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Aug 072011

When I was in fifth grade, my best friend at the time decided to change her name. Reactions ranged from surprise to derision. I imagine that the adults around us–with the exception of her mother–were indulgently dismissive, granting this act of self-naming little more respect than they would give to a three-year-old who announced authoritatively that he was now a grown-up.

She held fast, and with the support of her mother soon had everyone calling her by her new name, which she’d borrowed from her favourite soprano in musical theatre. She aspired to singing and performance, so this name choice was a perfect fit, if, perhaps, a little unoriginal.

Fast forward twenty years to my introduction to sexuality communities. I now know many people who use a variety of names depending on the setting. If you write about sex in your spare time, or if you participate in so-called alternative sex, or if you work in the sex industry, you are susceptible to censure from coworkers, employers, family members, friends, medical professionals. You can (and people do) lose jobs, child custody, real-life community support. All for celebrating, enjoying, and sharing the lusciousness of sexuality.

People who do this have to ensure their safety and their livelihoods. Some use pseudynyms. Some don’t publish pictures that could be used to identify them. Some enjoy their sexual escapades far away from home.

It’s not just sexual people, though. Just before posting this, I came across the
My Name Is Me project, a project that promotes the right, and even the necessity, for being able to use whatever name one wishes, particularly online. Some of the other people who benefit from the protection of a pseudonym: teachers, law enforcement officers, and medical professionals who wish to distance their leisure activities from professional scrutiny, those at risk for or experiencing violence, people whose religious, social or political views would get them in trouble in real space, and so on. I think you get the picture. Creating one’s own identity is a matter of safety and freedom.

Today I’m thinking, too, about the empowering aspects of choosing your own name.

A few weeks ago I was joking with a friend, and I said something about how I knew a mutual friend’s “real” name. That was wrong, both because I was mocking the power I could potentially have over someone, and because a name on a birth certificate isn’t any more real than anything else.

Power and playfulness: In choosing to name themselves, people can harness their creativity. They can choose names that sound sexy, artistic, smart, funny, freaky, or perhaps a little bit of all of it. The name can truly match the personality. They can choose a name that reflects who they are, or who they want to be. For some, choosing a new name may be a powerful way to move away from the constricting expectations of those who bestowed them with their birth certificate name. Certainly, there are devious reasons for people to develop personae and names that aren’t real, but I firmly believe that the majority of people who do this, because they must or simply because they want to, are expressing their authentic selves. There’s a freedom in naming oneself.

So, my friendly readers. What do you think? Should we be allowed to name ourselves? What would you name yourself if you were so inclined? Where would you use this new name?

  One Response to “Naming Names: Musing On The Power of Pseudonyms”

  1. I love the My Name Is Me site. I have come to terms with my given name, but it doesn’t fit me at all. I would love to be able to take a new name and give it power rather than the status of my given name which has been used by people to have power over me. Even if that power is only expression of discontent with my choices or holding my past over my head. Part of me is afraid of the scrutany I’d get. My parents told me when i expressed a dislike of my name as a college student that wanting to change my name or be called something else was attention getting behavior (negative). In reality, wanting to use a different name is just the opposite for me, but that comment, and even the disconection between who i see myself as and the self associated with my given name, still haunt me from time to time.

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