What’s in a name?

The then Kate Tempest performing in Geneva.

As a novel writer, people’s names are important. A character called Imogen is hardly likely to react the same way as one called Lucie. Just say the two names out loud. The different sounds immediately conjure up contrasting traits. As a parent too, had we chosen another name for our daughter or our son, they would invariably have turned out quite differently. A worrying thought, considering the flippancy with which some parents chose the names of their children. In the course of time, the name comes to embody the person and vice-versa. This is particularly the case when it is someone we interact with frequently. Family members, close friends, colleagues at work. But it is also true of celebrities.

Two recent name-changes of well known figures have brought this home to me. Evoking them, however, requires caution if my comments are not to be misinterpreted. Why? Because both changes mark a clarification of the person’s gender. I am very happy for them, imagining the relief acknowledging such a change must bring. I applaud their courage and conviction in taking the step and I am enthusiastic about them making it public. Yet I can’t help feeling disturbed if not upset at the change of name. And I ask myself why?

For me the name Kate Tempest is intimately associated with a brilliant poet whose music still rings in my ears and whose public performances leave an indelible impression. When she announced that henceforth they would go by the name Kae Tempest and inviting us to go with them in that ‘process’, I was surprised at my resistance. It quickly became evident my reticence was linked to the change of name not of gender. The former name embodied a personality that was familiar – a part of my life you might say – and, as such, reassuring even in her creative unpredictability. No doubt with time the name Kae Tempest will become just as familiar, but for the moment it shocks by usurping the place of an ‘old friend’.

The same goes for the shift from Ellen Page to Elliot Page. In saying so, I am aware I might be seen as failing to recognise the challenge of coming out as trans. That is not the case. I am full of admiration for Elliot. I recognise the fragility he talks of and the fear of hate and violence that is directed at trans people around the world. What I am addressing here is the way a name comes to embody a personality that takes on a life of its own. That embedded personality also has a gender or genders, the nature of which resists change. As such, a name constitutes a stability and a unicity in the eyes of others when they are confronted with the inevitable incongruences of an individual, but it also reins in change and tends to hinder the perception and acceptance of hard-won changes.

In my novel, We Girls, Kate asks Peter if he wants to change his name. Why? Because he lives dressed as a girl and enjoys being taken as a girl, even if he has no desire to transition, were that possible (he is living in the early 60s). Kate points to the ambiguity if not contradiction inherent in keeping a boy’s name.

“Maybe you should change your name,” Kate suggested. “Being called Peter does make a statement. As if you were holding back. (…)” (*)

She is right that it does make a statement but she is wrong in thinking that he is holding back. What he is is what he wants to be. Maybe a more ambiguous name in terms of gender might have been more appropriate, but Peter is who he is, a boy who relishes passing himself off as a girl. The only thing that would make his life better would be if he could be both boy and girl at the same time.

(*) For the complete text of this chapter see We Girls Chapter One.

The Boy & Girl Saga

Boy & Girl – Imagine Peter’s delight when he finds himself in the head of a girl, he who secretly dresses as a girl. Yet, despite his wild hopes, that girl is not him. She’s Kaitlin, the daughter of a mage in a beleaguered world. Peter has his own problems when a new girl at school threatens to reveal his girly ways. Becoming friends, Kate and Peter confront their problems together.

In Search of Lost Girls – In search of Kate, his lost soul-mate, Peter is beset by individuals hell-bent on stopping him dressing as a girl and besmirching the name of all those who befriend him. Meanwhile Kate has been dumped into a girls’ orphanage where, despite constant abuse and mistreatment, she emerges as a decisive figure in the rescue of her fellow orphans.

We Girls – Peter is beset by an existential choice, retain his androgynous ambiguity or say goodbye to his girlish self. Circumstances, however, force both him and Kate to take up other challenges. By straddling the line between child and adult, between carefree creativity and weighty responsibility, between play and work, they find imaginative ways to confront far-reaching problems on which adults persistently turn a blind eye.

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