(Note: This essay was originally written for the live lit show YOU’RE BEING RIDICULOUS in June 2018. Some details have been updated to reflect updates in my life.)
One of the signs that you’re really getting to know me is that I accidentally tell you the same story twice. Or three or five times. Sharing stories is how I express affection. I’m welcoming you into my life by catching you up on everything you missed. There are some stories that over time I’ve realized I should think twice before sharing, maybe because they’re embarrassing, or risqué, or they just have a history of not getting the reaction I was hoping for. Then are the three stories that get caught in my throat because for the punchline to work, I have to deadname myself.
My name is Ray, and I have been Ray for the last four years. The day I decided to try being Ray was the day I realized I was nonbinary. After about a month of trying, I decided I was Ray. However, for most of the last four years, I wasn’t open about being transgender. Well-meaning people liked to ask what my “real” name was. I’d chosen the name Raphael, but since I wasn’t “out” at the time, I didn’t feel comfortable admitting that yet. So the remaining choices were to tell them my deadname (my birth name), or to say nothing. That’s a lose-lose situation.
If I didn’t tell people my deadname, they would keep bugging me, or they would think I was being difficult, or they would get suspicious. If I did tell them my deadname, sometimes they took that as a cue to start calling me by that name. I could either let them call me a name that is not my name, or I could tell them to stop, but they would ask me why, which meant either outing myself or lying. And I am a bad liar. So usually I avoided telling people my deadname, but again, I wrestle with a mighty need to tell stories, and three of those stories simply do not work without that deadname. Since this is a story about storytelling, big surprise, I’m about to tell you those three stories. Let’s all wave at the elephant in the room: I decided to be Ray because my deadname is Rachel.
The first story where I have to deadname myself is one of the most vivid memories I have from middle school, because this is a popular one not only for me but also for my parents. When I was growing up, my mom was the primary breadwinner, so it was usually my dad who drove me wherever I needed to go. This meant that miscellaneous adult authority figures usually met my dad and not my mom. If they eventually met my mom they were inevitably thrown for a loop, because my mom is black. My dad is white. I look white. I am half black. This was often difficult for my teachers to process. When I was ten I went to an arts camp, and on the very last day, both my parents came to see my work. My camp counselor approached my family to say congrats on my excellent paper maché lion head. This counselor had met my dad dozens of times, but this was her first time meeting my mom, so she just stared. My parents and I exchanged our time-honored look of “Oh cool, this is happening again.” Now, because I was so young at the time, sometimes I wonder if I’m embellishing this next part, but my parents swear up and down that my camp counselor waved to us as we walked into the distance, and probably meant to say “Bye, Rachel,” but definitely yelled “Biracial!” And we all stared at each other, and she covered her mouth, and we walked away, and we never saw each other again.
The second story is that in my sophomore year of high school, my friends greeted me almost every morning by quoting Batman. My motley crew of friends and friends-of-friends called ourselves “the Clot”, because we assembled daily outside a bank of lockers, which meant we were effectively blockading that stretch of the hallway. Even if you barely knew half the kids there, or you were really shy like I was and didn’t talk a lot, you were still an integral part of the Clot. One day I was out sick, and I was later told that everyone kept asking each other, “Where’s Rachel?” Because this was 2008 and everyone was really into The Dark Knight, one of my friends yelled “WHERE’S RACHEL?” in the Christian Bale Batman voice. I recovered quickly from my cold, so I walked up to the Clot the next morning, and was heralded by a gravelly chorus of a dozen high schoolers bellowing, “WHERE’S RACHEL?!” (Sidebar: the actual line is “Where is she?” the “she” being Rachel, so he never actually asks “Where’s Rachel?” but that’s neither here nor there. It had already stuck.) The point is that people did this almost every day for the rest of high school. Now, I am the rare timid extrovert who needs people but is also terrified that they all hate me. So when approaching the same group of people every day and still somehow wondering if they even wanted me there, it was very nice to hear them all loudly, facetiously, but excitedly wondering where I was.
The third story is an echo of similar stories past and a harbinger of many identical stories to come. As you now know, my dad is white, but more specifically he is Jewish. I am not. To be born Jewish your mother has to be Jewish, and mine is Catholic. She raised her children as Catholic, which my dad accepted as long as he got Passover, Hanukkah, and a few Shabboses. If we’re talking about ethnicity, then sure, I’m half Ashkenazi Jewish. Religiously, and as far as most Jews are concerned, I am not Jewish. But the summer before I started college, I got a call from the university Hillel asking if I wanted to join. (For the goyim in the crowd, Hillel is the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.) I told the nice man on the phone that no, sorry, I wasn’t interested in joining Hillel. He delivered an impassioned speech about how important it was for Jewish people to stick together. I said, “Yeah, totally, it’s just that I’m not Jewish.” There was a long silence on the other end of the phone, and then a shuffling of papers, and then the nice man said, “… I am speaking to Rachel Goldberg, right?” This happened a lot. Even though my name isn’t Rachel anymore, Raphael is also a thoroughly Jewish name, so I imagine this will keep on happening forever.
The problem with these three stories isn’t that these are the best, most juicy stories, and the life of everyone on Earth is cheaper for having been denied the pleasure of experiencing these epic sagas. We all know that’s not true. The problem is that whenever I remember I’ve got anecdotes that would totally mesh with the conversation I’m having, they all rise up inside me like bubbles, and then I realize I can’t tell this one, and I have to push it back down. It’s a flashing red reminder that I can’t live my best and most open life. But the thing is, even if my deadname is Rachel, my real name is Raphael. It’s real because I decided it is, and I even got my legal name changed, so it’s an indisputable fact. I want to be proud of my past and my present, and hopefully my future, so little by little, I’m becoming more open about being nonbinary. That also means deciding that I can tell people my deadname if I want to, and I can tell them why that name is dead. It’s a little terrifying to tell a whole Internet full of strangers that my birth name is Rachel, but I’m going to chalk it up as a win, because I’m also telling those strangers that my real name is Raphael Goldberg. And I just have to accept that you just have to accept that.