Tell Me Your Name

Tell Me Your Name Tell Me Your Name

I once fought with a clown on live TV.

Maybe it wasn’t a fight exactly, by all accounts it was non-violent, something more of a stand-off. There were two clowns actually, but I only tussled with one. The tall clown’s name was Harvey, his round colleague’s name was Cannonball. I was eight-years old and I secretly hoped to become just little bit famous by appearing that day on their TV set along with a dozen or so other kids from my Mormon primary class. My mom put my hair in braids and I wore a church dress. I hoped that I looked something like Melissa Gilbert. At the time, I liked to think that I was prepared to take over her role on Little House on the Prairie if she ever got sick. I didn’t actually wish her ill, but if they needed me, I was ready.

Harvey & Cannonball hosted a Saturday morning cartoon program called Hotel Balderdash featuring a live audience of children to interact with between cartoons. I think that we, the children, were meant to be the guests in their hotel. Maybe Harvey was the concierge and Cannonball a some sort of bell captain. They wore a stovepipe hat and a bowler hat respectively. Other than that they didn’t seem to have proper costumes, only over-sized clothes. No make-up. Despite their loud laughter and why-did-the chicken-jokes, I now suspect that they were under qualified clowns, the pie-in-the-face kind who have never been to clown college.

Nonetheless, in 1975 it was a big deal to be on TV. It was special in a way that it never will be again. There were only six channels and you had to get up off the couch to change them. Programs had a time they were on and that was the only time you could watch them. We only had one screen and it was housed in a big brown box in a room we called the TV room. We admired the people who were on TV, just because they were on it. Including the clowns.

When a smiling Harvey approached me with cameras rolling, I was ready.

What’s your name little girl?

Nan, I said carefully. Nan (pause) Seymour. My pause was intentional, meant to prevent what happened next.

Thanks for coming on our show today Nancy!

My name is Nan, I said again. Nan (longer pause) Seymour.

OK Nancy!

In truth, I don’t remember exactly what happened then. For a while, it was the subject of a lot of talk at my church. Some said I grabbed the mic from his hands, some said I shouted, some said I cried. Everyone said I made the clown mad.

Here’s what I remember: I was determined to be known for who I was, desperate to be known as Nan, NOT Nancy. Harvey was sweating. I wanted to go home, but instead I had to stay put in my plastic chair surrounded by snickering kids from my church to watch Josie and the Pussycats. I was embarrassed, but I wasn’t sorry. I thought I had the right to be called by my own name.

~

More recently I was backpacking in the Escalante Wilderness with my husband Robert, many miles from any populated area, when we ran into someone I was less than eager to see. A large man and his companions approached us from down the canyon. I knew the man because he was the Chair of the board for the non-profit I was directing at the time. He had bullied me a few times at board meetings, but Robert had never met him.

I was surprised when the Chair seemed delighted to see me. He held out his big fist in front of him. It took me a minute to realize that he was attempting to greet me with a fist bump. I could almost hear the clock tick as I curled my fingers into a fist of my own and moved it forward through the air to connect with his. Slowly and slightly off center I landed my first, and I hope to God, my last fist bump. I thought it was the most awkward exchange imaginable. Turns out it wasn’t.

I introduced him to Robert. He shook Robert’s hand and then immediately began introducing him to his friends.

This is Bob, he said.
Not Robert, not Rob. Bob.
Hi Bob, they all said to Robert, who never in his life has been called anything but Robert.

I wish I could say here that I fought the clown, that I grabbed him by his suspenders and shouted This Is Robert! But I was so caught off-guard by this clearly intentionally renaming of a grown man, that I merely blinked into the desert sun. Robert politely let it go and we walked away.

~

When I was 42 I returned to college, in the midst of a divorce after nearly 20 years of marriage. The only thing I felt sure about was that I needed to go back to school and finish my degree in English. I wanted to study poetry. I managed to find my way to Jacqueline Osherow’s classroom. On the first day, I felt like a complete fool seated in the same room in Orson Spencer Hall and perhaps at the same desk where I had failed to finish 25 years previously. At least the bathroom down the hall still had the same tampon dispenser, adorned with images of sporty women from the seventies: a tennis player, a jogger, a roller-skater with feathered hair and tight white pants. These ladies offered faint reassurance. I was nearly their age, and old enough to be the mother of every other student in the room. To make it harder on myself, I had read several of Dr. Osherow’s books before the first day of class and I knew that she was not just a good poet, but a great one. I was intimidated. I didn’t believe I was worthy of being in her class.

Until she learned my name. There were about thirty of us there the first day. Before she did anything else, she asked for our names. She looked at our faces when we said them. She repeated them back to us without making any mistakes, and then she said them again. The whole exercise took about ten minutes.

I learned your names, she said, because it matters if you are here. Now I know who you are.

I believed her. Once she knew me by name, I never again questioned my right to be in the room. I kept taking classes from Dr. Osherow. With her encouragement, I obtained merit-based scholarships for the next two school years. I received an A in every class I took, even math. At the age of 44, I finally donned a cap and gown and received a diploma with my name on it.

Would I have found the courage to stick it out if I had remained a nameless older student? I doubt it. I’ll never know because on the first day someone knew who I was. Someone cared if I was in my in my chair or not, someone who knew my name.

~

Is Truman a boy or a girl? the pharmacist asked.

I should have seen the question coming. After all, I knew I had confused her. When I dropped off the prescription, the young woman at the counter had asked a list of routine questions about my child and the medication. Did he need to talk with a pharmacist? Did he know how to cut the pills? etc...I had answered that she didn’t and she does. I wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement, only keeping up my own practice of consistently using correct pronouns, but I noticed how her brow furrowed in response. She let it go, and I was glad. I wasn’t in the mood for a longer conversation. I did some shopping and returned to pick up the meds. I had forgotten about the furrowed brow, so I wasn’t ready for her question.

A boy or a girl?

I wish I could say that I didn’t hesitate, but I did. I looked her in the eye and took a deep breath, as if I was preparing for a battle.

She is a transgender woman. I answered.

I am fiercely proud of my twenty-year old daughter, but I am not proud of the way I paused. Let me confess, I was doing the math, asking myself if there was an honest answer that would get me out of the pharmacy check-out line without another stumbling conversation with a stranger. I’m not really afraid of awkwardness, I'm well-practiced at it. But weary that day and in a hurry, I was tempted to take the short-cut. I’m glad I didn’t.

That’s great! the pharmacist replied loudly as her face lit up. She was downright exuberant. And then she was embarrassed, perhaps feeling that she was coming off as overly exuberant. She started speaking rapidly.

I wish we could change her name on the records, I’m sorry that we can’t legally, but we would if we could I really wish we could do it today, it should be easier...

I reassured her that I knew the law wouldn’t allow a change in medical records until my daughter Beatrice had completed her legal transition. I told her we were working on it.

When you get the papers, just come in, you can just come in and we’ll change it right away We’ll make her name right! We’ll do it as soon as you come in....

She was still speaking quickly, tripping over words. Perhaps she felt awkward, but she was determined to make herself clear about the following:

She believed in my daughter’s right to be called by her true name.
She thought it should be easier.
She would do anything she could do to help.

As I left the pharmacy, I felt my clenched gut soften. And then a tender opening of joy in my chest, the lift of gladness about my heart. I will not soon forget this stranger who I now recognize as our unabashed ally. Nor will I forget the way she stumbled over her words as she offered to help. Not because she stumbled, we all do, but because she stumbled towards us.

~

As the ultimate experts on our own identities, we each have an inherent right to self-identify. I vow to fight any clown who would stand in the way of this right. ( It won’t be my first fight.)

I also vow the following: Tell me your name and I will not question or change it. I will not assign you a nickname. Tell me your name and I will take the time to learn it. It may take me ten minutes, but I will look into your face and memorize it. If I forget, I will ask again. And if you change it, I will learn your new name, the one that is true for you today. Tell me your name and I will use it to identify you because it matters if you are here.

I’m likely to be awkward, to make mistakes. But when I stumble, let me stumble towards you.

~

 

 

 

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