Jenn's Story: What's in a Name?

Jenn's Story: What's in a Name?

October is LGBT History Month. To honor transgender people and their unique histories, I will be featuring transgender people and parents of transgender children all month long. Through sharing their stories, I hope to raise awareness of this amazing population of people who still struggle for basic human rights.

By Jennifer Eileen Burleton, Executive Director at the TransActive Gender Center 

Definition of a “sentence”:

A grammatical unit that is syntactically independent and has a subject that is expressed or, as in imperative sentences, understood and a predicate that contains at least one finite verb.

One of the shortest sentences in the English language is “I am”.

My brother was 12 years, 363 days old when I was born in 1953, and he was given my father’s first and middle names (making him the ‘junior’) and my grandfather’s first name.

According to my family, my brother did most of the work reading to me when I was a child. My favorite book was the classic, “Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With A Circus” by James Otis. At some point I began identifying him as the lead character only I couldn’t quite get my tongue around the letter ‘b’, so it came out “Togi”. Nearly 60 years later, that nickname still sticks with him…and he likes it that way.

To recap, my brother was given 3 names of some significance to the family lineage, and acquired a 4th, which became a beloved and lifelong nickname.

In contrast, my mother (there is no evidence my father played any role in this) named me after a popular singer/actor of the early 1950’s. No middle name. No lineal connection. This may have been due to the Burleton family’s suspicion that their son wasn’t ‘actually’ my father.

Not having a middle name didn’t even come up until I was around 10 years old or so, when I began to see school forms asking for such a thing.

“Mom, what’s my middle name?” I asked one day.

“You don’t have one.” she replied matter-of-factly.

When I asked “why not”, my mother said, “Because we didn’t give you one.”

The name (or names) we are given at birth is but one example of the ways in which the world beyond our inner universe imposes control, categorization and proprietorship on us. Others include; the placing of an M or F on our birth record; coercing conformity to fit within societal comfort zones; giving adults almost limitless power over us until we reach a series of rather arbitrary ages; requiring participation in and obedience to a set of beliefs based on mythology, imaginary beings and patriarchal manipulation of human speculation about the metaphysical; and the ubiquitous directive that we “live up to [someone’s] expectations”.

Navigating those parameters and limitations while still finding some way to see ourselves as the ‘special child’ that many families tell us we are can be…confounding at best.

By the time I’d gotten to middle school new names were being used to define me by family, teachers and peers: bastard, malcontent, homo, underachiever, queer, brilliant, sissy, class clown, confused, uncontrollable, talented, lazy and delinquent. The only name or word never used to define me was the one I knew best described me; ‘girl’.

The process of growing into adulthood is one of life’s great existential challenges, though I continue to struggle with comprehending what “growing into adulthood” means.

Society believes adulthood means physical maturity, taking on complex responsibilities, becoming independently self-sufficient, establishing and fulfilling contracts and commitments, starting your own family and behaving in a way that fits comfortably within the boundaries of societal expectations. In order to maintain a societal status quo, there must be adult accountability.

I’ve always believed any “status quo” was just the place we are stuck in while making the journey to something different…something better. Is society capable of making room for, and finding value in those who refuse to be named, defined and manipulated by the priorities and expectations of others, however well-intentioned those others may be?

Over the course of my life I’ve embraced many names and words that describe some aspect of my inner being. A boy, girl in a boys’ body, girl, transsexual, young woman, woman, lesbian, musician, comedian, actor, writer, Uppie, transgender, trans, trans*, transgender woman, a woman of transgender experience, songwriter, composer, Democrat, liberal, boyfriend, girlfriend, partner, teacher, student…the list goes on.

None of those variations in identity were experienced in isolation from some other aspect of my identity. There has never been an internal status quo because standing still has always been nothing more than a synonym for death.

As a child, I knew that accepting “what is” as “what should and always will be” would be the end of everything that made me a snowflake. It would dampen my curiosity and weaken my intellect. It would render me just another cog in the wheel, when I wanted to be a wrench in the machinery. Surrendering to the expectations of others meant living inside the boxes they’d built, or being limited to what they thought I was capable of, rather than pursuing the dreams I felt capable of achieving.

When the opportunity presented itself, I chose my own name…and I didn’t neglect to include a middle name… Jennifer Eileen Burleton. A friend of mine literally pulled my first name out of a hat filled with names we had compiled, and all of which I liked. My middle name was inspired by a friend of mine that I greatly admired and respected, Eileen Prieto.

There are many words that I and others use to describe and define me today. Not all of them are kind or even accurate. There are words people have used to describe me that I feel unable to ever live up to, and there are words my soul mate uses when we’re together that touch me in ways that are indescribable.

Within all this nuance and complexity lies one simple unsophisticated truth that I understood and embraced from the earliest days of childhood and that continues to be the guidepost for all that I am, have ever been or will ever be…

I am.

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Special thanks to Mary Tyler Mom who inspired this unique and beautiful way of honoring LGBT History Month.

photo credit: rose by sunset via photopin (license)

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