

My birth name is not a secret. Plenty of people know it, including quite a few who visit this blog. But if you don’t know it already, you won’t find it out from me. I am asked (pretty infrequently, fortunately) what my ‘real’ name is, or what I used to be called, and my answer is always ‘that isn’t important now’. Which, of course, is true, but there is also an element of protecting my powerbase by not allowing people access to information that reveals more of me than I want revealed. Logically or not, I feel that restricting knowledge of my birth name stops me from becoming vulnerable to others. There is also a feeling of strength that comes from drawing a line between the life I had living as a woman with that old name, and my current life. More importantly, having control over that line.

Having to disclose my birth name on the few occasions this has been necessary (eg: security checks for my job) has made me feel very wobbly. The only way I can think to try to describe it is that my life, and the way I present myself to the world, are very carefully constructed. I have delved deep into myself to work out who I actually am, and how I want to be, and this ‘me’ is Mark. The real me. If someone calls me by my birth name, or I have to go through the rigmarole of producing deed-polls etc. which ‘out’ the process through which I have gone to get this far, I feel that somehow I may be seen as that ‘old me’, and people will think that I am just pretending. My constructed self will be seen as less of a magnum opus and more of a charade.

I trust those who know my birth name not to bandy it about, and I do not tell it to new people. I’ve noticed that when trans people get together, we often end up talking about transition at some point (not all the time, though, please note…we’re not all that sad or one-dimensional). However, even when discussing the nitty gritty of our earlier lives, birth names are not named. It is an understanding that even amongst ourselves, these names remain unspoken. In Rowling’s novels, the character Voldemort should not be named, for fear he will learn of it, and track you down. With us, perhaps it is more a fear of our own pasts tracking us down and showing us up.

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