Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cultural Appropriation, Transgender Names, and Looking in the Mirror

DRAFT 2 UPDATED 5-5-2009

I’m a little snarky sometimes. No, really! In real life, too. This is not an affectation created especially for my net presence.

One of my favorite things to be snarky about is how trans people choose our names. In particular, it really bugs me when trans guys (I’ve never noticed trans women doing this) adopt Hebrew names even though they’re not Jewish.

Names like Aaron, Asher, Isaiah, Isaac, Jacob, Jesse, Jonah and Jordan seem popular among non-Jewish FtMs. Some of these are frequent choices because they sound gender-neutral: Aaron (where it sounds like Erin), Jesse (Jessie), and Jordan are examples.

I can understand why some FtMs would gravitate toward neutral-sounding names, sometimes to reflect our own genderqueerness and other times simply to reduce the chance of a stranger saying, “But that’s a boy’s name!” On the other hand, in Hebrew, Jordan is the only name of these three that actually is used for both boys and girls. Aaron and Jesse are quite clearly gendered; it’s only the translation and mis/pronunciation that make them gender-ambiguous.
Gender aside, most of these names would not be cause for comment if one or two guys chose them. But the sheer number of Isaacs (for example), is a little odd. In addition, there are a few Hebrew names that are weird to encounter even once. Micah. Ezra. Ezekiel. I mean, really. You just don’t get a lot of white gentiles named Micah, unless they’re FtM.

And I don't totally buy the argument that "these are Christian names, too." They are of course - some of them, anyway. But still, they're out of proportion. There are lots of Christian names that FtMs do not typically name themselves. There is no remarkable surplus of Mathew, Mark, and John like there is of Aaron, Isaac and Jonah.*

So, what gives?
I’m not just saying this to be snarky. I mean, I am snarky. I admitted it right off, didn’t I? But there’s something more serious going on here, too. When I meet a non-Jewish guy who’s named himself a clearly Jewish name, I feel a little bit jealous. A little possessive.
In my family, no one in my generation, or my parents’, or my grandparents’, have recognizably Jewish names. Even my great-grandparents, most of whom spoke Yiddish primarily and English only haltingly if at all, had anglicized names (see also).
They changed their names, and gave their children English names, in order to assimilate, partly for class mobility, partly just for survival. It worked for some of them, in some ways. It did not prevent them from experiencing antisemitism. Probably it mitigated the severity. Probably it continues to do that for me.
In my generation, I know lots of young adult Jews who have obviously Jewish names. For some, these are the names on their birth certificates. Others are choosing to go by the Hebrew names their parents gave them for use during religious rituals. I even know a few people who go by Yiddish or Arabic names. Almost all of these folks who reclaim Jewish names catch flack from their non-Jewish peers. At the very least they are considered weird.
In short, some Jews in the U.S. go through a lot to have Jewish names. I resent the non-Jewish FtMs who choose, as adults, to take on names that, if they were Jews, would mark them as outsiders, but since they are not, only mark them as trendy/interesting/exotic. It’s cultural appropriation. It’s oppressive. It kinda sucks.
I know all about the trendy/interesting/exotic thing, because I have gone by non-English names most of my life. The name I grew up with was Gita, a Hindi name meaning song.** When I introduce myself that way to white folks, after the inevitable back-and-forth about pronunciation, the almost universal response is, “What an interesting name!” I get that response not because the name is interesting per se, but because it’s an interesting name for a white girl. As I wrote here not long ago, when people don’t know that I’m white (because I’m not present / they can’t see me), having a Hindi name causes them to see me as suspicious, rather than interesting.
I stopped going by Gita because of gender, not because of airport security. But I started going by Davey for way more complicated reasons.
My mother tells a story that after I was born, she wanted to name me Devi (which sounds a lot like Davey if you don’t speak any Hindi). The story goes that other people – my father? her friends? – wouldn’t let her name me that because it sounded too much like a boy’s name. This is ironic because Devi actually means “goddess.” Like with Aaron and Jesse, it is the mispronunciation that makes it sound ambiguously- or unexpectedly-gendered.
In college, for some reason I can’t remember but probably had to do with feminist neopaganism, I started using Devi as part of an internet handle. The hot trans*** guy across the hall, once I corrected his pronunciation (as best I could, given that I don't speak Hindi either), thought it was totally interesting, not to mention convenient, that I already had a name that could sound like a boy’s name. For a little while, I went by Devi rather than Gita.
At the same time, I was exploring my gender and presenting in more and more masculine ways. Sometimes when I really looked or acted “like a guy,” my friends would jokingly ask if I was sure I didn’t mean Davey rather than Devi. So, for a while, I used both Devi and Davey. They weren't interchangable. I switched according to how my gender was feeling at the moment. I don't know how other people decided which to call me, but either way I was never bothered by it. I enjoyed the contradiction of honoring the Goddess while using what everyone around me heard as a guy’s name. To highlight what ought to be obvious, I will point out that this could only have happened in a predominantly white environment where very few people had more than passing familiarity with Indian cultures.
In grad school, after an intermission in which I was too busy scraping rent from change in couch cushions to think much about these things, a bunch of factors came together to shift me away from using Devi at all. One of these factors was a kind of gender policing in both trans- and non-trans spaces. People got really anxious about me having two names, or as they usually put it, two spellings of a name. They pressured me, more or less overtly, to “pick one already.”
Another factor was my learning about racism. For the first time, I was working and studying with people who recognized my name as Indian, and not because they were hippies but because they or their families were actually from India. I got the sense some of them were uncomfortable with my name, and the more I learned about the dynamics of cultural appropriation, the more I was uncomfortable with it, too. Plus, of course, they knew it was very definitely not a guy’s name. And not that this makes it okay, but that may have contributed to them never calling me the right pronouns (I was going primarily by male pronouns by this time).
I had tried to be consistent about always putting Devi on assignments I handed in, since that was the name I had applied to grad school under, and I had already learned that having multiple names confused people. But I was using both names in my personal life, and using Davey more and more of the time. One time I accidentally put Davey on a term paper and handed it in. My professor approached me afterward and said, “You know, Davey, when you spell your name this way, it’s a lot easier to call you ‘he’.”
I thought, ouch. There are so many things wrong about that statement. And at the same time, thanks. After all, most people weren’t being so helpful as to tell me what was getting in the way of their respecting my gender. I figured, if that’s what I have to do to be respected as a guy, then, what the heck. I started using Davey in school, as well as in my community. I got comfortable with it. And then I started publishing. And it sort of stuck.
But, I’m thinking about how much it annoys me when non-Jews adopt Jewish names, and mispronounce them, and make them mean something different. Even though Davey is not the same word as Devi, my name still came from that same process of appropriation. I don’t want to continue perpetuating that.
As I shifted to using Davey more or less all of the time, it became more and more a convenience, – a way to represent myself to the world that gave most people the impression I wanted to give them – and less and less connected with my mother’s intention to name me for the goddess, my own desire for connection with the feminine divine, or anything even slightly related to Hinduism or Indian cultures. I'm glad I don't go by Devi anymore, because I recognize the cultural appropriation that gave me access to that name. At the same time, I want my name to be more than a convenience. I want it to mean something more than a strong hint to use male pronouns. After all, if all I wanted was male pronouns, I could name myself Bob. And no offense to the Bobs out there, but ... No.
I never changed the name on my legal documents. At first, I had sensible reasons. Lately, I just haven’t gotten around to it. It's only been in the past few weeks has I noticed part of my reason for not changing it is that I don't know what to change it to.
So, for now, call me Davey. For later, I’m open to suggestions.

* Although there do seem to be a whole lot of Lukes. I have no hypothesis.
** Yeah, I know it's also a Yiddish name (more often as its diminutive Gitl), but let's be real here - Hindi is spoken by between 500 and 680 million people (wiki), and Yiddish by about 3 million (wiki). Even before WWII it was only around 11-13 million (wiki also). And anyway, my name was never Gitl. Just saying.
*** Edited long after the fact to read "trans guy" rather than "tranny guy," because of the shifting discourse around the word "tranny" and what it means for FtMs to re-appropriate it. For one perspective on how it can sometimes be okay for FtMs to call themselves tranny, see Kate Bornstein's take on it.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Ten Plagues

The ten plagues are scary. Last night, a young person reminded me of this. He brought it up to his parents before the seder, asking "How dare you tell this story to kids?! It's horrible!"

Now that I think of it, of course the story is horrible. When I was first learning the Passover story as a little kid, way younger than the person who brought this up last night, I had a big problem with metaphor. I took pretty much everything literally. (For example, I remember worrying that if I watched too much TV, my brains would actually rot inside my head. This was especially true of commercials. When I watched cartoons, I hid my head under the pillow during commercials so I wouldn't see too much and become stupid.) Even now, I have to remind myself that people usually don't mean exactly what they say. It makes me not very good at making small talk.

So of course, as a very literal kid, I was pretty freaked out by the Passover story. I had nightmares about being overrun by frogs, and strategized about what to do if all the water turned to blood. When you put it that way, it hardly feels like a story of liberation. So, yeah, how dare we tell this story to little children?

Last night, the brilliant and gorgeous and gifted leader of our seder had a great solution. Instead of going through the whole blow-by-blow magid, he asked folks to share our favorite parts of the story, that we draw meaning from, in no particular order and without the obligatory blood, boils, and hailstones.

Like Moses, I do not tend to speak clearly, especially without preparation, when I've had some wine, and I'm in a room full of people I respect and admire. So I listened, and learned from other people's favorite parts. Later, in the long BART ride home, I decided the ten plagues are one of my favorite parts, at least they are now that I don't take them literally.

The feeling I get about the ten plagues reminds me of something that happened in 2004, the morning after the second time it was announced that Bush would be president. I was in grad school. In class that morning, my classmates and I were in shock. Some folks sat listlessly, with faces puffy as if they'd been crying all night. Others were agitated, demanding to know what right we all had to be studying and living relatively well off of our student loans, rather than spending the next four years of our lives organizing protests in the streets.

Our professor, a generation or two our elder and a strong, grounded presence in the classroom, said, "This is awful, and we will survive it. We have survived worse, and we will survive this too." She didn't have to explain what she meant by "worse." She's a Black woman social justice activist in her 60s. We all knew she's seen some shit go down. It was a comfort that she thought we'd survive Bush. That's the same feeling I get from the ten plagues story. If we could survive the blood, locusts, wild beasts ... then I guess we'll be okay.

It's like one of those weeks where you think, if someone made an after school special about my life, it would suck, because it would be totally unbelievable that this many crises happened to one person in one week. I mean, first blood came out of the faucet, then wild beasts trampled the garden, locusts ate our food and shitted all over the pantry, now the kids have boils, and to top it all off I found a frog in my bed. A frog! And when it's all over - not the next week, but months or years later, when you've had time to recover and get some perspective on it - you think, well, I survived that, I guess I'll survive this, too.

That's what I'm taking from the ten plagues story this year. We survived the ten plagues - the epic epitome of absurd crises upon crises. And for that matter, we survived Bush. We've survived lots of things. Whatever happens next, I guess we can survive that, too.

Monday, April 06, 2009


I have been such a slacker. Truly. If I had any regular readers, I'd feel really bad about this. As it is, well, I'm really sorry to both of you.

The thing is, I am used to writing rants and tirades and personal narratives. I am used to writing what I know. Lately, what's occupying my mind is the stuff I don't know. It's much harder to write about that.

I lived for 10 years in a semi-rural area in Western Massachusetts. I learned and grew a lot in those years, but by the last year or two, I was in a rut. Then I moved to Oakland, and my world got much much bigger.

Some fun with Census data: The population of Oakland is approximately 12x greater than that of the town I formerly lived in. The geographic area is .6x bigger. Oakland has over 7,000 people per square mile, and the town I used to live in has fewer than 1,000.

Census data counts bodies. Twelve times as many bodies, 7000 bodies per square mile, is not easy for me to get used to.

The great part is, I have access to 12x as many ideas as I did in WMass. When I lived there, I'd get together to kvetch and theorize about Christian hegemony with one or sometimes two friends who also had that interest. I'd get together to kvetch and theorize and organize about classism with two or sometimes four friends who were into that. Here, I think, "I wonder who's organizing about XYZ?," and it seems before I even voice the thought, there's someone (usually someone really cute), inviting me to a discussion group or event about it.

I am getting to think new thoughts here, which is delightful and, when it comes to this blog project, slightly embarassing. It's embarassing because I am used to knowing stuff, and then trying to convince other people of what I know. I know how to write that. I'm not used to writing about what I don't know, about uncertainty.

A friend suggested to me recently that needing to know "the answer" is a part of Christian hegemony. Hegemonic (culturally, socially and politically dominant) Christian thought assumes that there is one truth, and that those who know it (or have faith) are good, and those who don't know (or doubt) are evil - or at least, less good. In that model, of course people don't tend to admit to uncertainty.

I'm not Christian, but I was raised and educated in a society dominated by hegemonic Christianity. In particular, I learned to write in educational institutions founded and structured on Christianity. I learned how to write a 5-paragraph essay with a thesis statement and 2-3 supporting points. Didn't you?

I never learned how to write from a place of uncertainty. I'm not sure how to craft an interesting and compelling essay about not knowing.

I am not sure, but I think probably it is good for me to keep writing even when I don't know. I am sure that at least one of you is going to nag me if I keep slacking. So that was my excuse, and this is my commitment: I will write about things I'm not sure about. I will write about Palestine, about queer and trans politics, and about buying my first suit. When all else fails, I may write about urban chicken farming.

If the writing is not as incisive as the older posts, my humblest apologies.I think at any rate it will be more engaging than leaving three-month gaps in between posts. Plus, maybe if I write my uncertainty, y'all will believe me when I say I am eager for feedback about the writing and the content. (Really, I am. That part I am sure about.)