Featured in Colorado Review
Blank SlateFeatured, Nonfiction
Published Spring 2013
Four years before I changed my name to Silas, when I was twenty, I briefly dated a girl who was deaf. When we were together, I still identified as a lesbian—a butch lesbian. I was a feminist, a women’s studies major, a frequent attendee at Ani DiFranco concerts. I was also firmly in denial about my gender identity. I was still pretending I was comfortable living as a woman, still proclaiming my pride in my body, in my female identity.
We went out for only a few weeks, and we were never serious, but she grew tired of fingerspelling my name pretty quickly—I did, too—so she gave me a name sign to streamline the process. A hearing person can’t pick her own name—someone who is deaf has to give her one. The person who names you usually picks up on some characteristic about you and bases your name sign on it. Laughing a lot might result in your name sign containing the sign for “giggle”; being an artist might mean it will be somehow related to the sign for “paintbrush.”
We were sitting next to each other on the couch in her dorm room, watching a movie with the subtitles on, when she made the letter L with her right hand, for Lindsay, and brought it to her face, running her thumb down the side, from her temple to her chin—the sign for “girl.”
And even then, when I smiled and brought my fingertips to my lips and then moved my hand out, toward her—“thank you”—it felt wrong, like in the summer when my brown hair lightens in the sun and people tell me I’m blond, or the time I went to the doctor and she told me I was a full inch-and-a-half shorter than I’ve always believed. I don’t care that there is evidence to the contrary: my hair color when I look in the mirror, the numbers on the measuring stick, the F on my driver’s license, my birth certificate. I know, deep down, who I am: I have brown hair. I am five feet, ten inches tall. I am not a girl.
Once, during my first year of graduate school, when I was twenty-three, I was having lunch with my friend Nicole. I don’t remember the initial topic of conversation, but somehow it shifted to names, and, more specifically, to what our parents almost named us. I told her about my dad’s plan to name me Erin Karen—or Scott Timothy if I’d been born a boy. Nicole said that her parents had considered Madeline. “Can you imagine how cool it would be if I’d been a Maddy?” she said.
I knew what she meant. I have always disliked my birth name—Lindsay Rebecca. I disliked it even in preschool, long before I understood why it didn’t feel like it fit. In elementary school I would wish my name were something different, something more interesting. I imagine a lot of kids feel that way, especially those of us with too-common names. There were too many Lindsays in the eighties and nineties, just as there were too many Jessicas and Sarahs. But by the time Nicole and I talked, the feeling had only gotten worse for me: over the past two years, I had started to question my gender identity, and though I hadn’t yet admitted what I feared—that I might be transgender—I still hated telling people my name. I wished it were something more androgynous, like Alex, so it wouldn’t give me away so easily, so it didn’t sound quite so feminine. I wished it were something that felt like it belonged to me.
But Nicole and I had been friends for only a couple of months, were still getting to know each other, and I felt weird steering the conversation in a direction she hadn’t intended, so I didn’t say this. Instead, I made a joke: “Well, when I write my memoir someday and you’re a character in it, I’ll call you Maddy to protect your identity. Deal?”
She sighed. She looked dejected. “I didn’t live the life of a Maddy, though. I’ve lived the life of a Nicole.”
I brought this conversation up about a year later, not long after I’d started calling myself Silas, but she didn’t remember it. But why would she? For Nicole, the subject is one she can afford to have a casual interest in—the wish that her name had been something other than what it is, but no drive to actually change it. But months, almost a year later, I was still thinking about what it means to live the life of a certain name. How would my life be different if my mom hadn’t vetoed Erin Karen because of the near rhyme? Who would Erin Karen have been? What would her childhood have been like? What if there hadn’t been some prenatal mistake, some sort of cosmic event—I don’t know what caused the incongruence between mind and body—and I had been born a boy and called Scott? Would I still be here, the person I am now, or would my male body, and the name I carried, have taken me in a completely different direction?
And then I wonder: Have I lived the life of a Lindsay? Or did I live the life of a Silas for twenty-four years without even knowing?
The September after I turned twenty-four, four months after I asked my friends to start calling me Silas, I told my family that I am transgender. It was a shock to them, though my mom insists it wasn’t that much of a shock—I had been embracing my masculine side for years already. They simply thought I was a lesbian, even though I had never confirmed nor denied my family’s assumptions. At first, when I was twenty and just admitting to myself that I liked girls, and that I might be different, I was afraid to tell them. Still, as my hair got shorter, eventually finding its way into a fauxhawk, as my fashion choices slowly became more masculine, as more and more of my social life revolved around friends who were gay and organizations like my school’s gay/straight alliance, my parents realized something was going on. By the time they started to ask questions, I had started to realize that being a butch lesbian wasn’t the life I was meant to live, and I didn’t know how to tell them that, although I did date women, I wasn’t gay.
Although my family’s reaction was positive—my parents told me they loved me no matter what, and my grandmother said, “I don’t care. Why would I care?” and changed the subject to tell me about the ongoing saga of her kitchen remodel—things weren’t easy for them, or for me. Part of me thought that, in telling them, a weight would be lifted—and it was, but then it was replaced with the burden of relearning our family dynamics, how we’re supposed to interact with each other. For months after I told them, I had to remind myself when I talked to them that the boundaries were different, that I could let my guard down a little and let them see the real me. Although none of them have told me this, I’m sure they sometimes felt—perhaps still feel—the same way.
My mom and my grandmother started calling me Silas just before I went to visit for the holidays a couple of months later, but my dad and my brother took longer to get used to the change. Because I hadn’t started hormones yet, and because I’d had short hair and worn men’s clothing for a few years already, the name change was, for them, the biggest difference. It was the only one they could see. And they hated it.
It was jarring when they used my old name. I startled every time they said it—and they did frequently that Thanksgiving and Christmas, and a little less often in the months that followed. I don’t think they even meant to, necessarily—it was just a habit they hadn’t broken yet, but also probably a habit they weren’t all that interested in fighting.
I was a little angry with them for not calling me Silas, for insisting on calling me Lindsay—a name I rarely heard anymore in my everyday life. I had already told my friends and had been living full-time as Silas for four months by the time I told my family. Everyone I saw on a daily basis had already made the transition, and it was difficult, when I was visiting, to be patient.
I would have been more likely to understand if Lindsay meant something special, but it doesn’t. It’s not a family name, and it means “from the lake settlement island”—which I’m not. It’s not even as if my parents picked it because it would connote hope, or courage, or brilliance. Lindsay just happened to be popular the year I was born. It was, in fact, the forty-ninth most popular girls’ name, which means that 6,530 American girls born in 1987 were named Lindsay. Two were in my class from kindergarten to twelfth grade. My parents simply heard it somewhere—they don’t remember where exactly—and decided they liked it, and that it sounded good alongside my brother’s name, Michael.
And yet, they picked it. They gave it to me. They thought long and hard about what would sound good with our last name, about what name they could picture themselves yelling across a crowded playground. The very fact that they called their only daughter that for twenty-four years makes it mean something, to them at least. And I gave it up. I threw it away.
I get it. I understand why it’s so hard, because—for a while—it was hard for me, too.
The first person to call me Silas out loud, after I e-mailed my friends asking them to do so, was my friend Meg. I almost cried, but not from happiness. We were sitting at my friend Heather’s dining room table, and my friends were all painting their nails and I was sitting there, drinking a margarita and trying to concentrate on the conversation and not think about the e-mail. They had all sent me texts or e-mails in response, telling me I had their support, but it had been only twelve hours and no one had said anything in person yet. Everyone was acting like everything was normal.
“Silas,” Meg said, “can you pass me the Kleenex?”
I don’t know if the others heard her or, if they did hear, if it was weird for them, too, but I suddenly couldn’t breathe. It felt so weird, so not normal, to be called Silas instead of Lindsay. I immediately regretted my decision. What if this meant I was wrong about being transgender and I never should have asked people to call me something else? What if I was right, but had chosen the wrong name? Was it too late to send another e-mail, begging everyone to call me Andrew, or Charlie, or Sam? I hadn’t expected it to be so hard—not for me at least, since I had wanted a new name—a male name—for so long, and since Silas felt so perfect in theory.
That was the beginning of June, at the end of my first year of graduate school, but by the time I went to visit my family for the Fourth of July, I had gotten used to hearing it, and it felt different—better—than being called Lindsay ever had, even before I started to wonder about my gender identity. Suddenly I had a hard time remembering to answer when my parents (whom I still didn’t know how to tell) called me Lindsay.
Although I didn’t feel connected to my birth name, I was attached to my nicknames: Linds, which my closest friends used to call me, their voices full of kindness and sometimes—when I was stressing out over something insignificant—loving exasperation. Lin, which my brother used to say in a short burst of familiarity when he was in a good mood, like it’s five syllables long when we were arguing. A.Y., which always differentiated me from E.Y., Lindsey, my best friend in college.
I was even attached to Binz—the nickname my parents called me since they brought me home from the hospital. I used to hate it, begged my parents not to call me that in public; not to say it in front of my friends because they’d all laugh and call me that for days until they got bored; not to call me that anymore, at all, ever again. And yet, in the months between when my friends started calling me Silas and before my family knew Silas even existed, I used to call home sometimes just to hear my mom say it, just to bask in that familiarity, in that sense of normal. As hard as it was to hear her call me Lindsay all the time, over and over in the course of a single conversation, sometimes it felt good to hear her say it in her voice, to hold onto that and remember my past.
I’ve always been interested in names. A few years ago, my grandma wanted help finding some of our family history using the Internet. I was fascinated by what I found and ended up spending the entire summer researching our family tree. But nothing I found—not Ralph Waldo Emerson’s place on one of the branches, not ancestors who came over on the Mayflower—was as interesting to me as the names of my great-grandmother and the other four Emerson sisters: Hazel Ruth, Grace Pearl, Gladys Rose, Maude Daisy, and—my personal favorite—Myrtle Fern.
After my grandmother’s questions were answered, I continued to research my ancestors because I wanted to know more about my dad’s family, which I have never understood, and in which I have never felt like I really belonged. Since my paternal grandmother died when I was eight, we’ve seen that side of the family only once a year, at most, even though all of them still live in the same small town. I have only one cousin’s number stored in my phone, and I haven’t so much as sent Tiffany a “Merry Christmas” text message in at least two years. Still, my only living male relatives are on my dad’s side, and that was the summer when I finally started asking myself the right questions about gender. I felt like I needed to know these men, to find out where I fit, and where I came from. My grandfather Otto, who came to the United States from Denmark, died in 1964, when my dad was three, and I can’t navigate any of the Danish records, leaving me with nothing but questions. All I have are a handful of names: Otto, Erik, Knute—names that repeat in my father’s family, though not for my brother and me.
I remember when I was little, when I’d hear my aunt call my cousin by his full name—Otto Knute Hansen, after our grandfather and great-grandfather—and how jealous I was of how exotic yet familial it sounded. I wanted a name like his, one that signified who I was, where I had come from. One that tied me, I have come to realize, to those men.
Researching names became a hobby of mine in college. I like to find out the meanings of names and when they were popular. I like to find new names—ones I’ve never heard before. Sometimes I’ll go on baby-name websites and start judging people on what they name their kids, or offer suggestions on what middle names sound good with the first name they’ve picked, or what spelling they should choose—Lukas or Lucas, Zachary or Zackary. When friends tell me they’re pregnant, I’m the first person to suggest names. When they have their kids and announce what they’ve picked, I secretly grade them: A for Eliza, B+ for Daniel, F for Pheonix spelled e-o instead of o-e.
I’ve been told that I have very traditional taste in names—too traditional is what’s implied. I once got into an argument with someone on one of those baby-name websites because I said I hated it when people name their daughters traditionally male names, like James or Elliot or Eli. Gender-neutral names are different, I said, maybe even preferable in some cases (like in mine), but why make a child’s life more difficult than it has to be? She argued that gendering names is pointless, that they always change over time anyway—that Lindsay, Stacy, Meredith, used to be male names, that a girl with a boy’s name might be discriminated against less because people will assume she’s male when they simply see the name in writing. “Besides,” she said, “the names sound strong.” The implication, of course, is that masculinity means strength, and femininity does not.
To say that a name has to sound male to sound strong is sexist, I argued. Wrong. Misogynistic. Who’s to say that a Victoria can’t be just as strong as an Elliot? Maybe even stronger? What’s wrong with finding strength in femininity?
But the moment I asked this question, and looked back at the list of male names I’d been making in Microsoft Word, ones I was considering for myself, my reason for being in this name forum in the first place, I felt like a hypocrite.
When I first started talking to my friends about being transgender, I told them I was thinking about a name for myself—a new name, a boy’s name—and people told me, “But Lindsay is a boy’s name. Or it can be, anyway.” They suggested I keep it, or at least change it to something similar. Or something with the same nicknames. Or keep it as a middle name.
But the connotation of the name, for me, growing up in the nineties, is female. It makes me feel female when people call me that. It makes me feel as if I should have been someone completely different, someone I can never be. I see Lindsay as a cheerleader. I always picture girls with names that end in y (or worse, in i) as cheerleaders, as bottle blondes. Lindsay, Courtney, Stacy, Nikki. They’re too cutesy. Lindsay is a teenager who goes to football games on Friday nights with her friends, watches romantic comedies, has an athletic boyfriend with a one-syllable name like Joe or Rob or Steve.
When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a Lindsay. I never have, even when I still called myself that, still told other people to call me that. I always felt like a fraud, like the name didn’t belong to me—it belonged to someone else—and I needed to give it back. I needed to get rid of it.
I thought for a while that I might pick the name Andrew. For a long time, I thought that was who I was. I’d look in the mirror and think, that could be me. I hate the name Andy because of my brother’s weird friend from high school, and I don’t like Drew, either—it just doesn’t sound like a real name to me. But Andrew is undoubtedly masculine, without question, and yet there’s a softness to it in that last syllable. It’s a name I felt I could live up to.
A few months before I chose my name, though, I moved to Ohio for graduate school and met two more Andrews. Two guys whose company, it turns out, I enjoy immensely, but who are just two more additions to a long list of Andrews who are nothing like me. Now, when I hear the name Andrew, I picture specific people—my friend Andrew the PhD student and my friend Andrew the fiction writer. I couldn’t see myself as an Andrew anymore; I would have to change too much of myself to become one. Just like with Lindsay, it felt like a name I was borrowing, one I had to give back.
So I started looking again.
I made a list of popular names from 1987, thinking that maybe I could pick a name that would sound right, that would sound like I was really named that, like that had always been what people called me. None of those names felt right, though: Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, David, Daniel, James, Justin, Robert. I kept going further and further down the list—Brandon, Anthony, Nicholas, Zachary, Aaron, Mark, Paul, Gregory, Jose—and none of those felt right, either. I kept looking, thinking I’d find something eventually, but I started to lose hope. I started to think I’d never find the name that felt like mine. Then I thought maybe the reason I couldn’t find a name was that I was wrong about being transgender—maybe it wasn’t the answer to all the questions I’d had for years. And so I stopped looking for a while.
Eventually, someone suggested picking a family name. I gave it some thought—maybe Charlie, after my great-grandfather, but I’d grown up hearing stories about him from my grandmother, his daughter, and the name seemed like too much to live up to, like naming myself after a legend. I kept wishing I could pick something from my dad’s side—something Danish—but the ones I knew were all taken by my uncles and their sons, and it felt weird to name myself after a living relative I hardly knew.
Then, on a list of popular names in Denmark, I found it: Silas, #21. It’s not Danish, actually—it’s from the Bible. But it’s more popular in Denmark now than in any other country. If you search for my first and last name on Facebook, most of the men who show up live in Copenhagen, Odense, Frederiksberg. It means “man of the forest,” and though I’m not a survivalist, I was a Girl Scout for fifteen years, and most of my best childhood memories take place in the woods behind my parents’ house.
That night, I looked in the mirror and said it out loud a few times. Silas Hansen. Silas. Si. I didn’t cringe the way I did with some of the others, didn’t shake my head in disgust, didn’t feel like a fraud using someone else’s name. Finally, it felt right, like it had been my name all along.
My cousin Holly has known other transgender people and didn’t ask me anything about that. Her only question, via e-mail, was why I chose the name Silas. I didn’t know how to answer the question—it was too hard to explain it all, so I told her I didn’t know, it just sounded right, felt right. “I just like it,” I said. It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth, either. She didn’t press for more.
She responded a few hours later and said she expected a long story about why I had chosen it, some sort of significance. “For the record,” she said, “I think it’s the right choice.”
She explained that Silas is the contracted form of Silvanus, and that Silvanus is an important character in the New Testament, a friend of the apostles Paul and Timothy. “Isn’t that cool?” she said. Our family isn’t all that religious, so it surprised me that she knew this, even more that she found significance in it. And yet, there it is: my father is Tim, my brother is Michael Paul. “Silas, Paul, Tim,” Holly said. “All in one family.”
I haven’t read the Bible in years, not since I stopped going to church after I started college, and I don’t remember ever reading about Silvanus. Maybe I just skipped over those parts, or maybe I’ve forgotten. I’m agnostic now, not sure if I believe in a higher power at all, let alone the Christian concept of God. But I like the idea of Silvanus, a writer, a teacher—like me. I like the image of the three names alongside each other—Silas, Paul, Timothy—like my name belongs there, like it was meant to be this way.
My eighty-eight-year-old grandmother has never been good with names. It’s a trait that’s carried on the second X-chromosome in my family, along with bad knees and asthma and anxiety. Grandma says it started with her mother and her four sisters. They’d all be in the same room and one of them would leave, and they’d end up calling each other by the wrong names. “Maude,” Hazel would say to Myrtle, when Maude had just left, “can you hand me that glass?” And Myrtle would respond, without even thinking.
To my grandmother, I have never been Lindsay—always Kim, my mother’s name, or Andrea, my cousin’s. My mom is always Terry, her older sister. Aunt Terry is also always Kim. She calls my cousins Holly and Andrea by each other’s names. Now that Holly has two daughters, Kelsey and Katelyn, she calls them each other’s names, or their mother’s, or mine. My brother, Mike, is Tim, after our dad, or Floyd or Don, my grandmother’s brothers, who have both been dead almost a decade.
“I’m not senile,” she says. “I’ve done this for years.”
A few weeks after I told my family I was trans, when I was home visiting for Thanksgiving, my grandmother started using my new name, except she couldn’t say it. She kept saying “Cyrus” instead. My mom kept making jokes out of it, like calling me “Billy Ray.” A few weeks later, the night I got into town for Christmas break, she asked me to pass the salt at dinner, but called me Mike, then Tim. “Sorry,” she said. “I mean Cyrus.”
My friend Dyan told me after I picked the name Silas that she liked it because all the letters in Silas are in the name Lindsay. Although I didn’t think about it before I picked it, I like the idea of it. It’s like I’m taking parts of my old self along with me as I move forward—not the whole, but the parts that fit.
Kathy, one of my coworkers from my job in college, is a grandmother of five: Noah, Emma, Devin, Colby, and Cora. “None of them look like their names, though,” she tells people. She shows pictures, tells them that Noah should be Miles, Devin should be Eli.
On a trip back to western New York the summer after I told my friends but before I told my parents, I told Kathy about my name change. She had known for a few months that it was something I was considering and had always been supportive, but she shook her head. “Jack,” she said. “You look like a Jack.”
I started biweekly testosterone injections the February after I told my parents I was transgender, and—after paying a $140 fee and swearing in front of a judge that I wasn’t changing my name to avoid debt or for other fraudulent purposes—legally changed my name that June. Even now that my voice has dropped, and my facial hair is slowly filling in, and my driver’s license has the right name and gender, I still wonder sometimes if Kathy is right. What if, five years from now, after the hormones have truly made their mark, I stop thinking Silas is the right name for me? I honestly don’t know what it means to look like a name, but I’m also guilty of name-stereotyping. There was a guy I knew in college, an older student with long gray hair and a beard down to his chest; he dressed like a biker. And he went by James. I always thought he should have been Jim, at least, if not something more nontraditional: Spike, maybe.
But the thing I love most about the name Silas is that I don’t know anyone else with that name. I’ve never met another Silas and so I don’t have a picture in my head of what one looks like, sounds like, acts like. Silas is a blank slate. If I were a Matt or a Jack or an Andrew, I’d feel as if I had to live up to that name, as if I had to do it justice. If I were a Charlie, I’d feel as if I were carrying around my great-grandfather’s name, his legacy. But Silas is mine.
I can change the way I look and grow into an entirely different personality. I can learn to act like a stereotypical guy—which I don’t, most of the time—and still be Silas, or I can stay the way I am now and the name still works. Sometimes, since strangers do not always read me as male right away, people assume that I am a girl named Silas—it doesn’t sound all that masculine, at least not the way a name like John or Joseph does. Part of me hates it when this happens, but at the same time, I’m a little bit grateful that the name straddles the border between masculine and feminine, the way I do. I see Silas as someone who can cross over into one or the other anytime he wants, anytime he needs to. My friends joke that I’m the type of person who can calm a crying baby and change the oil in a car, probably at the same time. Although I actually know nothing about changing the oil in a car, I like the way this sounds, and I think the sentiment behind it is what’s important. I’m the guy they call when they need someone to help move their couch, or when they need something off the top shelf but can’t reach it. I’m also the guy they call when they can’t remember how to cast on stitches for the scarf they’re knitting, or when they need a good chocolate chip cookie recipe. That’s why Silas works for me. I can carry that name with me as I learn how to be a man, learn to navigate this land of men’s bathrooms and facial hair and talking to girls as a straight man without losing sight of who I am, who I used to be. And, in the end, what more could I want from a name?
Silas Hansen attends the MFA program at The Ohio State University, where he teaches composition and creative writing and serves as Nonfiction Editor of The Journal. His essays have previously appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review and Redactions: Poetry, Poetics, and Prose. He can be found online at www.silashansen.net.