The sound of the city hall metal detector alarm makes my heart stop in my throat. Every sharp object that I own flashes through my head, as if the fantasy dagger that I bought at a RenFaire when I was too young to know better has somehow fallen into my messenger bag.
Oh, right. Belt.
Holding my pants up with one hand I stumble through the gate once more and then head for the elevators My hand darts into my pocket and I count through the items by touch – wallet, keys, phone, passport, copy of my birth certificate, social security card. Possibly overkill.
I button my coat back up to the neck as I ride the elevator to the fourth floor with bored-looking men in boring suits. My heart is racing as the numbers tick upward.
When the doors open I see people are standing in curving lines in front of a row of desks, DMV-style. Frustrated children tug on their parents hands as their little souls, still too young to understand what’s going on, feel themselves starting to be crushed by bureaucracy. My nervous eyes hunt for some sign of my people.
Okay. Undercuts, flower tattoos, and piercings in unconventional place. The undercuts almost never lead me wrong. I have found The Queers.
I step up to the cluster of undercuts and in a bare whisper, pitching my voice down as if I have anything to hide from these people, say, ‘Are you the ones helping with name change paperwork?’.
Even when they’re not reverse-gendering their original name, the names trans people pick for themselves are often not too creative. I personally know two Aidens, three Quinns, far too many Sams and Alexs. A surprising number just google up ‘Top Hundred Baby Names’, and scroll until something hits the right tone.
Of course I’m a little showboat so I’m not going to do something as mundane as picking a name off a Buzzfeed list, though two seperate people sent me a link to ‘Most Popular Names of 1890’ because my preferred aesthetic is Oscar Wilde on a casual Friday.
I assumed choosing a name was supposed to be this big, significant moment in my life. I should pick something meaningful, maybe the name of a fictional hero or a mentor.
Instead, I got an impulse buy.
For complicated nerd reasons I’d been using Ellen Nygma as a pseudonym when putting a fake name on sign-up sheets to get free stuff. The first time I went to a trans support group I panicked just outside the door, reverse-gendered the name, and went in the door as Elliot.
You can’t go around calling yourself transmasculine while you’re towing a name like ‘Anna’ around behind you, right?
I came out at work in October, first to the only nonbinary person in the office, then to the Human Resources department and my team in the marketing department, and then at the all-staff Monday meeting following my official namechange on Facebook.
They were fine with it. I wasn't the first one in the office to do something squirrely with my gender. My email name was swapped almost immediately, nobody misgendered me with anything other than a slip of the tongue. The coworker whose religion forbids physical contact with non-familial members of the opposite sex politely dissuaded me from hugging her, which is an unusual kind of respect for my gender identity but I’ll take it.
But I couldn’t get used to the new name. I dreaded seeing it, hearing it.
I kept thinking, have I fucked myself? Will this be the name I’ll have to use whether I want it or not? Is it ever going to sound comfortable to me? I can’t change it now, if I change my mind I’ll have to wear it until I stop working here. Why couldn’t I just keep up my secret agent identity and not let work know that I've changed anything?
…right, because I have like four coworkers following me on Facebook, and I can’t change my name on there without everyone knowing about it, and I can’t not change my name because it’s starting to really confuse new people following me, because the new trend for people you just met is to let them attach themselves to an account that tells them everything about your life in four clicks.
When I came out to HR, they me told there’s only so much they can change as long as my other name’s still legally attached to me. I tell her it’s fine and I’ll change it eventually, because that’s what I figure she wants to hear. It’s what people expect.
Nobody’s going to take you seriously when your checks are still made out to Anna.
The legal volunteer walks me through filling out name, place of birth, social security number, all the little details that root me in government databases without telling me a damned thing about who I am. They tell me about the waiting period, the filing fee
Side note: Apparently your new name has to sue your old name, legally speaking, to get it changed. As a Jew with anxiety, I’ve always been deeply convinced of my own guilt. Taking myself to court is a new level, though.
Eventually, every line is filled out. I turn to face the rows of desks. The edges of the paper crinkle under my fingers. My credit card is pressed against my palm like a hidden knife, ready to deliver several hundred dollars for the privilege of being an Elliot full-time. The person with the undercut smiles and offers to walk me up there if I’m uncomfortable going alone.
“I’ll…” I can barely get the words out.
Breathe, girl. I mean, boy. I mean whatever the fuck. You need to man up about this. Just walk up there and...
I flee the building, papers in my bag. They’ll stay riding around in there for two more months, waiting for the moment when I have enough nerve, and eventually I just throw them out.
I can’t do it. I can’t fucking do it. Anyone who’s met me knows I’m a hoarder, I’ll keep things around until even electrical tape can’t keep it in a state of barely functional. The majority of my furniture comes from things I find in the alley behind my apartment building, even if I have to keep them propped up against the slightest breeze knocking their legs out from under them.
And you want me to throw away a perfectly serviceable name? It’s mine. I don’t want to shed it, I just want to put it on the shelf where I can look at it whenever I want even if I’m not using it.
I want all my names, just like I want all the genders, all the pronouns, the entire fucking buffet. I’m a greedy son and/or daughter of a bitch, okay? It’s the one thing about myself I’m still sure of.
The whole ‘what name do I use at work’ situation resolves itself six months later, when my organization loses a third of its funding, and a quarter of its staff shortly thereafter.
I’m sitting in Zanzibar Cafe, staring at VistaPrint dot com with my resume open in another window as I try to put together a design for my business card. I’ve been sitting here for an hour exploiting Zanzibar’s free refill policy and VistaPrint's one-day half-off sale, typing and retyping my information in various fonts and templates.
Let’s be real. It’s not the fonts that are the problem. It’s what’s in the fonts.
I can’t do Elliot. If someone does a background check or calls any jobs before my most recent one they’re gonna get a resounding ‘Elliot who?’.
I can’t do Anna, because if I walk in all Ellioted up and tell them that their pronoun and name assumptions are going to need to do a sharp right turn before we move on with the rest of the interview, it's not going to give a good first impression.
I can’t do a paragraph-long explanation of my trip from Anna to Elliot with a stopover in Aaron, and how I don’t want to give up the part of me that’s been called Anna for three decades even though that was never fully me, and how I’ve never gone through Facebook and deleted every photo of me with long hair or a name so feminine that it both starts and ends with A because I have a hard enough time remembering my past as it is, and how I’m so fucking sick of frantically picking out what answer gets me the least attention when someone does that damn ‘go around the circle and say your name and pronouns’ exercise at events.
That’s not going to fit the character limit without breaking down to the next line and making the formatting all funky.
Anna isn’t me but it’s mine. I don’t know how to explain that in the span of a single name. Hell, I’ve been going at this for about eighteen hundred words and if you guys know what’s going on you’re already one-up on me.
I type and delete and type again and then finally. Finally. Finally something clicks. I reach for the keyboard.
“A, period, Elliot, Besmann.”
Elliot front and center. Anna hanging out quietly in the corner, not making a fuss but there when I need it. A calm, polite font, not too quiet and not too garish...and slap some serifs on there for good measure. Because I'm classy like that.
About the artist...
Elliot Besmann identifies as a self-loathing narcissist. Originally from Tennessee, they started doing stand-up storytelling when they realized it meant people would have to quietly listen to them talk for 7-10 minutes without a single interruption. They've gone through two names and three pronoun sets over the course of their career but are too lazy to go back and amend the older ones.
Elliot's work focuses on queer issues, Jewish identity, the inherent folly of conflicting cultural norms, and being a giant nerd. They perform frequently at storytelling shows around Chicago, including the Filet of Solo Storytelling Festival two years in a row and the premiere of 'Am I Man Enough?'.
In their spare time they enjoy cross stitching swear words, dressing up as a supervillain, and trying to remember the third thing on this list.
Want to see more of Elliot’s work?
Check out their piece, Pinch Hit Mitzvot, from Issue XI: Diving In!