What’s in a name…
The meaning of names has always been very important to me. When I was born, I was given a name that meant Beloved. I was the third of three children all given french names. Theirs were a little more normal: Marie and Claire…like the magazine. I got one that was unusual, spelled with an accent and pronounced weird depending on who you asked.
I was kind of a terror growing up, so I associated that name, Beloved, more with the character in the Toni Morrison novel than with the angelic, loving nature my mom attached to it. You know, a malicious haint with a score to settle. Or as Morrison put it: “spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” And I hated my funny spelled name. I was always teased, or at least that’s how my young brain felt, because there was a more american spelling of my name. I even asked my mom once if I could spell it the american way but she shut that down without hesitation.
I’m the youngest child, with a 5 year gap between me and the middle child and for some reason my mother always referred to me at her “reward.” I never really got clarification on what that meant for her and as I got older, I wasn’t sure I wanted it. Throughout my life though, I always associated it with that one scene in Aladdin, you know, where Aladdin has just given the lamp to Jafar and the Cave of Wonders is collapsing and threatening to trap Aladdin? Jafar is all “oh but wait, your reward” and he pulls out that jagged knife to slice off his hand That’s what I always thought of when my parents would mention it. Nonetheless, when I was older, I had to pick a name for arabic class I was in, so I chose Nawal, meaning reward. I’m certain I’m on some terrorist watch list for googling “reward arabic translate” in 2006 but oh well.
Once I got out of my parents house, I really became a terror. I lived out that “full of a baby’s venom” quite thoroughly. I tore through towns and lives like a drug-fueled tornado. I always say the only reason I don’t have a police record is because I ran fast. I once went on a 3000 mile road trip where I got 4 tickets in 4 different states, and none of them ended up on my record, because none of them were my home state. I even got one for going 90 in a 60. But I was actually going 120. I apparently have a very trustworthy and forgivable face.
I kept up with that lifestyle for a fair few years. I bounced between ERs, locked wards and depressing apartments until I was living on a mattress pad in the spare room of a friends house that was only not a trap house cause we were both too interested in being wasted ourselves to get into dealing. We shared that apartment with a few mice, many cockroaches and a slew of other pests smaller and less destructive than the two of us. Basically I was on track to not live much longer. Somewhere in my head, I had it that I would not live past 25. It wasn’t a self-pitying thought or a morose thought, there was no desire for action to either slow or accelerate that timeline. It just felt like a fact, like tomorrow is Monday and I’m wearing a blue shirt today.
After living like a drunken tornado for five years, I hit a wall. Actually that makes it seem more exciting than it was. I just kind of stumbled over a very low curb and fell on my face. Too useless to pick myself up, a bunch of strangers did instead. One of the things they told me was that I should probably find a power greater than myself. Some might call it God, or science or nature but this isn’t a story about God so don’t get caught on that. These strangers helped me put the pieces of my life back together, but my female life.
After about a year of repairing my life, things still didn’t feel quite right. Then, riding in an elevator one day, a woman turned to me and asked “pardon me, but are you trans?” I was struck speechless. I’d never considered it before. I paused for a moment and then said “uh… huh. Let me get back to you on that.” It turns out, all of this wasn’t entirely unrelated to my name. It was a good name, but it wasn’t the right name. My body wasn’t right, either. My gender pronouns weren’t right. I didn’t know this then, but now looking back, it was kind of obvious. I mean, I started smoking cigarettes in the hopes my voice would lower. Throughout middle school and high school, while I desperately wanted to fit in with my peers as they started puberty, I actually secretly liked my flat chest and curveless hips.
This isn’t a story about transition, just like it isn’t a story about turning from an alcoholic tropical storm to a summer breeze (I’d like to think), so I won’t go into that business. Over the course of my transition though, I had to find a new name. My birth name was far from gender neutral and the male version was way too french for the average american to tolerate. So I started trying on names, looking for the one that fit. I tested out Connor & Jacob. I thought about using what would have been my name if I had been assigned male at birth. I had a nickname that I’d been using for several years that worked as a male name. But none of it felt right.They all felt like trying on a suit that was two sizes too big or too small.
After trying on a variety of names, I realized what I was missing. I’m a storyteller, my family is packed with storytellers. It’s easier for me to change my name, my gender, my entire body, than it is to change a story. I had been telling stories about my french name with the silly accent, about my french-named sisters with no connection to the magazine. And there were so many stories that branched off of that story: about my family of polyglots and peregrines, about my childhood and my sisters, about my precocious nature as a kid. I needed a french name with an accent, as silly as that might seem.
After searching through lists, I landed on the name Théodore. The pieces fell into place so quickly it was like a jenga tower falling in reverse. I grew up with a deep love for Theodor Geisel aka Dr. Seuss. His birthday was my half birthday and vice versa. His books are like a scrapbook of my favorite things in childhood. Vincent Van Gogh’s artwork decorated my past and present lives, and his letters to his brother Theo gave us one of the only glimpses into his reality. And honestly, without Theo’s aid, we probably wouldn’t have Vincent’s art. Theodore Roosevelt delivered his famous “Speak softly and carry a big stick” line on my birthday 88 years before I was born (okay, I can’t really explain why that mattered but it FELT significant at the time).
Knowing that my birth name meant “beloved,” I also cared about the meaning of my chosen name. When I looked it up, I found it meant “God’s gift,” and it was a done deal. No, I don’t think I’m God’s gift to the planet, don’t worry. Rather, I was acutely aware that even being alive was a gift. That I was sane and thoughtful enough to make this huge decision and to take the often difficult steps to follow through on my choice was a gift. And those strangers who helped my put my life back together had taught me to find that sanity through a higher power, through God. My sobriety, my life, my transition, it was all a gift from God, so what more fitting name could I find for the upcoming chapter(s) of my life that a constant reminder that everything I have today is God’s gift, starting from the name the barista calls for my coffee.
After living with the name Théodore for about 6 months, I was finally able to make it legal. The process, in all honesty, was somewhat humiliating and frustrating. There were frustrating requirements, multiple visits to the county seat nearly an hour from where I lived, and court appearances — not to mention the frustrating process of getting everything changed over to my new name, from credit cards to my car lien and the minutiae like website accounts and mailing lists. I’m still trying to convince Obama’s mailing list that my name has changed.
Just over three months after my legal name change, I would turn 25. One night, I was talking with my partner at the time about how weird it felt. For the first time since I could remember, I was excited about my coming birthday. I used to hate them. I talked about how I was excited because it meant I was alive. Each birthday meant that, as obvious and tedious as it might sound, I had survived another full year. Several minutes later she stopped what she was doing and looked at me with the most complex emotions mixing in her expression. “Théo, you weren’t wrong. You are alive to turn 25, but she’s not. She’s never going to turn 25.”
In that moment, my chest filled with so many emotions, it felt like the breath had been knocked out of me. I mourned for that girl, so tortured by addiction, by mental illness, by a body that was wrong. She knew, somehow, that she would never turn 25 and she was right. I mourned for the experiences she would never have and for the peace she would never live to find. I also mourned for Théo, for the experiences he would also never have, for the childhood he’d missed and the awkward teenage years and the exploratory years of college. And yet, simultaneously, I celebrated for the truth I had discovered and begun to embody, for the hope I had for the future. In the passing of that young woman, Théo got the chance to live and flourish. Like a forest fire, this destruction cleared way for new growth.
It’s been nearly three years since that conversation and I still feel a wash of emotions when I think back on it. I still feel sadness for that young woman, but I also feel hope. I know I didn’t make a mistake by becoming Théodore and I feel so much excitement for his future, for my future. Maybe there are trans people out there who don’t feel this way, but I don’t see these conflicting emotions as negative or problematic. I think I would be more concerned if I didn’t have these paradoxical feelings inside; it’s how I know I’m still me. My body, my voice, my name; these things have changed. But the storyteller, the person who overthinks everything, the kid who learned to write their name with an accent on the first e, all those things are the same.
- *Originally told at a Story Club Cleveland open mic.