The first full week in March is Celebrate Your Name Week. Originating in 1997 by an onamotology enthusiast named Jerry Hill, each day of the week is devoted to learning something different about names: the first day is Name Tag Day, followed by Namesake Day, Name Fun Facts Day, Unique Names Day, Learn What Your Name Means Day, Middle Name Pride Day, and Genealogy Day.
Names are important in many cultures around the world. Saints Days, for example, are opportunities for people named after a saint to celebrate their names, and the attributes of the saints for whom they’re named. I grew up Catholic, and can distinctly remember the pressure I felt in seventh grade Catechism classes. My parents didn’t give me a middle name when I was born, and part of the process of Confirmation would be to choose one. I remember hearing that “Nicole” had been floated, either as a first name or middle name for me before I was born, and it was the name I eventually landed on, though for a time I wished I had picked a cooler name. Ambrosia, maybe. Now, however, Nicole suits me just fine. St. Ambrose, it turns out, was pretty boring, and a bigot toward pagans and Jewish people. My patron saint, Nicholas, is actually way better: Known as Nicholas the Wonderworker, he’s the patron saint of “sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, sex workers, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, unmarried people, and students,” much more my kind of crowd.
I remember growing up and being fascinated with all the names I might have had, but didn’t. I was named after Christa McCauliff, the American teacher who was aboard the Challenger when it broke apart in mid-air, though I might have been Danielle, the feminine version of my father and his father’s name. When I was in college, I’d gotten the idea that my grandmother tried to convince my mom to name me Felicidad when she was pregnant with me, though this is one of those memories that’s fuzzy at best and I’m not sure it was an earnest suggestion or a joke. Still, I wrote a whole novel about this Felicidad — Fee — and what her life might have been like, for my senior year Creative Writing final project. What I was really exploring was what my life might have been like if I’d walked through it named Felicidad rather than Christina.
Names are something that come up in therapy quite often, especially since two of the primary groups I work with are queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people, and sex workers. A recent reel by Ericka Gail, M.S. Ed (@mentalhealthfemme on Instagram) noted that a kind of non-binary imposter syndrome comes up around names. “I don’t think I’m non-binary enough. I don’t have a cool name like Celeste, Venus, or Socket,” Gail worries, from the perspective of a client. “Do you identify as non-binary?” they ask, as their therapist-self. The client nods. “Congratulations, you’re non-binary!” the therapist Gail states, before looking at the camera and reminding the viewer: “And anyone who has a problem with that can go to hell in gasoline drawers.”
Name are powerful, whether they are the names we have been given, the names we have chosen, or the names we have left behind. Deadnames can feel like a gut punch, and communicate to trans folks a refusal to honor them in the fullness of who they are, prioritizing the deadnamer’s comfort and intolerance over the trans person’s right to define who they are in all their authenticity and autonomy. Yet choosing a name can also feel strange and discomfiting. Recently, a friend and I talked about a phenomenon we’ve both observed and experienced around being non-binary: choosing a phonetic spelling of our initials as a means of dipping our toes into what it might be like to make a change of name. For my friend and me, there’s some tentativeness in a choice like that, and a sense of intimacy — not it’s not something we share with everyone, and doing so is a navigation of self-consciousness and trust. Being met there with warmth and affirmation is profound.
Names are also powerful sources of creativity, and protection. Think of the names of roller derby players and burlesque performers; they can be witty, funny, dirty, tongue-in-cheek. They are canvases upon which to create a persona, and in that creation, we experience parts of ourselves that we might not access otherwise, and create relationships that reflect that. For sex workers, the names chosen to work under are a means of creating safety and boundaries between the work persona and the real self, between the highly constructed and carefully maintained fantasy, and a stigmatizing, wh*rephobic, and violent world. This is why doxxing causes so much fear and anxiety and is such an exertion of power over.
Our names bind us to each other, conveying intimacy and familiarity sometimes, distance and disrespect at others. Jerry Hill first became fascinated with names when a child by the same name was killed in his city, an introduction to existential pondering if ever there was one. Who are the people who share our same names, and why are they them, and we, us? For some of us, our relationship to our names goes far beyond curiosity and appreciation. They’re an aspect of ourselves that comes into question, that we must assert and navigate in the present. They offer a field in which to grapple with reinvention, evolution and change between the part of us which was given, and the part of us which we have the power to uncover and create.