One of the central themes of Series 7 of Doctor Who — the last full season with Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor — was the mystery of the titular character’s true name. There was this idea built up that “The Doctor” was an alias, that their real name was hidden, and that it belied a terrible secret. Something so vast and horrifying that, if revealed, it could potentially unmake the universe.
The big secret for that season ended up being something else, which I won’t spoil for those who haven’t seen the show and might want to someday. But there was a scene in the last episode of the season that confronted the mystery of their name directly. The Doctor is talking to their companion, Clara, who asks them, in effect, who they really are.
“My name, my real name. That’s not the point. The name I chose is The Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make.”
That line stuck with me for a long time afterward, and I couldn’t articulate why, exactly.
A little over three years ago, I came out as trans.
Back then I was calling myself ‘genderqueer.’ I go back and forth on what labels I want to use for myself these days. What I know is that, if I had a choice to be mistaken for either a boy or a girl, I would pick ‘girl,’ because it would feel closer to the truth of the matter than the alternative. I also know that she/her pronouns feel right these days. Beyond that, it’s something of a lexical gap.
When I came out, I changed my name for social and professional contexts. I kept my old first name, but dropped my old middle name. I had been wanting to change my middle name anyway, because it came from my biological father, who has never been a part of my life. In the space left behind, I took a new name.
It’s a common anglicization of Brigid, the ancient Gaelic goddess of fire, blacksmithing, poetry, midwifery, healing, and… a number of other things, depending on your historical source. In contemporary paganism, some people take on gods and goddesses as patron deities. Folks who do this choose one that resonates with them, based on what those deities are associated with and what ancient culture they’re tied to.
How I came to be a devotee of Brigid is long and complicated and mostly outside the scope of this essay. But suffice it to say that Brigid is a central element of my pagan faith, and I’ve spent the past 20-ish years of my life trying to live in accordance with Her values.
She’s different things to different people. To me, She’s often felt like some sort of academic thesis advisor; pushing me to produce better work, holding me accountable to deadlines, calling me out on my bullshit when I need it, etc. Her charge to me has been to produce more art, better art, and through that practice, become a better version of myself.
Before conquest and missionaries, the legend goes, Brigid had a sisterhood of priestesses who tended a sacred flame for Her in County Kildare. At some point, Brigid became St. Bridget, the priestesses became nuns, and everyone mostly carried on as before. The sacred flame was kept and tended to for centuries after the old ways passed into the mists of time. There’s very little remaining at the site in Kildare today except stones and ruins and lush Irish grass, but Brigid’s Sisterhood persists, in some symbolic sense, in her contemporary followers.
She has long been a central figure in my life, but for a while it felt like my devotion would always be at something of a remove, because of who I was. Because of who I thought I was. When I came out, when I realized I was at least vaguely girl-shaped, when I realized I wanted to take Her name as my own, it felt big and important in a way I still can’t really talk about without shaking.
It felt like I could finally join the Sisterhood.
The name you choose is a promise you make.
For the past three years, I styled my name as James Bridget and went by they/them pronouns. I had a number of reasons why I kept my old name alongside my new; I wanted some sense of continuity with my past self, I wanted to express how I didn’t feel wholly at home with either masculinity or femininity but “somewhere in the middle and a bit off to the side,” I worried about the hubris involved in naming myself after a literal goddess, I… I could go on.
It doesn’t really matter anymore.
After being asked repeatedly whether I prefer “James” or “Bridget,” I started responding with “whichever works for you, honestly.” In what I can only assume was a desire to be supportive and loving, my friends started calling me “Bridget” with increasing regularity. This picked up speed in the past few months after I began hormone replacement therapy.
Usually when something feels right or good to me, the approximate feeling is warmth or comfort. When I became pagan all those years ago, it felt less like a conversion and more like a homecoming. As if to say, “this is how I’ve felt all my life, and now I know there’s a word for it.”
The feeling I had when people would call me Bridget was not that. It did not feel like a warm blanket on a blustery night.
It felt like power. It felt like magic.
I would hear a close friend call me Bridget and I’d feel sparks in my fingertips. I’d respond to it and hear an almost electric hum in my voice. A few weeks ago I introduced myself as “Bridget” to a stranger, on a whim, and I felt like I could run to the moon and back.
It all felt like some faulty wiring inside me had been patched, and every time someone called me Bridget all my indicator lights would flash.
Something was going on. And if the past few years had taught me anything, it was to trust my instincts on this.
The other night I went to a friend’s get-together at a bar/restaurant whose main selling point is “margaritas as big as your head.” (They’re pretty big, not gonna lie.)
While we were waiting to be seated, I ducked into the bathroom to put on lip gloss. After I was done I just kind of… stood there. Staring at my face in the mirror. For a solid minute.
And then I smiled and said, out loud,
“Dude, you’re a girl. It’s fine.”
And then I went back out to be with my friends.
An hour or so later, I fired off a quick post on Facebook telling folks that I would be going by Bridget from here on out.
You told me the name you chose was a promise. What was the promise?
Never cruel nor cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.
I couldn’t have known where my life was headed when these episodes aired in 2013. It’s clear to me in hindsight that I was grappling with some serious dysphoria, that I had been for some time, and that it was wrecking my heart and my life in ways I couldn’t begin to understand then.
I really couldn’t have known why the story around names and promises affected me on such a deep emotional level.
I get it now, of course.
Because I know now that I made a promise when I took my goddess’ name as my own. I don’t have a pithy wording for that promise — yet. But it’s there. It’s there, and I made it, and I’m being held to it.
There are times when the life I have now feels inexplicable. That I couldn’t have possibly imagined this particular future for myself. And yet, at every turn, this all feels exactly right. Like what I had imagined for myself previously were all affectations, pretender versions of a life I could’ve had if I lied convincingly enough. But I’m here now. This is my brightest timeline.
I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. I don’t know how to navigate this changing body and changing life. I don’t know how to relate to people now. I don’t know what’s expected of me and I don’t know if I can live up to those expectations.
I’m making things up as I go along and I’m trying not to fuck up too badly. Like writing and art — and blacksmithing and poetry and so much else that falls under Her purview — I’m going to have to produce a lot of crap before I get something good. I can only hope that at some point, after I make enough mistakes, I’ll hit on the really good stuff.
I have to try, anyway.
I made a promise.