The nuances of choosing your name as a transgender person of colour
For racialized trans people, finding a true name often can’t be separated from our relationship to our culture
As transgender people gain more visibility and acceptance, we've also gained access to more stories of how they've chosen their names. But a lot of the origin stories I've come across haven't reflected the complexity of my own journey, especially because most of them have been about the experiences of white trans people. Queer people of colour are only just starting to be depicted in a nuanced way in mainstream media, for example, in shows like Sex Education or One Day at a Time. And there are even fewer storylines in which racialized trans people see our realities reflected. As a result, part of what's missing from mainstream conversation is non-white cultures' complicated relationship to queerness and gender, with our histories with colonization and imperialism.
British colonization, in particular, is why both my mother (who immigrated to Canada from Trinidad at a young age) and her mother came to feel Hinduism was backward, and is also credited for legally condemning and oppressing hijras, and stamping out ideas of sexual and gender fluidity in South Asia. Violent lessons like these are passed down through generations and can be difficult to unlearn, especially for those of us who live outside of the gender binary.
I identify as genderfluid. To me, that means that my identity isn't constant and that I may identify more with either masculinity or femininity at any given time. For the last couple of years, I've opted to go by Mari, a modification of my deadname that I'm comfortable using professionally. But I really struggled with finding a name to use in my personal life that aligned with how I felt about myself. Whenever I searched for gender-neutral names, I kept coming across lists of names like Avery, Riley, Peyton, Taylor and Charlie. None of the names ever sounded like they would belong to someone who looked like me.
Coupled with the historical and cultural complexities of my story, my journey to find my name presented a challenge for which I hadn't been prepared. For me, finding a name to match my gender identity also meant understanding my identity as a whole.
I recently asked around on social media about other racialized trans folks' experiences of picking their names. Via Twitter DMs, Jasmine N.P. (or @jasminedrawing, which is the handle they go by) shared that as an Indo-Guyanese trans person, they also faced complex issues when choosing their name. They said that after being disowned, they felt the need to distance themselves from their culture, before eventually reconnecting with it. Added to that was a desire to have their name carry a certain mouthfeel as an autistiqueer (an autistic queer person), and feelings of hurt when white people failed to pronounce it. Their solution was to have two names, a "brown name/home name" and Jasmine, which they use more publicly.
"Currently, I share my other name with my chosen family, my loves and anyone else I feel a special bond with. It feels like my truest name, and I like that it's something I can choose to reveal at my own discretion," they wrote. "'Jasmine' comes super close — I love that it feels like me choosing me. Flower names seem to be a trend in my family as well, and so it helps me feel connected to my ancestry while also navigating the distance between myself and my living blood relatives."
On Facebook, Nate Kulasinghe told me about how a friend helped support them through their process, calling Nate by different names so they could see how they sounded and felt.
"I did feel pressure, from myself, to choose a more 'North American' name. Very few people in my life have ever been able to pronounce (or care to remember how to pronounce) my Sri Lankan name," Kulasinghe wrote. "However, I knew that if I chose a 'North American' name, my family (especially my mom) would feel incredibly hurt and disrespected. I know how much thought must have gone into [choosing] a name for [her] child, and I didn't want my mother to feel ... that I didn't appreciate all her love, trying to pick the perfect name for me."
In the end, they ended up choosing Nate because there was enough similarity to their given name that if they needed to, they could pass it off as a nickname.
If you told me a few years ago that I would be out of the closet about my gender identity to my own mother by now, I'd have mocked your optimism. After all, her coming to accept my bisexuality had already been a long and tumultuous journey. It wasn't a completely easy process — there were days and weeks when we didn't talk to each other — but my mother made the effort. She would always come back and ask questions, and she tried to listen and understand as best she could. Not only am I out to my mother today, but she also asked to be part of the process in choosing my name, which seemed like an attempt to mend our relationship as well. I know it was also because she had such a strong connection to my deadname.
My process involved scouring the internet for Hindi names, and that's when I came across the name Dev. It instantly resonated, but it didn't feel like a full name for me. Over the phone, I told my mother about my conundrum. She shared that she chose my name after browsing a baby name book and suggested that I pull up a Hindi baby names list while we were talking. Together, we could go through the names containing "Dev" until we found something we both liked.
We went through the names and at first, I suggested Devin, because it was at least a recognizable name to my non-white peers. But she instantly shot it down. "It sounds too much like your uncle's real name," she said. I felt almost relieved to be steered away from this suggestion; it removed the pressure to cave to an option that would be more comfortable for white people around me. Then I saw Devesh, and when it got my mother's seal of approval, the decision was made.
When I chose my name, I couldn't divorce my queer identity from my cultural identity, nor did I want to. In trying to connect to my own personal identity, I had to face the complexities of my cultural and historical identity as well. And I can only imagine how many other people out there, across multitudes of cultures with their own complex histories, share similar experiences. I wish I could see more nuanced stories like mine reflected in media; more diverse queer stories could have acted as models of hope and inspiration for me while I was struggling to come out and find myself. These stories are already playing out in real life, and we have so much we can learn from them.
Mari "Dev" Ramsawakh is a freelance writer, podcaster and storyteller. They have been published on CBC, HuffPost Canada, Xtra, Leafly, Nuance and more, and they were the 2019 winner of TVO's annual Short Doc contest. Mari is a creator of the podcast Sick Sad World and Cripresentation. More of their work can be found on their website, indivisiblewriting.com.