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.


Leodios said...

Interesting commentary. And one that I really don't have any personal experience with. But...

I suppose one could pose the question "are these in fact Jewish names?" All of them are Anglicized versions of Hebrew names (possibly some Aramaic? Or Moses, which clearly has an Egyptian background). Is any name that is Hebrew automatically a Jewish name?

Jesus (Yeshua) was a Jew and had a Hebrew-Aramaic name. But most folks would never consider a Latino kid named Jesús as having a "Jewish" name.

Most people raised Christian are familiar with these names as prophets and other folks from the "Old Testament" (aka the Tanakh) and regard them as part of their own religious heritage (rightly or wrongly) as members of a weird splinter group that at least STARTED as a clearly Jewish sect...and then became it's own strange thingy.

gillis said...

I found this post really interesting. I think names are really fascinating to begin with, and as someone who has quite a few friends who have chosen new names for various reasons, they are even more interesting. I had never thought about the relationship between name-changes and cultural appropriation. However, I feel a little conflicted about what you say about non-Jews taking Hebrew names. Maybe it's because to me, most of those names are biblical first, no matter what language they come from. Or maybe it's because I'm a non-Jew with a Hebrew name (Sarah). In any event, thank you for opening my eyes a little bit.
(as a complete aside, i took your j-term class at Smith last year and learned a lot. thanks.)

Dane said...

I really like this post. What's Hebrew for Jordan? I feel like I know this, but have totally misplaced it in my brain.

Also, I've tried to talk to people about this before, but the answer I get is usually along the lines of "Well, it's an Old Testament/Biblical name; what's wrong with that?" This response usually gets me cranky and defensive, and I find myself thinking things like "Because it's ours, mine," like a three year old.

And then I notice that no one's really taking names from other places of Jewish text - you don't see many Eliaezars, Akivas, or Mosihe. And they're not taking Yiddish names, either. They're sticking to the text that's most common with Christianity.

Then again, neither are most Jews.

Davey says ... said...

D - Hebrew for Jordan is Jordan. (Just pronounce it like it's weirdly transliterated. Yor-dan w/ accent on the second syallable).

Gillis - Now I know why the name's familiar! Yr welcome.

Ev'yone - I agree there's a complication abt "OT" or TNKh names being Xtian as well as Jewish. But actually, the really common names don't bother me. Jacob, Isaac, Benjamin, Aaron - or if it was MtFs, Sarah, Rachel, etc. - it wouldn't be weird at all, except that there seem to be a disproportionate lot of them. What really itches me, in the same way Dane describes, are the names that are really extremely uncommon amongst gentiles, except FtMs.

Davey says ... said...

Danny says:

This is all very provocative and marvelous. I feel liberated when I read about Christian hegemony in such a thoughtful way.

Let's talk more about this sometime; I'm very tempted to write in a similar vein about disability.....

Also, not sure if this alleviates some of your appropriation angst, but Gita and its sweet diminutive Gitl are perfectly kosher Yiddish names, historically female-limited.....

Also there is a huge American Protestant tradition of ornate Hebrew names. It goes back to the Puritans and their over-identification with Jews, plus their alienation from much of Christianity......kinda like ours in a weird way....

So maybe transfolk are just jumping on the Puritan bandwagon, eh?:)

Davey says ... said...

hi danny,
thanks so much for the comments!
do you mind if i copy them to the blogger comment section? i would love to continue the conversation there. and also in person, over coffee sometime!
btw i think that trans folks jumping on the puritan bandwagon is the funniest thing i have EVER heard.

kamrrr said...

Another snippit that I learned in class today:
The Nazis made a decree that no Gentile shall choose a name from the Hebrew Bible, & no Jew shall choose a name from the Christian Scripture.

Dane said...

Re: draft 2

Hmm. I'm not sure what makes this significantly different from the first draft. Are you making the argument that non-Jewish FtMs using names from the TNKh is parallel to your mom naming you Gita, or you being called Devi or Davey?

Because if that's the case, then I guess I can see where the cranky/snarky part comes in. Rather than just thinking "but it's mine and you can't have it!", one might think, "But using these names has been historically disadvantageous to me and my people, and it's not fair for you to just be able to tantz in here and wear them out the door with your Christian privilege protecting you from that particular discrimination..."


Charley said...

In England (certainly the bit I'm in) Jordan, Micah and other hebrew names are actually pretty common. I know my sister is planning on naming her first kid Micah if it's a boy. And I do know a fair few trans guys called Matthew and Mark so I don't know if this may be a more American thing or something?

I mean I have David as a middle name but that's down to it being an old family name (every guy in my mothers family has had it in their name for about 5 generations now) So far as we know I am not in the slightest bit jewish (great grandfather on one side was a foundling so we don't know for certain but seems unlikely).

But yeah cultural appropriation of names is important. I don't think people can be blamed for what their parents call them but it's certainly down to people to be aware of the cultural implications of the names they pick whether for themselves or others.

At the very bloody least they need to learn how to pronounce/spell them correctly, says the irish kid who is getting increasingly pissed off at the number of 'Shivorn's' (Siobhan) and 'Neeve's' (Niamh) he's stumbled across.

If you can't be bothered to learn to spell/pronounce the name properly definitely don't use it seems to be a reasonably good rule here.