“Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.”– Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
Language is powerful to a transgender person. It’s powerful to everyone but to transgender people language is the tool that forges both their chains and their wings. Language touches every part of the transgender experience: forms, documents, letters, the way a server addresses you, and even your identity.
I think cisgender people don’t see language the way that transgender people do, by and large. I hear cisgender folks frequently complaining about all these new words they’ve got to learn with the sort of passive frustration that a person might express about it having rained for 3 days. I think for most cisgender people language is something that happens and they just kinda go with the flow… most of the time. But when there’s a big change or a lot of new language they feel very frustrated by that. Or so it seems.
But for a transgender person language has weight and texture. We feel it so acutely because the ideas that hurt us so are often given life in the form of words. The most powerful word is a person’s name. For a lot of — maybe most — transgender people, names are the most important thing in the world.
Words are the paths that lead us to ideas and thoughts. My deadname is not who I was, but that deadname was bundled up with ideas about who I should be, rules about who I could be, and assumptions about who I would be. It was attached to words like “man” and “masculine.” It came bundled with privileges. It harkened back to the Bible. Where some people would have looked at that name and seen a paradise, I saw a carnival of tortures and suffering. I wanted nothing to do with any of the assumptions that name came attached with. I wanted no part of the story that name told about me.
And it’s intimidating to see where that path leads and to stop, look around, and realize you have no idea where else to go. You have to make your own way. That’s what naming yourself feels like. It’s doubly terrifying to look around and see most people around you walking comfortably down their paths and for you to turn and head in a different direction against the traffic.
To name yourself is the perhaps one of the greatest acts of liberation that a trans person can perform. The freedom doesn’t come from my selection, the freedom comes from deciding in the first place. And that choice looks different for every person. Some people choose names for their ease, some people choose names for their beauty, some people choose names for others’ sakes (like taking a family name), some people choose names with deep history, some people choose names that tell stories, some people choose names that delight their heart.
I can’t speak for all of those people and the paths they’re walking. But at least a few times a week people ask me how I chose my name. How did I come to be Evey Nadia Winters?
This really isn’t me talking about how I decided to be trans or anything like that. This is about how I chose this name, this path, to walk down. Because I intend to live as Evey Winters and I intend to die as Evey Winters.
The one thing that had been missing from my life from day one was control. I didn’t have control over much about me or my body and nothing really felt stable. I was given a name and a cast into a body that fit me like a necklace of barbed wire. For a long time I tried to live in them to make others happy — or to avoid them being mad at me more specifically.
In therapy, when we started talking about names at first I tried to do what other trans folks often do and play off of my name. Daniel becomes Danielle, something like that. My deadname wasn’t conducive to any of that so I tried nearby sounding words and then just more conventional names like Sarah, April, Emily, Amber, Jade, Jasmine, and Adelaide on for a while. Some of them were very nice and I liked how they sounded but none of them were right. As I was working through these names we started talking about not just who I needed to be, but picking a name that honored me and my story and gave me hope. I needed hope. (Hope was also on my list of potential names.)
And there was a lot in my story that I don’t think I care to air out in such a public forum but… I’m a survivor. I’ve survived some things that honestly might have been too insane to write in fiction. I have trauma. And I didn’t want to take a name that was an escape from that. I wanted a name that would honor that I survived — not try to forget that I needed to.
It’s funny. I think when we’re naming ourselves we almost miss the comfort of all the restrictions the world puts on us. Most people don’t have to do this, and so we do a lot of looking for guidance in places like baby name histories or that kind of thing. I did that for a while too. But I was already breaking with convention — there’s not much more against the tide you can be than being trans — why would I pick a conventional name?
So then for weeks I was looking where you might expect someone with an English degree to go digging for names. I went looking to powerful women in plays and song, artists, characters in fiction, really anywhere I could go to look for stories that I felt were right for me.
And so I had this epiphany that the name of one of my favorite characters, Evey Hammond from V for Vendetta, was perfect for me. Everything about her story from the society she lived in to the things she lived through spoke to me. I admired the way she grew from the ashes of what had been done to her. I’ve always resonated with her as a character and now I could really make that official. I almost didn’t take this name, my therapist had to convince me it was ok. I think it held a place to almost too much respect in my life for me to consider myself worthy of it.
Once I found Evey, finding Winters was easier. My last name also comes from fiction, Lana Winters of AHS, who was an LGBTQ character who endured some objectively horrifying stuff and wound up stronger for that. She was a tortured person but also a tireless fighter. That really spoke to me as well.
You put them together and you get the name Evey Winters and when I tried it on I just knew in my heart it was right. It fit me perfectly when I spoke it into the mirror.
So now I knew the name I wanted to wear right? But what about the rest? This is the part we don’t talk about often. People always ask how I found my name but they never ask how I’ve grown into it or what I did with the discarded remnants of my old one. When you have a new name you’re ready to grow into, your old name starts to feel different. You can truly feel the weight of all the burdens it brought with it. When you’re growing into your new identity you can truly feel how much the old one squeezed you.
My deadname was beautiful and strong, it was like a sarcophagus made from marble, a giant slab of stone I needed to carve myself from. And every day for the last year I have been chipping bit by bit to shed the weight of that name on me. I am carving Evey Winters from the marble of all those expectations, rules, privileges, assumptions, and requisites. And I think there’s beauty in that process. Every day I make decisions about who Evey Winters is and it’s so very rare that those decisions are the same ones that [deadname] would have made. Every time I make a decision like that I can feel myself chipping out a little more Evey Winters from the marble I was given.
I chipped away ideas about my future: who I’d marry and who I’d be. I chipped away how folks automatically assumed I knew what I was talking about. I chipped away the invisibility that made it so nobody saw me or looked at my body. I chipped away the the expectations that I’d be powerful and domineering. I chipped away the rules about what clothes I could put on my body. I chipped away the hopes that I might have an easy, or casual, life. Every day I chip away a little bit more of that to reveal a lot more of me. I wouldn’t trade that work for the world because I love the act of finding and creating myself.
Every trans person does this and I think it’s the most amazing thing to watch day by day as other human beings, and myself, shape themselves this way. Sometimes I think the best metaphor for a trans person is the phoenix. Every single one of us has been reborn from the discarded bits of all the hopes people put on us that didn’t belong to us, the stories about the people we should be, and the stories we told ourselves about who we were supposed to be. Every trans person has cast that aside and made themselves into something new.
And so much of that, all of that really, is solidified in the names we give ourselves. Trans people, I think, want to soar and to be free.
That’s why it feels so abusive and hurtful when people refuse us the dignities of our names. When other people take the marble we’ve shed and try to put it back on us. When they try to burn us back down so they can reshape us according to their designs for us. It is hurtful to hear my deadname. It’s not just a word. It’s not some casual thing to me. It holds a place of almost religious horror in my life. When a person says my deadname to me what I feel is that they’ve looked at me rising from that marble and resolved that they should shackle me to it.
If that feels like a real tone shift from all the talk of beauty talk of self creation and the wonders of liberation that I, and so many other trans people like me, have found in ourselves… it’s because it is. Because it’s brutal, sudden, and sharp when people try to shackle us to something we weren’t, and it’s almost worse when they do it casually as though it were nothing. Yes, it probably was “just an accident” that you used my deadname, but that doesn’t make it weigh less to me — it does show me how little it means to you.
If you’ve always felt comfort with your name I can understand you when you find it difficult to believe how much that deadname hurts me. This is where our different relationships with language come into play. Pronouns, and names, and titles, and little gender markers on forms are basically invisible to you but they are painful to us — especially when we’re forced to tick options that don’t align with us.
You don’t have to understand to give your compassion or to see my experience with language as legitimate. And when we are all more aware of our language the world is better anyway, so there’s no reason not to use this as an opportunity to learn to communicate with awareness and compassion for others.
For transgender folks… Keep chipping yourself from the marble. Be proud of who you are and be proud of who you choose to be. You are stunning. You are art. You are miracles of self determination and personal liberation. Each and every one of you is a beautiful revolution and your names are songs of victory. Don’t forget that, even on the heavy days.