I just finished reading Ivan Coyote’s, In Care Of, and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. I have been a fan of Ivan’s for many years now. I honestly can’t remember where I first encountered their work, but I have felt a connection to the words from the very beginning. While Ivan and I don’t have much in common as to where we grew up geographically, I also grew up in a small town. Our family histories are different in many ways, but family dysfunction lives everywhere. And while there are other differences I’m sure I could name if I only sat and thought about it long enough, what we share is the fact that we both grew up trying to fit our bodies and minds into molds that were not made with our true selves in mind. We were labeled tomboys for a while because that was still something that it was ok to be. But we never grew out of it and suddenly people didn’t know what words to call us or what box to put us in. We didn’t fit. We both learned early on that we had to make our own places, our own slots, but never a box, because boxes are limiting and will close in on you.
I came out, first to my friends, as gay in 1997. I didn’t tell my family until the spring of 1999. I’m told my father cried, but not in my presence. After years of soul searching and self-discovery, I finally came out to myself as trans in 2019. It took me several months to tell my friends that I had changed my pronouns to they/them and that I wanted to be called Samuel. Or Sam. My two nieces, both adults (at the time 31 and 29) asked if they could still call me their aunt, as they’ve always done. I said yes, or, if that was too weird, just Sam would do. They now call me Sam, and while I was sad to lose the title I’ve held so lovingly and proudly all these years, I understand. I told my brother that he could still use the moniker he sometimes called me growing up, even though I hated it and even though (or especially because) it’s incredibly gendering. I reserved the right to still use the same childish name I had for him, as well as the name my parents and I called him growing up because I was the only one left to do so. Our parents passed in 2013 and 2014, which is a derivative of his middle name, even though all his friends now call him by his first name. I claimed this right as his only sibling, and maybe he felt the same privilege by calling me what he does. Even though I hate it.
This morning, with the tender words of Ivan still ringing in my head, I realized something else about the name my brother calls me. And more to the point, the one he doesn’t. Since I’ve changed my name he hasn’t once used it, not in any form, only calling me by that childish, gendered nickname I so despise. It made me wonder at his motives. Is he just being an annoying older brother, doing things he knows will annoy me for the sheer joy that brings him, or is it because the name Samuel won’t fit in his mouth in regards to me? I have never once asked him to call me brother because I don’t identify as male. And the name I have chosen is not that far removed from the name our parents gave me.
I have not told him how much his continued use of the nickname in place of my name bothers me. In part because I know it amuses him when I get riled up about something that I take very seriously. And this got me to thinking about all the times I let it go when I am misgendered or don’t bother to correct someone’s assumptions. I know I do this partly because I feel it is pointless and annoying and too soul revealing and tiring to tell the pharmacy tech or the Lyft driver or the person behind the counter or the wait staff to not call me ma’am or lady. That my pronoun and my gender are not needed in the short exchange we are going to have. And while I know I won’t suddenly change and do things differently any time soon, I am also aware that every time I do this I am also saying that who I am as a person, at my core, doesn’t really matter and isn’t worth mentioning. Even though that’s not how I think of myself and will staunchly defend my right to exist in other, larger, bolder places. But the thing is, I am still my nonbinary self when I am at the drug store, when I am sitting down for a meal out, when I am dealing with customer service, when I am sitting in the backseat of a ride share, and when I am at the doctor’s office. I am also still nonbinary me at the family Christmas party and at my mother’s funeral, or sitting across from my niece at a McDonald’s, or waiting on messages from my brother about family business we both need to take care of after our parent’s deaths. Just because my gender marker and my name have changed, I am still here and I still matter. And I am not going to allow myself to be nicknamed out of existence.
I’ll say it one more time, because apparently, I wasn’t heard the first time. My name is Sam. I am your sibling, your friend, your colleague. I am not your brother, your uncle, or that guy you used to sit next to at work or school. I’m also not a ma’am or a lady or your sister. I’m also not your teachable moment or source of information.
I am Sam. And you need to start calling me by my true name.