What's In A Name
First, it was Bryn, Jr.
Sometimes when she played games with her action figures or her stuffies, chatting away with them or making up adventures (anything from cooking wooden food in her kitchen to outfitting GI Joes with faulty parachutes and pitching them off the deck) we’d ask who she was pretending to be. “I’m Bryn, Jr.!” she’d say. Her dad, who occasionally hungered for validation the way most dads of small children do, felt honored that she wanted to be a mini-Bryn. It never occurred to us to think too deeply about whether or not this meant she was pretending to be a boy. We were thrilled that she didn’t want to be Cinderella.
Around the same time, she started writing stories. She hadn't mastered handwriting yet, so she'd present me with sheets of paper covered in lines of curlicues and then read me the story out loud, improvising as she went along. At the end, she’d hand me a pen and ask me to add a byline with her pseudonym (where did she learn about this concept? An episode of Liberty's Kids? Did I tell her about George Eliot?). The name she chose to write under was Pin Clark.
"Where'd you come up with that?" I asked. "It's very...unique." You weird kid.
She shrugged. "I made it up. I like it."
So Pin Clark it was, and the many curlicue stories she wrote under this nom de plume are still in my night table drawer. Her desire to be called by another name was limited to her games or her literary identity until she was nine. Then, on a trip to Disneyland (the venue of many gender experiments and revelations to come), she got an old fashioned pilot’s cap in one of the shops. Now she wanted to be called Pilot. I did my best. It was easier when she had the cap on, but when I looked at her, I didn’t see Pilot. She couldn’t get any of her friends at school to call her Pilot, either.
“They won’t do it,” she complained. “I keep asking and they don’t.”
“It’s hard,” I said. “They’ve known you by your real name for so long.”
“I understand that. But they’re not even trying.”
“They’re in third grade,” I said. “It’s a big ask.”
“It wouldn’t be for me. If any of them wanted to be called anything else, I’d do it. I’d make the effort.” I knew this was true. Even then, she was determined that people should be who they wanted to be.
“Don’t you like your real name?” I asked. “It’s such a beautiful name, and almost no one else has it. It’s really special.”
I had to admit that I was bothered by the fact that she was starting to reject her name. Bryn and I had pondered countless names before she was born, bought tons of baby name books, made lists of literary and film characters that we liked. None of them felt right, none of them were beautiful and unique, none of them seemed to capture the spirit that we could already feel our baby had. Then one morning, Bryn called me on his drive to work. He had it. As soon as he said it, I knew it was Her Name. It was perfect like few things in my life had ever been. It was a name I could picture on the cover of her National Book Award-winning novel, or being announced at the Nobel Prize for Physics ceremony.
We loved her name, everyone loved her name. Except, apparently, her.
“I do like it,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t like it. I just don't want to be called it.”
Now and then, we’d called her by her first initial, G. This got started when Bryn and I texted each other; it was shorthand for a name that was tricky to type, and as she became less and less connected to her name, we found ourselves using it more often. “G, get your shoes on!” we’d holler, or “Sweet dreams, G!” We thought it was kind of cool, the G. And it worked: It would have been hard to pull off had her name started with any other initial. But we sensed that it wasn’t a long-term solution.
Then, the summer after third grade, came day camp. Since kindergarten, she’d gone to a virtually indescribable summer camp that took kids out to regional parks to engage in adventures that were a variety of elaborate role-playing games, handicrafts and wilderness survival skills. Kids created their own characters, made their own costumes, and for weeks at a time lived in a world where all disbelief was, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., completely suspended by everyone involved. That year, her group leader was a gender-fluid college student named Toby. G. bounded into the car after pick up on the first day and told me that Toby had asked each kid to pick a name for themselves.
“I chose Banana," she announced.
Hmm. Not what I was expecting. “But you don’t even like Bananas,” I said.
“I know. But that’s my name.”
Surprisingly, Banana survived longer than any previous monikers. Kids actually called her Banana. Her fourth grade teachers used Banana in their grade books and on her folders. It was cute, and kind of fun to call for her in public--”Hey, Banana!” Of course, just as I never looked at her and saw Pilot, I never looked at her and saw Banana, but the fruit that she would never choose to eat somehow began to represent her in all of our minds--not because she had any banana-like qualities, but because it was such a bizarre choice that it made some crazy kind of sense. Even her weirdness wasn’t predictable, which was, in a way, comfortingly predictable.
But in the end, Banana was short-lived. Midway through fourth grade, G. fully discovered who he was and began to acknowledge himself as a boy, and a boy needed a real name, his own name, not a bizarre pseudonym, an occupational title, or a fruit. So he got out the baby name books, put his favorites into a bracket system (recently learned in a March Madness project in math class), and used a process of elimination to make his final choice: Muir. Not long after, he told the entire school about his new name, pronoun and bathroom choice, and it was official. Within a week, everyone was calling him Muir.
After we'd all settled into Muir and I thought about Pin Clark and Pilot and Banana, I realized that all of his past choices of name had been gender neutral, that he had just been trying on the idea of changing his identity without having to decide to be either male or female. But now, at the age of ten, he knew who he was--and he was ready to name himself.