It’s one of the first lessons in manners many of us receive. When introducing yourself to someone, you look them in the eye and say, “Hi. My name is So-and-so. What’s yours?”
In the last week, I’ve repeated this basic conversation too many times to count. Given that I just moved halfway around the world to start a new job, it’s to be expected. Usually when I introduce myself, people don’t bat an eye. Occasionally they may ask me what CJ stands for, but they don’t usually push the matter.
During my first day of orientation in the school district, all of the new teachers were treated to a variety of lessons on different aspects of the Yup’ik culture. Given that this is the culture of my new students, I found the talks both helpful and enlightening. Topics ranged from the climate of the three ecosystems in the district (coastal, tundra, and river) and the way it affects the subsistence lifestyle of these people, to naming conventions.
Among the Yup’ik, names are very important. When a child is born, they are named after someone who has recently passed away, because the Yup’ik believe that the deceased’s spirit has taken up residence in the new body. So as an activity for this lecture, the presenter asked each of us to write down what our name was, if we were named for anyone, who named us, and if we had any nicknames. Once that was done, we were to share with the person seated across the table from us. Instead of discussing my name, I opted to share the story of how my sister gave me the nickname Skippy, after the squirrel in the Animaniacs cartoon.
A couple of days later, I attended another lecture, this time at my new school. This lecture focused on how to build a school community that lets students reach their full potential. To demonstrate an activity that can promote this, we teachers were split into small groups, where we discussed the origins of our names, an embarrassing moment, and something of which we are proud. Once more, I danced around the story of my name and focused on telling the story of the time I got a snake stuck in my belt loop when I worked at the zoo.
Today, during a break in the meeting, one of my new coworkers asked what my real name was. When I told her my name was CJ, she began to come up with possible combinations of names that the letters could represent.
I guess there’s a chance I’m being over-sensitive about this. I mean, what’s in a name? For me, right now, the answer is: Almost everything.
As a transman who is currently stealth, I’m in a tough place right now. I’m living in a new place, meeting new people, and I’ve got one hand tied behind my back. As I exchange pleasantries and trade stories of life before Alaska, I’m always thinking five sentences ahead, editing, rewriting, and even discarding stories that just aren’t safe to share. That includes the origins of my name.
Like any topic in the trans community, the subject of a person’s birth name can be sensitive. Some people prefer to bury their previous identity completely. Others don’t care who knows. Myself, I don’t tell someone unless I’ve known them for a while and feel comfortable with them, and just because I come out to someone doesn’t mean they get the full story of my name.
The fact of the matter is, I kind of fell into my name. When I was younger, a lot of my family referred to me as “Chris” or “CJ”. The only people I really remember using my full first name are the teachers I had through 6th grade, and my classmates at school. That changed when I entered junior high. On the first day of school, each of my new teachers, before taking roll, said that if there was a nickname that we’d prefer to be addressed by, we should just let them know. I requested that I be called CJ, and that was that. By the end of the year, everyone in the school called me by my preferred name. In following years, I would approach teachers before class started on the first day and introduce myself, asking to be called by my preferred name. Typically, the teachers were fine with this request; the only issue I can remember is that my high school chemistry teacher insisted on addressing everyone by either “Mister” or “Miz” and their last name. The overall result was still the same: Most of my classmates didn’t know my birth name. Even the substitute teachers knew my preference. By college, I was CJ everywhere except paperwork. By grad school, I was legally Cee Jay.
So that’s the story of my name. Maybe someday I can share it with the people here. For now, thank you to you, my readers, for listening.