Can you remember the names of the kids in your class when you were at school? How far back? Even the ones who were neither your friends, nor your bullies?
I can’t claim to remember all of them, but I’ve got quite a few stashed away in my head still, from age 5. Mark, Daniel, Tony, Sarah, Melanie, Karen (though at about age 8, she got moved to the year above the rest of us), Nina, Gary, Justin with the double-barrelled surname. I remember all their surnames, by the way — I’m just declining to publish them. Ah, and the twin girls who lived in the next street — now what were their names? Susannah and something, I think. Don’t tell me, it’ll come to me.
My point is that names stick. Almost 30 years since I last saw most of them, I can still remember almost all of their names, if not much else. Other than a bit of a personal blind spot some years ago for confusing Carolines with Catherines, I will often remember people’s names with a high degree of accuracy, and for a long period of time. Ah, but what did they look like? Here, things are far more hazy.
As trans folk, many of us have old names that are associated purely with the past; and during transition, our appearances often change over time in a way that most other people’s doesn’t. Those memories of the past are often powerful and painful, a place we want to avoid being taken — or at least not go there unprepared. An unexpected reminder of a previous name, an inopportune sighting of a photo from the wrong part of our history, can be enough to seriously dampen the spirits for the rest of the day.
Society teaches us that some things about a person are fixed, and some are mutable. Jobs, careers, where we live, having kids – all things in which society teaches us to expect changes. Partners, too (and that’s more fluid now than it would have been 30, 40, 50 years ago). Even general life circumstance, such as bankruptcy or homelessness, we understand can happen, even if we don’t expect it. Surnames? Women change their names when they marry, society used to teach us, though that’s less true now than it used to be. For men, surname changes continue to be uncommon. Forenames? Nah, they’re fixed, we’re told. And gender — you what, now? You’re having a laugh, ain’t you?
Appearance, too, is subject to some odd and arbitrary rules. We expect people to get bigger as they grow from birth to adulthood. We expect that their appearance, in body and face shape, will change significantly around puberty. We allow for people to put on weight, and to lose weight – or neither. We expect that people’s skin will look more aged over time, for their general posture to drop, for their youth to leave them. (But have you noticed how much younger a happily-transitioned person looks, compared to how they looked before?)
It always surprises me when, on meeting a trans person for the first time, some people will almost immediately disclose their old name, even though as far as I can tell they don’t have to. Even if they’ve not used that name for months. It’s so directly opposed to my own approach, I honestly don’t know what to make of it.
Society is wrong, of course, but it’s hard to escape its influence. Deeply ingrained in the mind, is still that rule, the one that says: “forenames are forever”. As if the name your parents chose for you shortly after your birth is some kind of Universal Immutable Truth, just as inarguable as gravity making things fall downwards, or Christmas happening each winter. As if your True Name was written in the destiny of the heavens when you were born, and by some process that science still can’t explain, your parents just happened somehow to know Your Name Of Eternal Truth.
But that ingrained rule, it causes damage. It is damage. It teaches us that, if someone’s name was previously “A”, and now they’re saying it’s “B”, then they are lying and really “A” is still true. This is a very damaging lie, and I HATE THE FACT THAT IT HAS BEEN BURNED INTO MY HEAD. For now, the main defence I have against this perversion, this corruption in my head placed there by other people, is that I must never know someone’s old name. Once known, it’s almost impossible to un-know, and thus I must never find out in the first place.
I hate that this is true. I long for the day when that corrupt rule in my head is weakened, is gone. One day.
This is why I hate knowing people’s old names — there’s no value in knowing it, and once known, I find the old name almost impossible to forget.
But maybe there is value: not for the person being told, but for the person doing the telling: the power of deliberately releasing this supposedly-powerful thing, to demonstrate that in fact it has no power at all. For as long as the secret is held onto, there remains the anticipation – not always favourable – of disclosure. What will happen when people find out? How would that make me feel? Much like coming out in the first place, this is another secret that we each have to choose how to handle: whether to defend, to attempt to keep the secret; or whether to pre-empt what is perhaps inevitable, not to call it a secret. It’s just a fact about our past like any other, with as much power over us as “where we used to live”, “what job we used to do”, or “what TV shows we used to like”.
In contrast to the difficulty of forgetting a word, appearances are much more indistinct. Sure, the human brain is evolved to be good at processing people’s faces, and we can be very familiar with those that we see day-to-day. But it needs constant reinforcement. If I don’t see someone for a while, the mental image I have of them will become progressively more elusive. I might think I remember what they look like, but the details of their faces slip away from me when I try to recall them, just as surely as if I’d tried to grab a handful of fog. Conversely, repeatedly seeing a contemporary image of someone reinforces that image; and absent of any continual reminder of what they used to look like, the past is allowed to fade, and the present remains strong.
We’ve all seen trans people posting before & after pictures, for various values of “before” and “after”. Before I came out, look at the dead eyes. The day I started taking HRT. First time I went out “as myself”. Twelve months on hormones, feeling good. Look how far I’ve come, I can’t believe it. It’s part self-validation (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that), part showing others what can be done, showing what’s possible. A message of hope, a voice calling out from the twisting, unseen path ahead, showing that the way if perhaps is not clear, is worth exploring, and perhaps traveling. So there’s definitely value in sharing these old images, both as self-love, and to support others.
My past, my choices
I’ve had the good fortune of finding almost all of my trans friends, my Twitterverse, since I changed my name. It’s been pretty straightforward to keep my old name to myself, to keep it quiet. All I have to do is not tell people. After all, what good would it do you if I told you anyway? I could tell you literally any one of a hundred or so popular names that white middle-class southern-English baby boys were given in the 1970s, and they’d all be equally plausible, and they’d all tell you the same thing: precisely nothing.
Sharing my old name, and my old-me photos, has been something that I’ve declined to do, at least so far – with a couple of exceptions. Occasionally I’ve posted an old picture, somewhere on a part of the Internet visible only to friends, and then deleted it a little while later; and sometimes I’ve shown someone an old photo in person, waved my phone at them, so that I know that the image hasn’t been copied, doesn’t need to be “taken down”. As soon as I’ve got my phone back, closed that app, from that moment on, the memory of what I used to look like is already fading from their minds, and the conversation moves on.
Our old names and photos are usually associated with powerful emotional memories. Sometimes of specific things that were said, or particular things that happened; or perhaps more generally with the state of our lives, our state of mind, at the time. What we did, or didn’t do; how that made us feel. So these words and images have a strong connection to these emotional states, they draw on our pasts, and in ways which we don’t always appreciate. Therein lies their power. You can even feel just a trace of that power when looking at other people’s pre-transition photos. If a post-transition friend shows you an old photo of theirs, it’s still possible to feel just a fraction of their emotions yourself (hence the “dead eyes” comment from earlier) – but it’s far more powerful for pictures of yourself.
My pre-transition and post-transition selves are at once both the same person, and yet very, very different. So that old name? In many senses, that’s not me. It has less power over me with each passing day; with every day, with every interaction with other people on this planet, the image of new-me is reinforced, and that person that nobody’s seen for a few years slips further and further away. Him? Oh, yeah … no. No, we kind of stopped talking. He doesn’t come round here any more.
Maybe one day, I will find myself deliberately revealing my old name to the public at large, via some tweet or post. Perhaps because it still has power, and so by stripping it of its secret status, I’ll have robbed it of that power; I’ll feel relieved that I don’t have to guard it any longer. Or maybe I’ll wait for it to lose its power first. But when will that happen? Today, this still feels like quite a distant prospect.
But photos? Well … never say never.
Cover image by Marco Lazzaroni, CC BY 2.0