Trans Awareness Week: Day #4
Previous Posts: Interview: Alex Gino, The Room Where it Happens by Parrish Turner, Trans Stories Are Human Stories by April Daniels, Center Trans Voices: Introduction to Trans Awareness Week Series by Vee S.)
by Fox Benwell
I talk a lot, both as a transmasculine guy and as a writer, about the importance of words. The weight of them; how we should use them consciously, with care. How the words we choose have histories and connotations that they carry with them regardless of your intentions in the moment that you use them.
I’ve talked about the intersections of language and labels and representation; how I’d never seen myself in books or real life; how growing up I simply did not have the language to explore or express everything I felt. Genderfluid, transmasculine, nonbinary, FtM…none of these words were part of my vocabulary or my consciousness, and finding them as an adult was life changing.
I’ve talked about language and labels, but I haven’t talked about perhaps the most personal labels of all; our names. Which is odd, since finding a new name is a particular rite of passage for many trans folks, myself included. It can be a huge part of figuring out who we are, or want to be, and how we reconcile or honour parts of ourselves. Naming (finding, labelling) yourself as an adult is a big, scary, wonderful thing. And it’s important. So, today I want to tell you the story of how the Fox became:
This time last year, I was feeling…unsettled. I’d spent the summer settling into the fact that cis and woman didn’t fit me, and starting to carve out a new space, a new identity. To claim transgender as my own and figure out what that meant for me. Even the most everyday things felt new and strange. So when Pumpkin Spice season began, heralding autumn, with all its endings-and-beginnings symbolism, I fell into the ritual of it, hard. (Also because coffee. I’m sure this surprises nobody who knows me.)
At the same time, I started a new story; a fun middle-grade with a character a little bit like me (cooler, perhaps, braver and more comfortable than I had been, but, me) and I fell just as hard into that, suddenly needing to see my true self on the page in ways I’d never have anticipated. Somehow, reflection and fiction and wordsmithery together are a very particular, deep sort of labelling and exploration that I really need when I confront something – it’s part of how I process the world – but I rarely spot it when it’s happening.
Now, I get fairly involved with my characters as I write. There’s an exercise wherein you imagine hanging out with them and try to see your world from their perspective, and and day I found myself taking Indiana Summers, 10-year-old genderfluid wannabe pirate, out for coffee. And I wondered what they’d order, and before I knew it…
Have you ever used a name other than your own – not a nickname or derivative or title, but something completely separate? It sounds alien and hollow as you let it out. It hits you in the gut and sends a burst of adrenaline across your skin.
The power of names is deep, old knowledge. With someone’s name, you can bend them to your will, control them, curse them. Don’t have their real name and they’re safe.
There are less dramatic, real-life applications of this. Contracts become binding with a valid signature. Giving fake names in hotels, or on the internet, or to authorities, offers anonymity, keeps our true selves safe from judgement, persecution, prosecution. There’s something bad about claiming a false name. Something which says, ‘You cannot control me. I have power here.’ Even in a coffee shop where no one knows you, with no one you’ll ever meet again, where, really, no one could care less. Even then.
I’m not the only one thrilled by that idea. Friends have called it ‘brave’, marvelled that I’d ever do such a thing. That perhaps they could do it, too.
But there was something else beneath the thrill of claiming a false name. Something about Indie had felt right. More right than Sarah. Or at least, no more of a lie.
I wasn’t ready to process that. Instead, I wrote. I ordered another coffee. Indie, I discovered, liked his pumpkin spice. And the terror switched to, ‘This is cool’.
Somehow, claiming his name – her name, their name; Indiana Summers switches pronouns – actually speaking it aloud, telling someone I was Indie, felt a little like becoming him. I felt fearless, full of curiosity. And that got me wondering.
In this first incarnation of the book, Indiana Summers did not always like their name, so they would try on others to see what fit. This imagined kid already knew something about the power of names that I did not – not consciously – that your name changes who you are in subtle, massive ways.
I liked the experiment. I liked being Indie. I liked having an excuse to drink more coffee. So I decided that I’d work my way through Indie’s list of names, and by the time I was done I’d have this cool story to tell.
I started to collect them.
Each name felt like a discovery. They felt different. As an author, I should have expected that – my characters either show up with their names already sewn into their skin, or I spend a long time thinking about the kind of name they’d wear, how it would sit on their shoulders, what it says about them, about their world. Names matter.
But it still surprised me that in the simple, cloned act of ordering coffee, each of those names felt different. That I felt different when I used them.
The explicitly male names – Linus, for example – had this delicious thrill about them that I couldn’t have verbalised back then. A rightness. But also more risk.
People struggle to gender me a lot. They get flustered over sirs and ma’ams. They frown.
I like being sir’d. It feels comfortable and right even though I’m not 100% up in ‘man’ territory. I don’t mind the confusion. But ma’am and miss feel like a hot knife slipped into my gut. And Linus?
What if I’m not projecting ‘guy’ quite hard enough to pull it off? Would they question it? Was this even safe?
I was so self conscious that first time, but at the same time I felt straighter-spined and bigger-lunged. No one questioned it. They barely even blinked. No one’s ever questioned me for using a male name. Oddly, they have questioned Sarah. Given me that ‘wait, what?’ look. Once or twice something a whole lot worse. But no one ever questioned Linus.
Wannabe Pirate Indie’s alterego, Sparrow, was everything they wanted to be. And oddly, it was the hardest to collect.
It hurt, somehow, with the same bafflement and indignation as I might have felt if it were really mine.
At the third attempt it struck me that this whole experiment was perhaps illustrative of Indie’s struggle to be seen. To be represented, seen, reflected back in hasty sharpie.
Still it didn’t click. So there I was, collecting Indie’s names at every turn, not a clue that there was something more to it than a cool experiment, just loving every new discovery.
There was Pan, full of all the magic and light and stubborn independence, the history of theatre and childhood that lasts. No question from the barista at all, just a smile of recognition, and I’m handed this…
Sawyer (sort of. Sometimes I’m not sure I’m speaking the same language as anyone else):
I even tried on Fox, still not seeing the glaringly obvious. But that ‘wild side’ felt good.
I went back to Indie a lot, each time I needed to connect with him. It was comfortable. I liked it. And at some point, on the way to or from a bookish convention, I voiced this niggling feeling to a trusted friend. I like Indie…I quite like it for me.
That grew. Well before I was consciously searching for a new name, I was mad at myself for giving the perfect one away.
Time passed, the coffee cups continued, and I grew less and less comfortable with Sarah, with being seen as a woman no matter how I felt or how I presented myself. And eventually, because I was already playing, because I’d been through this with Indie, I made a list.
A long, long list. Like Indie’s, except this one carried so much extra weight. This one was for me.
The how and why of each name on that list is something we should discuss another time. There’s so much in a name: how it sounds and feels – strong or smart or elegant, villainous or froofy – the roots and histories of it, meanings, family ties, cultural ties, trends to buck or follow. And there’s so much pressure there to get it right, to perfectly encapsulate a person in just a few abstract syllables. But I liked my list, a lot, and I planned to try them all out one by one.
I didn’t get that far.
Another friend and I went away, and at her suggestion I took the first three names along to try out and see how they felt.
I thought Samwise/Sam would be the one, but it felt like enchanted armour; bright and shiny and perfectly form fitting for the right guy, but a dulled, gaping, you-will-die-in-battle if it did not like the person wearing it. And it did not like me.
Sparrow was already Indie’s, really. Full of things I love, but never mine.
There’s a strong cultural, literary resonance to Fox, for me. Representations stretching back through medieval texts, folklore, children’s stories, wider media; all different, all somehow relevant to different parts of me. I admire and aspire to their adaptability. They’re handsome and clever, hardy and fierce but just a little soft as well. And I love the way all of that swirls up through the name, how it makes me feel strong and lithe and wild every single time I hear it.
We’re protective of our names because our myth blood warns us of the dangers. And there’s power in withholding them, for sure. But there’s power in finding them – in speaking them – as well. Think of fairy tales where children are whisked away, stripped of their names so they forget who they were and don’t try to run; where the heir to a kingdom is raised unaware until they come of age, until they’re ready to reclaim their name and rightful place within the world; histories full of slaves and enemies stripped of names, identities, autonomy.
Claiming your true name is an act of power. Freedom.
Once I’d found it, Fox became a talisman. A shield. A reminder. I wasn’t out to my family, not everyone I work with knew, and I’d find myself ordering a coffee with my name just to speak it, to see it, hold it for a while after those interactions where nobody knew.
Reclaiming my true self.
Now, everybody knows. I announced it over Twitter, talked to my agent and editors and family, and everyone is using it. There are still books with my old name knocking about, but I’m publishing as Fox from this point on. And it’s legally mine, claimed in a bookstore and witnessed by two wonderful friends, because if you’re going renounce part of your old self in favour of the new, where better to do so than in your natural habitat?
My dad got me this:
And I don’t need those paper cups to tell me who I am.
I didn’t have the words for myself, growing up. I didn’t see myself in anyone.
I have one now. And other people see it too, reflect it back to me. And it is wonderful.
I’m Fox. It’s nice to meet you.
Fox Benwell (formerly known as Sarah Benwell) is a perpetual student of the world, a writer, adventurer and wannabe-knight, who holds degrees in international education and writing for young people, and believes in the power of both to change the world.