Four years before I changed my name to Silas, when I was twenty, I briefly dated a girl who was deaf. When we were together, I still identified as a lesbian—a butch lesbian. I was a feminist, a women’s studies major, a frequent attendee at Ani DiFranco concerts. I was also firmly in denial about my gender identity. I was still pretending I was comfortable living as a woman, still proclaiming my pride in my body, in my female identity.
We went out for only a few weeks, and we were never serious, but she grew tired of fingerspelling my name pretty quickly—I did, too—so she gave me a name sign to streamline the process. A hearing person can’t pick her own name—someone who is deaf has to give her one. The person who names you usually picks up on some characteristic about you and bases your name sign on it. Laughing a lot might result in your name sign containing the sign for “giggle”; being an artist might mean it will be somehow related to the sign for “paintbrush.”
We were sitting next to each other on the couch in her dorm room, watching a movie with the subtitles on, when she made the letter L with her right hand, for Lindsay, and brought it to her face, running her thumb down the side, from her temple to her chin—the sign for “girl.”
And even then, when I smiled and brought my fingertips to my lips and then moved my hand out, toward her—“thank you”—it felt wrong, like in the summer when my brown hair lightens in the sun and people tell me I’m blond, or the time I went to the doctor and she told me I was a full inch-and-a-half shorter than I’ve always believed. I don’t care that there is evidence to the contrary: my hair color when I look in the mirror, the numbers on the measuring stick, the F on my driver’s license, my birth certificate. I know, deep down, who I am: I have brown hair. I am five feet, ten inches tall. I am not a girl. [End Page 100]
Once, during my first year of graduate school, when I was twenty-three, I was having lunch with my friend Nicole. I don’t remember the initial topic of conversation, but somehow it shifted to names, and, more specifically, to what our parents almost named us. I told her about my dad’s plan to name me Erin Karen—or Scott Timothy if I’d been born a boy. Nicole said that her parents had considered Madeline. “Can you imagine how cool it would be if I’d been a Maddy?” she said.
I knew what she meant. I have always disliked my birth name—Lindsay Rebecca. I disliked it even in preschool, long before I understood why it didn’t feel like it fit. In elementary school I would wish my name were something different, something more interesting. I imagine a lot of kids feel that way, especially those of us with too-common names. There were too many Lindsays in the eighties and nineties, just as there were too many Jessicas and Sarahs. But by the time Nicole and I talked, the feeling had only gotten worse for me: over the past two years, I had started to question my gender identity, and though I hadn’t yet admitted what I feared—that I might be transgender—I still hated telling people my name. I wished it were something more androgynous, like Alex, so it wouldn’t give me away so easily, so it didn’t sound quite so feminine. I wished it were something that felt like it belonged to me.
But Nicole and I had been friends for only a couple of months, were still getting to know each other, and I felt weird steering the conversation in a direction she hadn’t intended, so I didn’t say this. Instead, I made a joke: “Well, when I write my memoir someday and you’re a character...