What’s in a name?

How names influence our perception of gender and why they shouldn’t

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“Hi, my name’s Anna.”

With that one sentence, I have all but doomed myself in many people’s eyes to be the thing I dread most: a girl.

To be clear, I’ve had top surgery. I wear nerdy T-shirts, men’s jeans, and a jean jacket. I have a short undercut. (You know, that one that’s stereotyped for androgynous and non-binary people?) 

I even have not one, but two pins on my lapel that say “they/them,” for crying out loud. What’s the point of those little pronoun buttons if everyone I talk to suddenly becomes selectively blind to them? They certainly have no issue commenting on my other pins and patches.

So why do I have to make my way through the day wanting to shrivel into a little ball every time someone assumes I’m female? Oh sure, I could speak up, but then I’d be the “whiny trans person” who can’t just “deal with it,” and it’s such a hassle to correct people anyway. Instead, I just grit my teeth as the cashier who looked at my ID calls out that “this lady over here has items for pick-up.” 

Sure, it could be attributed to the fact that my voice sits in a higher register — not indicative of gender at all, by the way — or that I enjoy “feminine” hobbies like crochet and sewing. Or even the whole idea that English doesn’t have a natural way to refer to non-binary people. If you’re thinking: “But singular they isn’t gramm-” Nope. That argument has run its incredibly false course.

Truth is, I’m usually seen as non-binary or at least “indeterminate” right up until someone calls my name or the person I’m talking to asks what mine is. 

There’s a reason I avoid my name like the plague most of the time. I would change it to something more ambiguous, but that would require a lot of effort and also an explanation to my entire family on why I’m “abandoning” the name they painstakingly chose for me. You’d swear you just asked them to lay their new wool coat over a mud puddle for you to walk over by how they tend to react.

Listen. There are more than two sexes anyway. Why then do we still insist on assigning gendered names at birth and using that name to “identify” that person’s gender for the rest of their life (unless they change it, which is a hassle at best and dangerous at worst)?

And for that matter, why are so few names seen as unisex? They’re made up of arbitrary sounds, anyway.

It’s not just a non-binary problem, either. In multiple cases, STEM job applicants named John were seen as more competent than those named Jennifer who were offered on average $4,000 less per year than the Johns, even though the rest of the application was identical. Gender contamination also has a substantial effect on those seen as male — boys with traditionally feminine names have a harder time in school and tend to be seen as weaker than their “appropriately” named counterparts.

The only obstacle that remains in the way of de-gendering names and even babies (shout out to Washington for being one of the few states with an “X” option on birth certificates and drivers’ licenses) is tradition, or more accurately, the current social norm. It can be extremely difficult to change a way of thinking that seems so set in stone, but change starts with one person, or a few at a time. 

If you’re not sure of someone’s gender and/or pronouns, just ask. And please, please don’t assume how someone identifies based on their name. At best, it’s a small microaggression that they are desensitized to. At worst, it might ruin that person’s day or even their perception of you.

Don’t know how to address someone without using gendered terms? Here are some common alternatives:

Mrs./Ms./Miss/Mr.: Mx. (pronounced “mix”) 

Miss/Mister: Mixter

Girlfriend/Boyfriend: Partner or significant other (S/O)

In the meantime, I’ll (not so) patiently wait for the day that I can finally feel comfortable telling someone my name again.

Reach contributing writer Anna Miller at opinion@dailyuw.com.  Twitter: @lesakuraciel

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(1) comment


"What’s the point of those little pronoun buttons if everyone I talk to suddenly becomes selectively blind to them?"

Exactly. Our author is obsessed with their identity to the point of absolute obnoxiousness. I'm going to save them a ton of time on therapy in a few short sentences:

No one cares. Literally. No one. Everyone has their own things going on. Taking the time to figure out whatever game you're playing isn't on that list of things. If you look like a girl and utilize a girl's name you're going to be get called "her" even if it's obvious you're physically a man. People are polite but not beholden to you. No one owes you the attention you seek.

My advice; do what you want insofar as you don't care what people think. You clearly care a great deal about what people think and you want attention and control of the actions of strangers. That's a recipe for disappointment.

If you're going to keep caring what others think, maybe modify your expectations? Understand that no one cares that you'd choose to be called "they" when you're coming across as she. Present yourself as he and you're going to get called him. It's really simple; stop caring and go about your business. Or don't and be constantly miserable - the choice is yours.

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