Names and the Power of Naming

An interesting conversation began here, with Hafidha telling us about her name and how she strives to grow into it. Rev. Clyde adds his thoughts here, telling us a bit about the Cherokee traditions and practices of naming and suggests that we might benefit from an expectation that a person might outgrow one name and take on another.

One of the gifts of being a transgender person is that I did get to choose my name. Actually, that wasn’t the first time, either. So I thought I’d add the story of my name to the conversation.

My father created my birth name when he was young. It was a compound name, made up of two very girly names. (I don’t share my birth name because it makes me very uncomfortable to have it associated with the person I am now, but you’ll get the idea if you imagine a name something like “Suzilee.”) My dad was determined to have a daughter with this name and as the family story goes, he told my mother this fact on the first date. She asked how to spell it and he didn’t know, so she tried out various spellings on a napkin and settled on the one that became my name.

I lived with this very feminine and very unusual name for about twenty years. I hated it the whole time. In sixth grade, I tried to shorten it to one half of the compound name, but it never caught on. People mispronounced, misspelled, and made up their own interpretations of my name all the time. Whenever someone new encountered my name, a period of education ensued. And I was always mad that I couldn’t get a pencil or a sticker or anything else with my name printed on it.

At about twenty, I changed my name. I chose the name “Shani”–the kiSwahili word for “marvelous.” This was a powerful thing for me. I chose a name that contradicted my low self-esteem and I broke from my father and the power of his naming. I asserted my own knowing of myself and moved away from being just a character in my father’s drama. After years of pain in that relationship, I began to grow by identifying myself as someone more than the daughter he’d always wanted. I chose a kiSwahili name with a purpose–the rather naive purpose of wanting to counter my father’s extreme prejudice and racism. I think because I had always been a disappointment to him, I identified with people I knew he hated. It was simplistic, but it felt good to not only reject the name that he gave me, but to choose one from a culture I hoped to honor in the face of his hatred.

This time, the new name caught on. I was “Shani” to everyone I knew except my mother and a few other close relatives. “Shani” fit me better and even though there were sometimes awkward moments with African and African-American friends who wondered how I ended up with a “black” name, the name itself seemed to help me grow into the person I wanted to be. I may not have become “marvelous” but I sure became healthier and more whole.

About a decade later, I was exposed to the story of someone who had transitioned from female to male, and my heart nearly burst with joy. (fear, too–but joy first.) For the first time, I heard my story told, saw my face reflected in the faces of others, and knew that I had found “my people.” Even when it caused a whole lot of pain and confusion, I knew I had to become the man I knew myself to be.

Changing my name from “Shani” to “Sean” was simply the easiest thing I could do. It would be easy for people who were already confused and conflicted about my transition to simply drop the last syllable. I chose the Celtic spelling because my ethnicity is rooted in the British Isles. (and because it seemed more dramatically masculine.) My middle name, Parker, was a nod to Theodore Parker, whose passionate spirit and preaching I admire. When I first said “Sean Parker Dennison” aloud I knew that I had found my name. It fit.

There were unexpected consequences, of course. Some people thought I chose my middle name after Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, whom I also greatly admire. And it turns out “Sean” is a derivative of “John” which means “beloved of God.” What an awesome message to grow into! “Parker” is a occupational name describing a person who was the guardian of the park grounds. For me, that is a reminder to guard not only nature, but all the places that are set aside for beauty and rest. And the last little surprise was realizing that my son’s name is also a derivation of “John” and so, in a strange way, after the fact, he is named after me. These are the gifts of my name.

Will my name continue to fit? I don’t know. It’s been nine years and I still feel lots of “growing room” in this name. It feels more mine than any of the previous incarnations did. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if another name comes to me someday, either augmenting or replacing some part of mine. Or perhaps, there is some secret heart name that I have yet to discover. I am a firm believer in “kugichagulia”–one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa–that holds up the importance of the power to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves. The process of naming myself has been one of the most powerful gifts of my journey.

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3 thoughts on “Names and the Power of Naming

  1. Really beautiful post.

    Also, did you notice that your comments links go to Starr King’s website?

  2. Thanks for the heads up, but I can’t figure out what you mean. All the links I’ve checked seem to go to their proper places. Can you be more specific?

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