beating a dead [name]
a brief vigil for the name on my birth certificate
There’s really only one reason I can think of for a person to walk out of the DMV with a smile on their face, and this week I got to experience it for myself: I’ve finally got a license with my name on it.
My real name, that is.
If you’ve known me for awhile, you might be surprised to learn it took me this long to get here. I’ve gone by Alex Abraham almost exclusively for about five years—almost everybody who knew me before probably still lives within a 15 mile radius of my hometown. Sometimes I get very existential about this, wondering if I went back now, would my high school teachers even recognize me? Would my former classmates? Would their parents? What does that make me? Do I even exist?
That’s about when I decide I need to go outside and look at some trees and remember that nothing is actually that deep.
Thinking about the “girl I used to be”—the girl I tried to be, anyway—is complicated. Because the truth is, she didn’t go anywhere. The hardest part about coming out, for me, has always been the fear of being seen as deceptive. Like I’m a wolf shedding sheep-skin, baring my fangs. I’m still me! screams a voice in my head, even though what me even means feels like a subject of debate.
There’s a lot of discourse within the trans community around use of pronouns—when you refer to someone who has transitioned in the past tense, to a time before they had transitioned, what pronouns do you use? The answer is, whatever pronouns the trans person in question asks you to use. Personally, the pronouns I use for myself in the past-tense tend to depend on the situation. Sometimes I was being a real they/them, even when I was a she/her, you know? And sometimes I can still be a real she/her, because that is simultaneously a process of unlearning and self-acceptance.
Ever since I was a little kid, I really believed the advice that one should “be yourself.” But how could I be myself if I hadn’t met me yet? Was I really being me all those years I wore dresses and make-up and introduced myself with a different name?
Yes, of course I was. But also—no, of course I wasn’t. I was a proud oddball growing up. I danced to the beat of my own drum, I listened to really bad music and insisted it was good, I wore pinch-y shoes, and I marched in protests for the things I believed in, and I got in arguments with my conservative uncles over holiday meals, and I once fell in love with a guy who played guitar just because he was nice to me. And of all those things, I only regret two (the shoes and the guitar guy).
After spending years sorting out the internal stuff that makes up the shape of who I am and how I see myself, I can’t help but feel like the words on the label don’t matter much at all. Who cares what my license says, you know? Well, I can tell you the exact moment I did care/have cared. It’s whenever I have been seated in a waiting room and had to listen for the name, “Alexandra?”
No one ever called me that.
My mother gave me a beautiful name, she really did. Alexandra Nicole. It means “protector” and “victory.” It instilled a confidence within from a very young age that can only come from having to spell out all nine letters of your four-syllable identity by the time you hit first grade. And I went to Catholic school to boot, so of course it had to be in cursive.
The problem was, when my mother gave me this lovely name, she didn’t really know what she wanted to call me for short. There was some debate between my parents, and if you go back to birthday cards and scrapbooks from the first couple years of my life, you’ll see a handful of different nicknames being tested out.
For example: a few years ago, we found one of my aunt’s grade school projects—a little book she had written and illustrated herself, dedicated to Lexi.
“Who the hell is ‘Lexi?’” I asked.
My aunt laughed. “I’m pretty sure that was you.”
I have weird, disjointed memory of saying my full name out loud for the first time to a friend in the driveway of our old apartment. My friend scrunched up her nose, and I immediately understood her confusion—Alexandra was so stuffy and formal. It was a queen’s name, not a little kid with skinned knees. But it also felt a little like a promise. It was a grown-up name for the grown-up person I was destined to be, some day. With this observation came the misbelief that if I was patient, someday I’d grow into it. I just had to bide my time through childhood (—which is a totally normal thought to have at age 8).
The dust never really settled on the great naming debate—my parents got divorced, and to my dad I would be Alex (this meant that, for many years, I actually really hated being called Alex, because its primary association was to the lackluster parent). To my mom and at school, I would be that Other Name.
But to my Nana, who spent the most daylight hours with me while my mom was at work, I was always Al.
Al stuck around. Everyone else in the family started using it, too. When my little sister learned to talk, that was the first thing she called me. I used to think it was embarrassing—more like a used car salesman’s name than a fourth grade girl’s. But by the time I hit high school I’d started to embrace it. I used to be pretty cagey about who outside my family got to use it—it felt like something sacred, something you had to earn. I still feel that way, a little.
But if you’re reading this newsletter, you already know way too much about me. What I’m saying is, you can call me Al.
The Other Name is what really comes to mind when I talk about my “deadname” though, not Alexandra. If you’re new to the lingo, “deadname” is the word for whatever a trans person was called before they chose their true name. Usually (but not always!), the name your parents put on your birth certificate. My mom still gets mail addressed to her with my dad’s last name. I also refer to this as deadnaming—which, for the record, I don’t think she finds as funny as I do.
This is where the story of my own naming gets a little complicated. Because on my birth certificate, I was given my father’s last name. But I was raised with my mom and her family, and I always felt like the odd one out for not being a “real” Abraham. So, around the time I turned 15, I started using Abraham as my last name online. I asked my mom if I could change it legally, but she told me I’d have to wait until I turned 18. So even before I knew I was trans, even when I still went by that Other Name, I understood how my legal name and my real name could differ.
By the time I got to college, I had decided to try phasing out my Other Name. This was tricky, because before school even started, a lot of my new classmates found my on Facebook, where I had used the Other Name during high school. Even when I changed it, I had people come up to me and recognize me as Other Name. It made me feel . . . sticky.
I never felt comfortable insisting on being called “Alex,” because, in my mind, I wasn’t a trans person. It’s not like they were misgendering me—it had nothing to do with my gender, right? (Wrong!) When a trans person changes their name and pronouns, it’s different. It’s instantaneous. It’s something they know they want, and I had no idea what I wanted. Calling me the Other Name wasn’t wrong, it was just using the childhood nickname I was trying to grow out of . . . right?
I wrote a poem about it. It was a long block of short verses, breaking down all the different shortenings of my name, Alexandra, Alex, Al, etc, and how I felt about each one. I remember working through those feelings as I wrote it, and realizing that the only name that felt really right, the only thing I ever called myself in my head, was Al. Those two letters didn’t carry weighty expectations or confusing parental attachments—they were just me. And I knew if someone felt comfortable calling me Al, it was because they knew me well enough to know it was okay.
I lost that poem a long time ago—that’s what you get for writing things long-hand in the age of technology. I do remember I sent a picture of it to my mom, thinking she’d be excited that I was interested in poetry because we have a lot of poets in our family. This was how I learned that sometimes, your parents have very strong opinions about the name they gave you, and it can hurt their feelings if you reject it.
Good thing I wasn’t trans yet! Or that could have gotten messy. Har-har.
It wasn’t until I studied abroad that I went only by Alex for an extended period of time. And it felt awesome. Study abroad can be a bit like summer camp—you’re stranded in a new place, with a limited social sphere of people who speak the same language. You bond incredibly fast, because you have no choice. I got this amazing overseas surrogate family in my classmates and teachers, and to them I was Alex. I was funny, smart, charming Alex.
I started thinking about myself as that Other Name in the third person. Because she wasn’t any of those things that Alex got to be. She was shrill and bossy and a know-it-all. She wasn’t charming, she was awkward. I wrote more poems about how much I hated her, how I wished I could escape her. And if you asked me back then, I’d still tell you I was a cis girl.
I could regale you with the long, twisted-up story of how I eventually figured out I was not, in fact, a cis girl. But the tldr version is—I actually met some trans people for the first time in my life. I have described this as the feeling in Into the Spiderverse when Miles and the other Spiders-Men spidey-senses sync, there’s a flash of color, and they say, “you’re like me.”
Trans people refer to this moment as ‘cracking the egg.’ I like this metaphor, because there’s no going back from that. My egg cracked, and suddenly a whole lot of my life made much more sense than it had before. Like why I had always gotten squirmy at the words girl or lady, why the pink frilly outfits I’d been stuffed into as a child made my skin crawl, why I couldn’t even walk into a Victoria’s Secret without having a panic attack until my mid-twenties.
The next few years saw a lot of change. I finally put my foot down about the Other Name with friends and family who had only known me that way. I changed my pronouns a few times. I cut my hair, I grew it back, I cut it again. I tried hormones, I got top surgery, I moved to Portland so I wouldn’t be the weirdest person at the grocery store anymore. I got an MFA, I wrote a few books, oh yeah and there was that whole global pandemic. And now, here I stand on the other side, an officially licensed Abraham with a new first name to match.
I waffled on whether or not to keep Alexandra, or maybe switch it to Alexander. I’ve always had a secret theory that anyone with name derivative of “Alexander” is bound to have a Greatness Complex. I mean, come on. He was the original the Great. He’s why the name means “protector of man.” It was the source of every loaded expectation I ever felt about “growing into” my name as a kid . . . and, weirdly, it was hard to part with.
As a writer, I think names are incredibly important. What they mean and how they sound can tell you everything you need to know about a character in just a single word. And I didn’t want to erase all that baggage I’d grown up with—I just couldn’t keep carrying it with me everywhere.
Some trauma is better kept in a storage unit. You can always go back for it, but you don’t need to constantly look at it. And at the end of the day I knew, I didn’t want anyone calling me Alexandra or Alexander or anything else. I just wanted to be Alex at the doctor’s office.
I chose a brand-new middle name for myself. It means “hope.” I think I’d rather be a protector of hope than a protector of victory, anyway.
Last week, I told my therapist, when I was 16, I could never imagine myself at 26. Isn’t that silly? Because she’s a good therapist, she told me that no, that’s not silly, that’s a really common symptom of disassociation. Dysphoria trapped me in a near-constant dissociative state for the better part of my adolescence, but I think another part of what always made it so hard to see myself as an adult was that I had only been given a recipe for a certain kind of adult to begin with—a cis-heteronormative formula that I never could have achieved with any authenticity. I had subconsciously loaded the weight of all of that into who and what I thought Alexandra should be.
Because I was a morbid child, I’d often think about my own death1. When I pictured my headstone, it would read a name that no one ever called me. Only the people who knew and loved me would know the truth of who I really had been—and I romanticized the shit out of that idea for most of my life.
Growing up on the East Coast, I spent a lot of time in old cemeteries. I liked reading people’s headstones and coming up with stories for who they might have been. I have a lot of secret, Romantical beliefs about graveyards and headstones and spirituality. One of them is that, by stopping to pay respects at a stranger’s grave, we can shake hands through time. I liked to imagine myself serving the same purpose for other curious minds, someday. How would they picture me? Would I do something memorable during my life that deserved remembrance, or would I be another anonymous collection of letters on stone? Would lichen grow in the crease of the A, the N, the M, the dates of my entry and departure? Would roots spring up from the base of me as my body returned, worm-eaten, to the earth? Is it egotistical to think so much about your own remains?
Now, I’m not sure I’ll even get a headstone when I die. I don’t know what the world will look like by the time I exit it. Nothing traditional must stay. But for old time’s sake, I’ll send my old name out the way younger-me always imagined: Rest in peace Alexandra Nicole, and all the expectations carried with her.
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Pretty sure I wrote my first “will” at age 6. I bequeathed specific mementos for people to remember me by, and asked to be buried with my teddy bear and blanket. Kids are hilarious, man.