What’s in a name?



For numerous parents having a child is a wonderful event in their lives. Questions begin immediately: When is the baby due? Will it be a boy or girl? What name should I choose? The last one is usually up for debate among the prospective parents, family members and sometimes even friends. Whether the name is passed down through generations, chosen to honor a living or deceased loved one, found in a book or heard in a song or TV show, for most, a lot of thought goes into choosing a child’s name. However, not everyone is happy with their given name.

When I was pregnant with my first and only child, I had two names picked out. If a boy, I would name him Liam Patrick; half-Irish, I always loved the name Liam and Patrick is the name of the child’s father.  For a girl, I chose Ellen Marie to honor two very strong women in my life, my mom and my mother-in-law.  I took each of their middle names to create this wonderful name, and I was so proud of myself. I had hope that the baby would come to love either of these beautiful names. In December 2001, I gave birth to a beautiful baby named Ellen Marie.  As parents often do, we had numerous nicknames: El, Ellie, Ellie Belly, etc.  These were terms of endearment we enjoyed.  I would find out later that name was said, used with feminine pronouns, it was like a knife cutting into my child’s skin.

When Ellen came to me at the age of 13 to tell me he was a boy who hated his given name and body, I was dumbfounded and overwhelmed.  I thought, “What the hell is going on with my child?” and “Is this a phase?” My mind raced. Although I felt confused and alarmed I said, “OK, let’s figure this out.” Many affirming parents of transgender children will tell you we “fake it until we make it.” Inwardly we are freaking out, but outwardly we support and love our children unconditionally, just like parents of cisgender children. My child was telling me he was transgender.  I did not know what that meant.

The word transgender refers to a person whose identity and gender does not correspond with their assigned sex at birth.  For those who are not aware, transgender people do not choose their gender.  It is also not a “lifestyle.” They are the gender they know themselves to be.  No one wakes up one day and decides to be differently gendered. For example, someone assigned male at birth (AMAB) may identify as female. Someone assigned female at birth (AFAB) may identify as male. However, these children are most often forced into being called their dead or old name.  A dead or old name is their given name at birth.  I was about to embark on this journey with my own child, and I was petrified.

For my child, the floodgates opened, but I felt as if I were drowning. Everything I had known about my child was about to change dramatically and at a faster pace than I was comfortable. Parents of transgender children will tell you that when their child comes out to them, it seems as though they are going 100 miles per hour.  That is because our children have known for a long time about their authentic selves.  We, as parents, are trying to catch up to them.  I had no frame of reference for what was happening to my child. However, the relief on his face was evident and could not be ignored. I knew that much. I attempted to dive head and heart first into the transgender world but failed miserably. I do not say this to lay blame on myself. It is just the truth. A truth I wholeheartedly own.

“Hey mom, what do you think of the name Oliver?” I recoiled at the question hoping he had not seen my reaction. “Oliver,” I thought. It was a definite boy’s name. A name that would scream to the world, “My child is transgender!” I felt like my whole world was being torn apart. I could not handle it ,and he knew it. This change was coming whether I liked it or not; whether I understood it or not; and whether I accepted it or not. How could I not accept it? Unbeknownst to me, my beautiful child sensed my discomfort.

At first, we would call him El; short for Ellen. He said he was not ready to socially transition outside of immediate family and a few close friends. Shortly thereafter, he asked us to use male pronouns (he, him, his) and to call him, Shae. I was still hurting over the name change but hid it as best I could. I fully embraced his new name when I found out he had researched Irish names, as our families are of Irish descent.  I was proud of the time and effort he took in choosing his name. It showed me that he was committed to transitioning. However, we were not allowed to use his new name and pronouns outside of our trusted circle, which was difficult.

When my child was socially transitioning, a lot of factors went into deciding whom to tell and how much they should know. Too many transgender children are bullied and assaulted, both physically and sexually. Too many are neglected by their parents and supposed loved ones. Too many are forced to keep their dead or old name while in school, doctors’ offices and other institutions.  Even though there are laws that explicitly protect their right to use their chosen name. Too many are murdered for being their true selves. And there are far too many suicides because they are ostracized or denied their authentic selves. As I learned more about transgender people, I was shocked at the statistics. I went into “mama bear” mode. I would protect my “cub” as he transitioned outside of our loving home.

Our circle of trust spread to more family and friends. There were only two friends who were lost in this part of the transition. Shae was adept at explaining his transition to whomever asked and truly wanted to understand. I was still learning and tripping over my tongue trying to get my point across.  We braced for impact with every person we told, expecting the worst. But it did not come. Each person outwardly accepted Shae. We were relieved. This opened the door to transitioning at school. Once again, we steeled ourselves for the backlash we expected to endure. But it did not happen either. We were shocked but grateful.

Of course, no school is free of bullies, no matter the “no tolerance” policy. Shae heard things like, “You’re Ellen and you’re a girl!  So that’s who you’ll always be!” Afterwards shouting his dead name over and over again. Moreover, a few teachers consistently used his dead name and female pronouns even though they were made aware of his transition. One teacher repeatedly put his dead name on class sign-up sheets. Shae advocated for himself when he could, and I stepped in when these, and other, situations continued to take place. We knew it would take some time for everyone to adjust, but some were obviously deliberate in ignoring his transition. An acquaintance once commented, “God made you a girl, and he doesn’t make mistakes.” We were floored by this statement. I replied, “You’re right, God didn’t make a mistake. We did when we assumed Shae’s gender.” A few months later, Shae asked me to “make it Facebook official.”

He wanted to come out to our extended family and friends, most of whom did not know because they live in other states and countries. I happily obliged. I proudly proclaimed, “It’s a boy!” to our Facebook family and friends.  The love and support were tremendous. So many took the time to affirm Shae and his transition.  They congratulated him on his courage. The love and support Shae received helped heal the wounds of others who continued to blatantly ignore his authentic self.  I was happy this part of Shae’s transition was over.  Or so I thought.

About a year after we proclaimed Shae’s true gender and name change, he came to me again.  I had had a hard day and was tired when he approached me.  He said, “Hey mom I was thinking about changing my name.  What do you think about Oliver?” I could not believe my ears.  Exasperated I exclaimed, “Seriously?! I just got everyone changed over to Shae!” I did not see the look on his face, but I could feel it.  I apologized and asked him if we could talk about this later as I was exhausted.  After he left, I ruminated over what he said.  “Was this normal?” I thought.  “Do transgender people change their minds about their chosen names?” Then it hit me.  This was my fault.  Tiredly, I dragged myself up the steps to his bedroom and softly knocked on the door. 

When he let me in, I could see he was upset.  I apologized again for being annoyed and short with him.  I told him I had come to a realization.  He did not say a word as I sat down on his bed.  I asked, “Oliver was the first name you chose, right?” He solemnly nodded in agreement.  I continued, “And you knew I couldn’t handle it because of the way I reacted when you first mentioned the name, right?” He nodded in agreement again.  “So that’s why you chose Shae.  Because you knew if I couldn’t handle it, then others might have a hard time with it too.” He nodded for the third time.  I reached out and hugged him.  Through tears I apologized again and then said, “OK I got this.  Don’t worry about a thing.  This is my mess and I’ll clean it up.” That night on Facebook, I would declare, “Its Still A Boy!” The love and support were still there. Family and friends thought I was being hard on myself for taking the blame for this.  To me, this is not blame.  It is what happened.  It is part of our journey and I own it.  How do I ask my child to own up to his mistakes and missteps, if I do not own mine? What is the lesson or lessons that I can share with others through this experience? Because they are so many.

First, practice unconditional love.  It is definitely easier said than done, but it is doable.  If you love someone, you have to love everything about them — good and bad.  If you have put conditions on your love for someone and realize it, it can be fixed.  Second, own the truth.  Again, easier said than done.  Do not try to spin it, make excuses or blame anyone else, just own it.  Third, apologize.  My parents never apologized for anything.  They were my parents and they were never wrong; even if it was obvious to them and everyone else.  The ability to apologize is a strength, not a weakness.  Fourth, make it right whenever and in whatever way possible.  If you are unsure how to make it right, ask the person with whom you are making amends.  Fifth, forgive yourself.  You did the best you could at the time.  When you realized you made a mistake, you owned it, apologized and took steps to correct it.  Sixth, try to do better next time.  We are human.  Another mistake or misstep is just around the corner. I continue to revisit these steps often throughout my own journey.  Lastly, to all the parents of transgender children, when your child comes to you with their chosen name, accept it.  To you, it may sound too masculine or feminine, but it is their chosen name. Unconditional love does not require a specific gender or name.