Category Archives: Identity

Who are you talking to? Contemplations a year and a half after my legal name change.

Kyle. Kyle?? Who were they talking to? I wasn’t sure. At first it was like being in a dream. For Kyle was no longer me. Coming to awareness, I realized that I no longer recognized my given name on cue.

Changing one’s name, as anyone who has done it knows, is a deeply thoughtful process, often spurred by a myriad of complex reasons. For me, I changed my entire name—first, middle, and last. This brazen process took about three years and some experimentation of trial and error, much to the confusion and irritation of certain friends and family members. For it is a big deal to change one’s given name even ONCE, but when it turns into an art project—because I simply had to find the RIGHT name—one can earn the doubts of unenlightened acquaintances as to whether you might be [insert whisper behind the hand here]: crazy. No. I most definitely am not – crazy.  Much. For aren’t we all, a little … crazy after all?

There were many reasons I thumbed my nose at convention and waded into this mysterious process of name changing. I say waded, because I was timid at first. This may be why it took me three tries to find the right name. I didn’t quite dare go for broke. I tried a slight change first, then a bolder one, and finally the name I made legal, that I love: Amabel Kylee Siorghlas.

This process was not without pain. Despite efforts to communicate openly and to be considerate in the process, I lost friends. I lost a family member. They rejected me. The real me. The artistic me. The spiritually grown-up me. And I discovered one must be both fierce and kind to walk the path of one’s compassionate truth.

The first inspiration to change my name came as woman in healing of my feminine self from different circumstances over the course of my life of abuse, both subtle and blatant: in the different cases being sexual, emotional, and physical. Yet, this choice to change my name was not an act of rebellion really. It was, rather, a profound reclaiming of my own authentic power. It was not a rebuke of the perpetrators, but a redefinition of myself. It was about ME.

There was more. What goes along with healing is often profound personal growth. And thus, I strongly felt the impulse to change my name to denote a significant rite of passage.

With personal growth has come a process of awakening—a renewed, fervent interest in spirituality, in science, in philosophy, in spending as much time as possible outside just observing nature. I can’t learn enough, fast enough. It’s a hunger. Interestingly, this shift circles back to the hunger I had as a child for peace, for knowledge, for understanding the deeper existential questions—before life steered me off to who I thought I should be and what I thought I should do. In healing, now I can honor who I feel I am and how I am drawn to spend my free time.

The inspirations that drew me down this “path less taken” still surface and clarify daily, weekly. I can’t capture them all in a blog. Or even in my 24-page story about changing my name. I don’t expect everyone to understand. Not when I am still making sense of the inspiration myself.

One thing I hadn’t expected is to encounter SO many souls who have walked or wish to walk a similar path. At least weekly, I meet people who have changed their names, or want to change their names. So many reasons. So many stories. So little time. But so important—stories shared so that those who might judge and invalidate us might get a glimmer of understanding.

One thing I hadn’t expected is for close friends or family to simply reject and refuse to acknowledge my wishes and my new legal name. They simply call me Kyle still. As if I am frozen in time, like dinosaur bones in a glacier.

Just this morning I had a conversation with my neighbor up the road. I have talked about my name change with her. She has my new name written down. Yet this morning I was Kyle. It took me a minute. Who? Oh, yeah. Her. I cut my neighbor some slack though. She is older and a peripheral acquaintance.

This summer I had visitors. They spent the whole three days calling me Kyle. They wouldn’t even at least try “Kylee” (my new middle name, a combo of my given name and middle name – Kyle & Lee). And they know my whole story, all the reasons. It was sort of infuriating. I communicated with them for the entire visit as if under water. Who were they talking to? Kyle was looking back to the hazy past of the person I used to be: submissive, overly eager to please, taking mean behavior by withdrawing/hiding, or acting overly nice and helpful in trying to smooth it all over. That WAS me. I forgive myself for it all—these were old coping patterns, set up as a child, when I had no other recourse.

But I do have a better way now. And a new name. My name marks empowerment. My name marks awakening. My name marks fierce kindness. My name speaks a NO to abuse of any kind. It speaks a NO to so many abuses carried out, as we speak, to individuals, to animals, to ecosystems, to systems of social injustice.

My name marks a YES to new visioning and to positive empowerment.

What Should They Call You?

by Elizabeth Matthews

Call me a Lucy Stoner, after the equal rights activist who kept her maiden name in 1855. When I became engaged twelve years ago, I knew two things for sure: I would not wear a veil and I would not change my name. As Claire Cain Miller and Derek Willis reported in a recent New York Times article, we Lucy Stoners are in the minority:  “Roughly 20 percent of women married in recent years have kept their names.” I was prepared for – and have encountered – much opposition for this latter choice. What has caught me off guard is the discomfort I’m faced with when fellow parents cannot figure out what to tell their children to call me.

Call me sentimental. My Armenian paternal grandfather, Lee, changed his last name from Kougasian to Matthews during a brief and ill-fated run at acting before becoming a decorated First Lieutenant during World War II. One may question why I refuse to let go of this name that does not even accurately reflect half of my heritage. But, for me, that story becomes diluted when we substitute one name for another based on my sex.

Call me a stickler. “I’m sorry. It’s confusing,” a close friend recently complained. “Are you Mrs. Severud? Mrs. Matthews? What should my kids call you?”

Though I want to answer with, “Liz. Call me Liz,” I understand that many adults feel that a lack of respect is connected to using first names. I answer, “Ms. Matthews.”

“Okay, Mrs. Mathews?”

“No, Ms. Ms. Matthews,” I enunciate the “zzzz” sound to make my point.

“Okay Miss Matthews.”

Call me a thinker. My eight-year-old daughter has never questioned the fact that I have a different last name. My five-year-old son, on the other hand, often calls me “Liz Matthews,” rather than “mom” – as if calling me out for this decision. Although he is too young to understand how this moniker could potentially be read, there is no questioning that my decision unnerves him on some level. And sometimes I wonder if these opposite reactions reflect personalities or some anachronistic gender norms.

Call me a provoker. I recently asked my daughter, “How do you feel about the fact that I have a different last name?”

She did not look up while she colored at the kitchen counter, “I don’t know. It’s kind of like you’re not part of the family.”

I took a deep breath. These are the words that a lot of women fear. I’m grateful I waited until she was old enough to begin this conversation, and that’s what I did. I began to explain my decision. She didn’t respond. She kept coloring.

Call me a historian. During my senior year of college, I began craving a stronger connection with the community I had lived in for nearly four years. I became a volunteer at the Women’s Rape Crisis Center – focusing mostly on outreach and education. During my training, I learned that violence against women exists on a spectrum. If abuse and assault are on one end, language is on the other. Attitudes towards women are slowly eroded when people use disparaging language that objectifies women or glorifies men who abuse them. “Wife-beater,” for example – a term so ubiquitous, it makes me cringe each time I hear it. I see my decision of not changing my name falling along this same spectrum.  

Call me a teacher. Fifteen years ago, I taught middle and high school in Brooklyn, and at least one-third of my students’ mothers kept their names. When I asked some of these students how they felt about this, many of them were confused. Their responses were mostly unanimous and impressive.

“I guess I’ve never thought about it.”

“My mom is really independent.”

“It doesn’t bother me at all.”

“I like it.”

“My mom is very successful, so why would she change her name?”

For a creative writing assignment, one of these students wrote a poem about walking to the bus with his mom each morning. This was their time together, he explained, to talk, to catch up, without the other siblings around. His mother was a very busy casting agent, and it was clear that he relished this time alone time with her. No mention of names. No mention of feeling distant from his mother – the woman who birthed him – for having a different last name.

Call me a nasty woman. Armed with this knowledge, I became more confident with my decision, but this doesn’t stop me from being somewhat disappointed with my generation. I personally know very few people who have decided to keep their name. Now, as we witness the perforation of the ultimate glass ceiling, I hope that it will become harder to justify why a woman would not keep her name. Lucy Stone did it over one hundred sixty years ago – nearly sixty years before the 19th amendment was passed. At this moment in time, things feel more charged.

Call me Ms., please. And while I have your attention, do you mind if my children call you Ms. rather than Mrs.?

 

What Shall We Name This Year?

Shall we name it the year of

… acrobatic swan dives into bliss?

… slime mold oozing in its miraculous way?

… coriander cakes?

… deep breaths?

… articulating the language of ancient trees?

… love over licentious lyres?

… a bread basket big enough?

… rattling cages and tearing down walls?

… the birds and the bees and the bears?

… dancing, just because?

… the circus packing up and leaving town?

… embracing bravery like an adolescent crush?

… remembering that whales have beautiful songs?

… yellow roses?

… linked hands?

… grounding?

 

old tree

Photo by Amabel Síorghlas

 

X Is How I Sign My Name

Contributed by Dr. S. Cooper

In my early teens, at school, we were signing documents for particular events and official reasons. Not only was my teacher on my case about my ever changing writing patterns and style, but it struck me that signing my name SUSIE was dull. The more I thought about it, the more becoming an adult, all those responsibilities, and the signing of my name became real and grew in importance. Susie was ordinary. There were two more SUSIEs in my class, a SUE and a SUSAN and I could not relate to them. The search was on to find another way, a more exciting method of signing my name, of getting it down on paper and being memorable.

The written letters presented nothing of any visual delight, whereas the spoken SUSIE was hissing, oozy, raising the voice tone up at the end. My name was an oral sensual delight, the written version of it deflating.

In the late 1970s and ’80s in the UK, there was this popular punk band SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES. What a great spelling of my name. Later, when reading radical feminist literature I was also introduced to the reclaiming of the word BANSHEE, which added to the intrigue and history of that name and music band. In particular, the “X” in the SIOUXSIE configuration was a visual and design possibility that excited me and caught my eye.

Not telling my parents of my plan to change the spelling of my name added to the excitement. It was like an act of high treason. At school we were reading about the kings and queens of England, looking at how their signatures brought to life their worldly actions and presence. I wanted to be more present in this world. Queen Elizabeth I’s signature was an outstanding example, so with a flat-headed calligraphy pen I started to write out SIOUXSIE carefully, in a considered as well as illegal act of rebellion: x-rated acted of resistance – my classmates thought it was cool.

To this day, I have comments from official bodies, banks, companies, friends and lovers who state “what an unusual spelling,” or “what a lovely name.” The one I find particularly amusing is “were your parents hippies!” My mother still, 30 years on, struggles with the spelling. The best way to remember is SIOUX as in the SIOUX tribe and then SIE. When a telemarketing campaign calls, I always know because their pronunciation of my name is illegible like “SOOGIE” or “XUXXIEE” – easy to identify and put down the phone on them.

It turns out that the original singer, who is in the process of revamping her career, found out out about me and bought up all the webpage configurations you can think of with the name SIOUXSIE. She even blogged about the famous BELLYDANCER with her name. I did make a name for myself as a dance artist, PhD researcher, and teacher in the UK. The name, quite rightly, is distinctive and it helped with my performing career.

Sometimes I wondered if I should relent and return to SUSIE. Especially during the moments in my life when being not so identifiable was a good plan. Escaping a particularly violent and abusive relationship was one incident when going into the beige of society could helped. However, the bubbles of rebellion grow and I have even contemplated a spelling of XUZU. I met a woman whose online avatar is a SUSIE and she gave me over 25 spellings she used. Another funny occurrence was when a SIOUX Indian moved into our shared house and noted my name with a notice on the board saying, “Oh good there’s another SIOUX living here: It will feel like home.” We did meet, we laughed and he said to me he couldn’t think of a better person to have OUR NATION’S name: I felt honored.

SIOUXSIE is also very official; I changed my name by deed pole in 2016, and now it is the name and the spot I sign on official documents. The irony and hilarity of that defiant act never ceases to amuse me.

Nickname: the Dubious Gift that Lasts

“Hey Cushytail!” A little girl with thick brown hair and freckles hollers this across the playground.

“Mongreloid!!” I yell back, tugging at the waist of my bellbottoms, pulling them up so I won’t trip as I run.

Enemies about to start a fight? A case of bullying? Nope. We are best friends in elementary school. Cushytail is her nickname for me—my given last name was Cushman. Mongreloid is my nickname for her—her last name was Morrill. We run towards each other, laughing hysterically, then skip off to the teeter-totters together.

Until recently, I always thought of this ritual, these nicknames, as the innocent, silly wordplay of little girls, a goofy morphing of our names to signify that we were best, best buddies.

When I grew up to become a teacher, of course I always discouraged bullying and the calling of names. But I never spent a lot of time deeply thinking about how kids name each other or about these particular nicknames of my own childhood, until I chose to rename myself. At 55 years old, in the midst of a midlife rite of passage where I was growing and changing on many levels, I chose a new name for myself: first, middle, and last.

The choosing of my own name now has me paying attention to the subtleties of naming. It’s got me thinking about the power of names to shape us, as well as the power we have to shape others through the connotations of seemingly innocent signifiers.

I don’t remember when my friend and I started those two nicknames. The calling out of them never felt hurtful; we always found them incredibly funny. In fact, even as adults, she and I can sometimes break them out for a good chuckle, harking back to our childhood camaraderie.

But in looking at these two signs, really, Cushytail connotes either a big fat butt, which I have never actually had, or some sort of hairy animal appendage. Not all that flattering! Did this work on me unconsciously I wonder?

And Mongreloid! Where the heck did I get that? A mongrel is a mixed breed dog, a mutt … usually a vision of bones and mange, licking an empty tin can. It’s an outdated, inappropriate term for a mixed breed person, but I doubt that is what I meant as we didn’t have many of those in the sixties in my tiny white bread New England town. And then there is the not-so-subtle hint of “mongoloid” in there—a dated reference to a person with Down’s Syndrome, or (and I doubt I knew this at the time) a division of Asian or Arctic indigenous peoples. The connotations were not very kind. The word was insensitive to persons with disabilities and to people of another race. I’d created an equally terrible nickname for my best friend.

I’m not sure the adults in our lives ever heard the two of us say these names to each other. If they had, I am not sure they would have thought much of it, and maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe not. But it’s certainly food for thought.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I argue that this old adage is a colossal lie. This line is handed out to kids as a way to “protect” from nicknames. But repeating this line in the face of a taunt or even a well-meant endearment likely does nothing to deflate what actually goes on internally—emotionally, unconsciously.

When we are named, when we hear ourselves called a word or phrase, our brain automatically takes in the words and processes meaning—denotations and connotations—and then associates meaning with the self. If we are resilient, we might be able shrug this off. With higher self-esteem, we may be able to minimize the damage of a negative suggestion in a nickname. But if a child has low self-esteem, is repeatedly bullied with a nickname, or if a person with authority, such as a parent, older sibling, coach, or teacher, dishes out a nickname, that name’s underlying meaning can settle into the psyche and work on that person for years.

Children and adults alike are frequently renamed via nicknames for any number of reasons: shortening a name that is too hard to say, a term of endearment, to capture a physical or personality trait, to tease, to highlight a talent or skill, to remind of a foolish mistake made … the list goes on, and not all the reasons are bad. We like to think that the spirit in which a nickname comes about can mean that it is not damaging: it’s just in fun. Or, it means I love you. But do we really think about the words themselves? About the power of words to signify a range of associations? I would say, based on my experience with my friend, that many of us don’t. Maybe we should.

 

 

 

 

New Name

by Amabel Kylee Síorghlas

This pulling apart at the elemental level. Terrifyingly beautiful. I can be, now, a nebula, an interstellar cloud of dust, a veil swirling in random patterns against the backdrop of deep space. I can be a supernova, or as invisible as dark matter. It’s my choice. My middle name may be Kylee, or is it Aurora? Someday I will become particles of solar flares. Parts of me will float past Earth in vivid pinks and fluorescent greens. Síorghlasevergreen. Below, some children have flopped on a plaid blanket in a hayfield in summertime under the huge black cape of night sky. As I dance over them, they laugh because they are happy to be up way past bedtime.

Everything According to the Rules

Elena Greco, (or Lenu, as Lila calls her,) of Neapolitan Novels, describes her recently wed best friend – formerly Raffaella Cerullo, nicknamed Lila – while the two of them are artistically disfiguring a giant portrait of Lila, tearing off parts of the image and covering swaths with paint or collaged bits of paper until only her eye remains:
 
While we worked, she began to talk about when she had first begun to realize that she was now Signora Caracci… In the beginning, that “Caracci” had been no more than an exercise in logical analysis. What was it, an indirect object of place? Did it mean that she now lived not with her parents but with Stefano? Did it mean that the new house where she was going to live would have on the door a brass plate that said “Caracci?” Did it mean that if I were to write to her I would no longer address the letter to Raffaella Cerullo but to Raffaella Caracci, and that she herself would define herself, and sign, only as Raffaella Caracci, and that her children would have to make an effort to remember their mother’s surname, and that her grandchildren would be completely ignorant of their grandmother’s surname?
 
Yes. A custom. Everything according to the rules, then.
 
…She had been increasingly oppressed by an unbearable sensation, a force pushing down harder and harder, crushing her. That impression had been getting stronger, had prevailed. Raffaella Cerullo, overpowered, had lost her shape and had dissolved inside the outlines of Stefano, becoming a subsidiary emanation of him: Signora Caracci.