I remember being ill when I was a kid, maybe five or six years old. I had a fever, and to see if I was delirious my mum asked me, “What’s your name?”
I thought about it. I started to panic. “What is my name?” I cried. She told me all three of my names, my first name, my middle name, and my surname. I still remember the relief as I heard them, as I recognised them, and realised that I had known them all along. “Oh,” I said. “I knew that.”
Tonight my phone rang, and someone I didn’t know called me by those same three names, but this time it was the opposite of a relief. I froze. I was aware of myself sitting there doing nothing, my mouth open, not responding. I didn’t know what to say.
“Hello?” said the person on the phone, “Hello?”
“Hello,” I said.
The person asked again if that was my name, and I told them that it used to be, but that I’d changed it.
“What name do you go by now?” I was asked.
“Blake,” I said.
“Bleak?” asked the person.
“Blake,” I said, “like…” and failed to think of any Blakes whom I was like, while at the back of my mind a thought was repeating, “Please don’t say it, please don’t say it…”
“Oh, like Blake Lively?” asked the person on the phone.
Shit. They’d said it.
“Um. Well. Well, yes, I suppose so,” I said feebly, failing to explain how Blake Lively – apparently the only well-known Blake in pop culture at the moment – whom I hadn’t heard of when I chose my name – who is a woman – wasn’t like me at all.
It’s not that I mind Blake being a gender-neutral name. I don’t, not at all. What I mind is when the existence of Blake Lively tips the gender calculus against me. Blake is a great, gender-neutral name, but I’m a boy Blake, and when my appearance and my voice lead people to mistake my gender, the spectre of Blake Lively reminding people that girls are called Blake too is the last thing I need.
I don’t blame the person on the phone. They were reading from a list of names and phone numbers that it was their job to call. And I know I don’t sound very masculine, particularly on the phone. But hearing those three names tonight, only one of which (the surname) I kept when I changed my legal name seven months ago, messed up my evening. It made me feel cold inside. It felt like someone was putting me back in a box that I’ve been trying really hard to climb out of. It felt like the caller was telling me that they knew best, that that was who I was and who I would always be. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, about how hearing those names made it feel like all the progress I’ve made in transitioning socially hadn’t happened.
“Maybe that is who I am,” I thought. “Maybe that’s all anyone will ever see.”
It was also strange to recognise that the names that I used to identify with, that used to make me feel safe, now upset me so much. Did that invalidate who I am now? Or who I used to be? Have I ever been, and will I ever be, who I really am?
Then I realised that another reason I disliked hearing my old name was that it was a factual error. It wasn’t my name any more, so of course it made me feel strange to be addressed by it. That thought made me feel better, more in control. It’s like moving house, I thought. That’s my old address, the old coordinates for ‘me’. I don’t live there any more. A place that used to make you feel safe and comfortable can feel really odd if you go back later, when all your recent memories have occurred elsewhere. When you live in a house, or in a name, it becomes your home.
The name I heard tonight, the name on my birth certificate, feels distant and strange like an old house or outgrown clothes. My name is Blake. It’s where I’ve lived for the last eight months, and it’s where I feel safe now. That’s because Blake is who I am. So say it. Call me Blake. Say my name.