Names, power, and vulnerability

I have a complicated history with my name, as both a queer person and as a pagan. Names are deeply important to me, and as the graphic on this image indicates, I’m about to make a change, but I want to tell you the story of how I got there. I’ve never told this story all together before; only pieces.

In the beginning…there was a name.

When my parents told the nurse filling out the birth certificate that my name was to be Jennifer, the nurse snapped, “Oh, don’t name her that – everyone’s naming their kid that.” My parents, shocked, decided to go back to the drawing board for a few days. My mom pitched the name “Amy,” my dad countered with “Annie,” and they gave me the legal name Ann Marie. The way they tell it, this was a brief conversation.

My memory of hearing this story in childhood, of course, may differ from the actual truth of what happened; but the emotional truth of how this story impacted me bears more importance, in the long term.

As a kid, I asked my parents why they chose those names, but they never had an answer to the question that satisfied me. The books I read seemed to indicate that names were Very Important, and that people’s names were important gifts that were either tied to their destiny in life, meant to honor an ancestor, or to bestow some kind of specific blessing on a child. Naming was an act of substantial power, and I couldn’t help but suspect that my parents didn’t take the responsibility of naming me seriously enough.

I desperately searched for meaning in my names. At some point, my parents, or a relative, gave me plaques for my bedroom wall that said Ann meant “graceful” (my ballet teacher would deny this in a heartbeat) and Marie meant “living fragrance” (whatever the hell that meant).

Continuing to prod at the issue, I asked my parents if I was named after someone they loved or admired. They said no, but I later discovered that both my older sister’s and my grandmother’s middle names were Ann. My understanding, however, was that this was a coincidence, rather than something intentional.

Unconsciously, I internalized the narrative that my name was an afterthought.

I struggled to come to terms with all this, and began to assert what little ownership over my name I felt I had. When I was little, most adults in my life called me Annie, and at the age of 7, when early seeds of independence and identity and wanting to be grown-up took root within myself, I decided “Annie” was infantilizing, and asked to be called Ann instead. At age 12, I decided “Ann” didn’t fit, either (it seemed far too serious a name for my silly ass), and asked everyone to go back to calling me Annie. Some obliged, but some people in my family continue to call me Ann to this day. I gave up correcting them years ago.

Adding to my name angst, my surname growing up was a super common last name in my region.

My deepest yearning as a child was to be special and unique, and everything I knew about my name seemed to run counter to that desire.

Lost in a sea of Annies, I decided to make a change.

When I arrived at college, I discovered that there were two other Annies on the same floor of my dorm.

People started discussing who would be Annie 1, Annie 2, and Annie 3, and I put an immediate stop to that. Without hardly a thought, I told my dorm-mates they could call me Red, instead. I took the name from my favorite, high-spirited Fraggle on “Fraggle Rock.”

To add punctuation to my choice, I dyed my hair bright, fire-engine red soon thereafter.

After I left college, nobody called me Red anymore, but I didn’t mind. The name had served its purpose and I was ready to move on from it.

This was an early lesson in having the opportunity to forge a new identity for myself, rather than get lost in the crowd.

And then I got married.

I got married in my early ’20s, and I was not comfortable taking my husband’s surname for several reasons, but I also wanted us to have the same surname. I proposed the idea that we take a few letters from each of our last names and make a new one, and he agreed. It was a relief to lose my “maiden name” and change it to something way less common (with better SEO!).

Creating new surnames was not a common practice when we got married, though several of my friends have done it since then. Our parents did not understand the rationale behind our choice at first, but they grew to accept it (I think).

I learned that I could try something new with my name, even if nobody else I knew was doing it. This was also a lesson in the power of names: the combined surname represented our union in a very tangible way, at a self-identity level.

And suddenly, I found myself surrounded by pirates.

A few years after we got married, my husband and I started hanging out at a pirate bar, where the whole staff, resident performers, and many of the patrons wore pirate garb and had pirate names.

And then, because my life is incredibly weird and awesome, I joined a pirate band and suddenly, I needed a pirate name. After wrestling with the choice for weeks, I chose “Lucky” Annie LeBlanc: “Lucky” because of an inside joke that developed at the pirate bar, “Annie” because I already struggled remembering two names for each of my pirate friends and wanted to ease the burden for others, and “LeBlanc” because I had clocked over 200 hours playing Final Fantasy X-2 and thought the pirate villain, LeBlanc, was hot, badass, and enjoyably Extra:

I delighted in being called “Lucky” and “Lucky Annie.” The power of this name that I carefully chose myself was intoxicating. It brought me confidence and a sense of shared community identity in a time when I desperately needed both. It simultaneously made me unique (I mean, how many people in this world have pirate names?) and fit in (a rarity, in my life as a weirdo). The name made me special, and it made me part of something. Hell, because of me, there’s even a drink called “The Lucky Annie” at The Limerick Pub in Wheaton, Md.

But unfortunately, the utility of that powerful name is limited to the pirate community and my performance life. I wouldn’t be comfortable being called “Lucky Annie” in a professional setting, for example.

To change or not to change?

When my husband and I divorced after ten years of marriage, I didn’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to truly contemplate whether I wanted to keep my married surname, or change it to something new. I wasn’t terribly motivated to make a change at the time because I genuinely preferred the chosen, married name to my “maiden” name, and the married name was tied to my entire post-college employment history. So I decided to keep it, for the sake of simplicity.

It did not occur to me that this choice would eventually feel like an energetic shackle, tying me to the past.

Nothing changes if you stand still.

Fast-forward several more years, and now I’m an openly nonbinary, Acting High Priest of a coven, and am writing in a semi-professional capacity here on Major Arqueerna. (Side note: the name of this website was the brainchild of a dear friend in the burlesque community, Baron Atomy, who loves puns and is Very Good At Naming Things. I’m forever thankful!)

In some recent shadow work, I realized the violence I have done to myself by repeating, throughout my life, the story of how my parents named me: By internalizing this story, I was telling myself that my name, and therefore I, don’t matter.

I now recognize I need to change that narrative. And that need dovetails with me coming to terms with my nonbinary identity and my desire for a gender-neutral name, as well as my need to change my surname to shake the last of my energetic ties to my former marriage.

I’ve been considering names for a few months now. I even threw the question out to a select group of Facebook friends.

I reviewed the many, many suggestions on that thread, as well as lots of online lists of nonbinary names, and talked through some choices out loud. I already knew I wanted my last name to be “Book,” because I have been a passionate reader my whole life. I am also pretty sure I’d like to keep “Annie” as my middle name. I rather like the name Annie; I just don’t want something so blatantly feminine as my first name. But for my first name, I wanted something unique. Something that sparkles in a gender-neutral way.

A week ago Saturday, I did some work at the sea with Poseidon and asked for his guidance to help me choose a name. Shortly thereafter, the name I want finally clicked for me when I found the Welsh word for “rainbow.”

I chatted about it with a Welsh friend to make sure I wasn’t missing any critical connotations or weirdness around it in Wales (there aren’t, to his knowledge). I Googled it to see if there were any other cultural things attached to it I should know about (it’s the name of a minor character in Star Wars, as it happens, so hey – extra nerd cred). And I spent a lot of time calling myself this name in my head to see if I really liked it (I did!).

Part of how I know this name is right is that I feel so incredibly vulnerable when I tell people about it, and when I hear people use it. It’s difficult, but it’s honest, like coming out for the first time all over again. It’s powerful, yet incredibly fragile.

That feeling of vulnerability comes entwined with a huge chunk of gender euphoria, however, which means I’m feeling constantly torn between wanting to shout my new name from the mountaintops and change it everywhere immediately…and wanting to hide in a cave and never tell a soul because OhMyGodsThisIsVeryPersonalAndScary.

I’m choosing the middle path, for starters: I’m adding the name on this blog and its associated accounts, as it’s the main place where I am extremely Out and Queer. I’m telling friends who are particularly queer-friendly and inviting them to use the new name (but telling them the old name is still okay, too, for the time being). I’m not worrying about changing it legally just yet, or about changing it at work, with family, or with acquaintances. All that can wait. I need time to settle into it.

But this name? It’s rad as hell.

And it’s unique.

And it’s mine.

Hi.

My name is Enfys Book.

Pleased to meet you.

7 thoughts on “Names, power, and vulnerability

  1. Lovely backstory, Enfys – I had heard some of the parts in our conversations but not the entire story arc. It is reassuring for me that in my responsibility for the middle names of my own children that I did take the naming of them seriously and chose names that meant something. Sadly, I expect they may have similar feelings on the care that was given for their first names, selected by their mother on the basis of “cool D&D character names she liked from two campaigns she’d played in”. Which is not to say it isn’t cool in its own way, but the meaning may not sit well with them. They are happy they don’t have common names and ironically one of them has an arguably gender neutral name which suits them in its own right. Thanks for the read!

    1. EN-fiss. Kinda like the first part of “emphasis,” but with an N instead of an M. (I’m Americanizing the pronunciation, because Welsh pronunciation is unintuitive to Americans.)

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