Oct 092014
 

Saturday is National Coming Out Day 2014, and I’m thinking about people with disabilities who are queer, gender nonconforming, or both.

Queer and trans* people around the United States will celebrate this weekend. Some will come out for the first time.

Maybe some people with disabilities will come out.

Maybe some will feel they have to stay silent, even as people around them celebrate.

People with disabilities are thought of as nonsexual. People with intellectual disabilities, especially, are thought of as not being able to understand sex, sexuality, or relationships. ((As if any of us get to say what anybody’s sexuality, or how they feel about another person, should look like!)

“They don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“Oh, isn’t that sweet.”

“They’re just repeating what they hear other people saying.”

These are the kinds of things said about people with intellectual disabilities, and the responses to talk of sexualities aren’t likely to be mmuch different. Someone with an intellectual disability saying that they want a girlfriend, for example, is likely to hear one of the responses above, or to be reminded that they have lotsof friends who are girls. If the person saying they want a girlfriend is also a girl (or woman if she’s an adult), they might be told that only boys get to have girlfriends.

So, for this year’s National Coming Out Day, I want to do my part to make sure people kno that folks with disabilities have gender identities and sexualities too. To that end, I’m sharing this deeply moving (to me, anyway) post from Dave Hingsburger. Yes, yes…I kno I shared a post of his for last week’s TBT. I’ll admit to being a bit of a fangirl. This post just spoke to me as one that needed to be shared this week. I promise to share something written by someone else next week.

Here, Dave is talking about giving support to a person with an intellectual disability who is sharing that he’s gay and in love.

I don’t do this often because I don’t have to – pretty much everyone knows. So it felt odd, pushing the closet door open and letting it bang shut after me again. This time, though, I came out strategically. I was just in conversation with a man with Down Syndrome who was talking with me, struggling with the fact that he was attracted to, and had kissed, another man. He thought he was in love. He was aching with pain, it was all wrong, he was dirty and sinful.

I couldn’t bear watching him. I couldn’t bear remembering the pain of feeling shamed for feeling loved.

I couldn’t bear watching him hurt.

So, I said, “You know I’m gay, right?”

Read the whole post here.

Aug 072014
 

In the past couple of weeks, two different people have asked me about the words cisgender, cisman, ciswoman, or just cis for short. These are new words for a lot of people, and I think those of us who use them have skipped a step in helping folks understand why we use them, and why they’re important parts of our ever-changing vocabulary. (For curmudgeons who say that we’ve got all kinds of new words coming out, and they can’t keep track, may I remind you that languages evolve over time, and even different groups of people who speak the same language use diferent words, or the same words that mean radically diferent things depending on the context or where the person saying them is from.) Regarding cisgender, there are, in general, the people who use the term on a regular basis, and people who have no idea what the hell it means.

Cis is a Latin prefix, meaning “of the same side.” It’s been brought into everyday language to expand the way we talk about gender.

A cisgender person, or a cisman or ciswoman, is someone who feels themselves to be, and lives as, the same gender they were identified as having at birth. So, a ciswoman would have been identified as a girl at birth, raised as a girl, thought of herself as a girl, and thinks of herself as a woman, or lady, or whatever is her preference, in adulthood.

We’ve been using the Latin prefix trans, meaning through, across, other, and so on, for a while, to talk about people who are transgender, or a person who is a transman, or a transwoman, et cetera, et cetera.

A transgender person is someone whose experience of their own gender, their gender identity, doesn’t line up with the gender they were assigned when they were born.

Complex? In many ways, yes, in many ways no. . This business of there being two clearly defined genders, and that whichever gender you are, that gender remains static your whole life, feels more unnatural to me the more I learn.

Kate Bornstein In her pivotal book Gender
Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us
points out that babies are given a gender identity via a quick glance at their genitals to determine their sex. I don’t know about you, but that seems awfully simple for an identity that’s with us our whole lives. Other identities we’re given come and go as we grow, change, and establish (then sometimes reinvent) our place in the world. People don’t insist that our occupation remain the same, that our fashion sense never change, that our bodies and how we deal with them remain static our whole lives. There’s even—most of the time—minimal resistance to people changing their names (the most common examples of this are people ditching a diminutive like Sammy or Becky, or taking their partner’s name after marriage). Why shouldn’t gender identity be more flexible.

I’m getting ahead of myself though.

Having the words cisgender, cisman, ciswoman, in our collective vocabulary is important, even if we don’t always use those terms. Folks who are cisgender aren’t any more normal or regular (and really not that much more common) than people who are transgender. (Yes, the stats might tell us that there are many more cispeople than trans folks, but consider that people aren’t generally asked what their gender identity is; the numbers of people who don’t conform to the gender binary, who aren’t cis (on the same side of are likely much higher than any of us would expect.)

So, the cispeople (I belong to this group) aren’t the norm, and they need a name—hence, cis.

It was once explained to me that there’s no such thing as something being cold—bear with me, please–there are just things that have heat and things that don’t. I have no idea whether this is a common way of understanding temperature, but what I do know is that, at least in English, we have words for hot, cold, and everything in between. We don’t simply say hot, and not-hot. Or, we don’t simply say cold when we mean something not hot, and nothing when we mean something hot.

I was asked if it was offensive to not call oneself a ciswoman, and simply refer to oneself as a girl or woman. Not at all! Cis (and trans for that matter) is a category that helps make things clearer in many contexts, though for some, certainly, it can be an identity. When talking about gender, it can be useful for people to know what your personal experience with gender has been, but none of us should ever have to share things we’re not comfortable sharing, or use words to describe ourselves we’re not comfortable using. That goes for transpeople (though too often their autonomy is not respected) so it needs to go for cispeople too. There is no obligation to identify one’s gender identity to anyone unless they need to know things about your body, or you want to be sure they address you by the pronouns you’re most likely to respond to.

I was also asked if cis is an insult. Cisgender is not an insult. Certainly, some people use it that way. Some people will always use any identity—any word, really–as an insult. Quite often when people talk about cisgender though, they’re talking about a specific group of people, and the biases or beliefs members of that group hold, or the experiences they have or haven’t had. When someone says “ciswomen do…” or “ a lot of cismen say…” they’re generally not insulting, but reporting.

What we want to do our best to avoid, no matter what our gender identity, is doing things like talking about “men, women, and trans” (transmen and transwomen are just as much men and women as those of us who are cisgender) or “transpeople and the rest of us.” It may not be intentional, but having a special word for one group, and not one for another, is belittling and makes an assumption about normalcy that just isn’t accurate. I think it’s automatic for many of us to slot other people into categories, but neglect to categorize ourselves. Talking with a couple of friends about this, I used the example of blindness, a characteristic those friends and I share. I pointed out that we don’t talk about “people” and “blind people,” but rather “sighted people” and “blind people.” One friend correctly pointed out that it’s likely that many people who can see, who are part of the “regular” group, would indeed be likely to just refer to themselves as “people.”

Many people would use the word labels here, but I think there’s too much baggage around that term, too many assumptions that the labels are just words that don’t mean much.

Naming something, giving words to it, describes that thing, it tells you where that thing (person, object, place, etc) exists in space, time, culture, and in relation to other things.

We also don’t generally just grab words out of the ether for no good reason. Cis and trans, as I said, come from Latin, as much of the English language does. They’ve also been in common usage among scientists, not even brought back to life from some dusty thesaurus; they’ve been here all along.

I could say a lot more about language, and about gender, but as someone who hasn’t done much contemplation of her own gender until lately, and hasn’t been put in a position where her gender has been called into question, I’m not actually the most qualified to talk about this. I turn you over to several writers who explain cisgender much better than I can.

One thing before I do that: For any of you using a screen reader, cis is pronounced sis, as in the first syllable of sister. Sometimes I catch myself starting to talk about c.i.s. (saying each letter) women. Occupational hazard!

Mar 032014
 

A lot of people worry about what language to use when talking about disabilities, and about people who have them. People want to be respectful, or at least PC. Some people want to protect themselves from what they see as hostile attacks when they use what we who have disabilities recognize as defamatory, hurtful, or belittling language. Others know that the language used means something, that words have emotional resonance and cultural meaning (sometimes multiple cultural meanings), as well as literal definitions.

What I’m about to tell you is not the final word on disability language. I’m not the expert on this—no one can be—and my aim is only to present some facts and theories for your consideration, and share what I find works for me both personally and professionally.

Many people are confused because the terms we are and aren’t “supposed” to use around disability seem like they change on a dime. These language changes are not random; the changing ways in which we use disability language is directly affected by a global community of people (or perhaps communities of people all around the globe), with various disabilities or impairments, and our growing voices and presences.

So, how do we figure out what words to use, especially if we’re not plugged into disability politics and activism?

I think we do this by changing our approach a wee bit.

I think we’re best off not worrying so much about whether we’re using the wrong words, or the latest PC terms, as whether we’re actually saying what we mean, saying what we want to say.

For starters, when talking about disability, there’s a tendency to talk about disability itself, or the people who have it, as one big homogeneous thing. This often comes out as talk of “the disabled” or “the blind,” or some other disability group. Honestly, I can’t think of too many scenarios in which talking about disability (or people with disabilities) as a whole would lead to anything close to accuracy. Also, and this is a biggy, we’re not “the disabled.” People talk about making sure the person comes first when talking about us—will flesh that more in a bit—and there’s no better way to make sure that our personhood is completely erased than by using disability as the sole way of addressing or describing us.

The other big problem with referring to disabled people as a homogeneous whole is that this is often done when talking about accessibility or inclusion. It’s always nice to know that we, as a group, are welcome somewhere, but if the practical needs of one disability group aren’t met in a specific place or situation, saying that this place or situation is disability accessible is misleading, and again, dehumanizing.

For example:

If we’re trying to indicate that an event is being held in a place accessible to people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices—that is, a space with no stairs (or that has alternatives to stairs), spacious doorways, et cetera—we need to say so, not just say that the space is disability-accessible. After all, if the event only offers sign-up sheets, educational materials, etc in printed form or there is no sign language interpreter or captioning service, the event is not accessible in general. Maybe it sounds like splitting hairs, but what I’m trying to say is that it’s important to indicate what kind of accessibility we’re talking about when we say “accessible.”

It’s also important to acknowledge the differences between disabled people, not to place disabilities on a hierarchy (as is sadly often done, and sometimes by people with disabilities ourselves) but as a way of acknowledging individual needs, and, I think, of acknowledging that the disability is just one part of the person.

In other words, the more specific we are in what we say and how we say it, we can end up placing less overall emphasis on disability, and more on the whole person. This is particularly true when we’re talking about access, as if people know up-front whether their access needs are more or less likely to be met, the more everyday their disability becomes. Access isn’t about doing special things, after all, but about levelling the playing field or balancing the scales.

What about terms for disability and disabled people? Do we say disabled people or people with disabilities? Is handicapped okay? We’re not allowed to say crippled, right?

What terms are acceptable will vastly depend on who you are, who you’re addressing, where in the world you live, and what you’re trying to do with your words.

Yes, “crippled” is generally not an okay term these days. But many disabled people call themselves crips (or sometimes “krips”) as a way to reclaim the word. As with most reclaimed words, it belongs to the population reclaiming it. Unless you personally have a crip identity, you’re probably best off not using the word in your writing, unless you’re quoting someone talking about their own crip identity or unless you’re writing or talking about crip theory/activism as a movement.

One of the newer terms—and the current darling of the PC brigade–is “differently abled.” Words cannot describe how much I personally detest this term. It is saccharin, infantilizing, dismissive, and ultimately meaningless. It’s meant to emphasize that we all have different abilities and strengths, but since it’s a term reserved for people with disabilities and not used to describe everyone else, it still promotes that there is a norm, and then there is other, and that we who have disabilities are other.

The term “differently abled” almost literally hurts my teeth when I think about it, hurts in the way that biting into candy that is just pure sugar and food colouring often does. I’ve personally felt the othering impact of this term. Once upon a time I was participating in a sex education event where I heard one educator blithely discussing things that were “good for the differently abled.” This person’s supervisor had just reacted negatively to my presence upon discovering that the person (me) they had previously just conversed with online was someone with a disability. As I listened to the talk of the “differently abled” I couldn’t help but marvel that I, a “differently abled” person, was sitting right there, feeling totally alienated from what was supposed to be an accepting, inclusive space.

I’m not the only one who feels this way about “differently abled,” though. In Twitter discussions with other disabled folks, the point was raised that politically correct terms have not affected any obvious change; we still have stigma against people with disabilities; we still have unequal access. I agree with this. I’d suggest that having PC terms allows people to skate through without giving what they’re saying or doing a lot of thought. See how this ties back to what I was talking about earlier—being sure to say what we mean, and say what will be most useful to others?

So, what terms do we use? I’m partial to people with disabilities and disabled people myself. Again, I also think that, wherever it fits, specifying which disability we’re talking about is useful.

So, is it people with disabilities, or disabled people? Depends who you ask. This is also a question that has gotten a lot of dialogue going.

Many folks with disabilities believe in people-first-language; that is, saying or writing the person before the disability. Others, me included, think that doing this 100% of the time is grammatically cumbersome and unnecessary. Some people, I’m still on the fence about this, think that the person-first construction puts more emphasis on the disability, not less. Others prefer “disabled people” as a way of asserting disabled identity and claiming disability pride, much as the folks who’ve reclaimed Crip, gimp, and other words-formerly-known-as-insults are doing.

Grammatically, it can get pretty awkward pretty quickly when we’re always saying “people who are disabled,” or “a person who is blind,” or “women with intellectual disabilities.” Because I’m personally not completely wedded to person-first language, and am also not completely opposed to it, I tend, when writing, to start by using the person-first construction, then use either one, depending on what grammar and sentence structure call for subsequently.

Calling people “differently abled” also puts the emphasis on the individual person. Disability is understood by many disability activists to be partially or wholly a product of society’s lack of physical or cultural accessibility to different impairments.

The Disabled People’s International explained the difference this way.

Impairment: is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment.
Disability: is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers. (DPI, 1982)

Viewed this way—and please do understand that there are many, many other models for understanding disability and disabled people’s experiences—we can think of the way “differently abled” has been embraced by the PC brigade as a societal shedding of responsibility. It’s much easier to talk about the words we’re supposed to use than to stretch out of our comfort zone, and do the emotional and practical work of having a fair and just society for everyone.

I’m leaving you for the moment (I’ll be bac, I assure you) with a few links sussing out some of what I’ve pondered here. If you’re wondering where to do more reading beyond these links, I’d suggest focusing your search on material written by individuals with disabilities or by disability advocacy groups. As always, if you have questions, thoughts, or would like to discuss anything I’ve written here, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Autistic Hoya: How “Differently Abled” Marginalizes Disabled People
Wheelchair Dancer: Differently Abled — Disability Language On My Mind
Disability Definitions, Models and Terminology | Western Cape Government

Nov 292013
 

It seems that people lose all perspective on the nature of human interactions when visible disabilities are at play.

Last week, I read this blog post about just such a loss of perspective.

Apparently, a newspaper decided that two college football players sitting with a visibly disabled fellow student in their school cafeteria was newsworthy.

karin of claiming Crip gives a brilliant analysis here. She offers the clearest, most concise, most down-to-earth deconstruction of ableist thinking I’ve seen in a while–the most honest, most no-holds-barred explanation of exactly why it’s unacceptable–and inaccurate–to view disabled people, and the nondisabled people who associate with us, as inspiring.

It’s pretty apparent that, in this story, the perspective of the student these football players sat with wasn’t terribly important. There are quotes about him, but not from him.

It’s further apparent, to me, anyway, that this reporting is also a reflection of the cultural view of college athletes.

College athletes are often held in hero status in general, lauded at a level and for things far beyond their age and degree of life experience. Lauded in a way that actually negates their humanity. Here, praising them for–even reporting on the fact that they did–choose to sit with a visibly disabled fellow student in the cafeteria is ridiculous, and sends a larger message. Sitting with, spending time with, disabled people is inspirational.

Between the elevated status of college atheletes, and the reduced status of people with disabilities, there’s a real lac of balance in the way this was reported, never mind that it wasn’t worth reporting at all.

Having what is usually a visible disability–blindness–and having had numerous people sit with me while I ate alone in my university’s cafeteria, I certainly hope no one ever saw them as inspiring.

Yes, I even had a college hhockey player join me a few times. We had really pleasant, down-to-earth conversations, and he’d even say “hi” to me if he saw me other places on campus. Did this make him inspiring? I sure as hell hope not! He was a pleasant, well-spoken, intelligent guy. Lauding him for being friendly to me would just have degraded him, on top of what it would have said about my equality as a human being.

This inspiration credo is incredibly dehumanizing to disabled people (and to the people who genuinely care for or love us). It’s dehumanizing on an individual level, yes, but also in collective cultural consciousness.

One or two isolated incidents of being out in public with an able-bodied person and hearing that person’s actions praised can make one start to doubt oneself. One may look to others, ask about their experiences, start observing interactions in which they are not involved; one will see and hear the same story. That pervasiveness leads to the message that we are less than human, or that we’re superhuman for drawing friends to us who will be patient and caring for us, in spite of our subhuman disabilities. It also negates any caring or kind actions or feelings on our parts, making relationships with us appear to be one-way.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even take experiences to send this message; it’s built into the underlying consciousness: you are object, to be feared, admired, inspired by, but not equal in your humanity.

When I was getting ready to leave home for university, I was told by many well-meaning adults that people at college might be afraid of or put off by my blindness, that they might not know how to interact with me. I was told that I might have to go the extra mile to make friends, to be willing to meet people beyond halfway.

I believed this! Ironically, this belief trampled my confidence and led me to be more afraid, more timid, less friendly with folks. It led me to behave in ways that were probably seen as weird, rather than just settling into my shy, slightly nerdy,, but ultimately sweet and friendly self. It led me to question everyone’s interactions with me, to hold them at arm’s length rather than to welcome.

Remember that hockey player? I never asked if we could co-ordinate to meet at the cafeteria some time, or if we could hang out somewhere else. perhaps if I’d had more confidence, rather than feeling like I had to apologize for myself and avoid any awkwardness, perhaps if I hadn’t felt like I was a bother to people, I would have felt more comfortable making connections when they presented themselves.

I could have become friends with many people, or at least gotten to know them better if I had known how to step beyond my appreciation and gratitude that he had gone the extra mile, had met me more than halfway, by choosing to sit with me.

These messages elevating the actions of able-bodied people to hero status can leave their mark on we disabled people.

The idea of nondisabled people being brave, stepping outside themselves, even inconveniencing themselves to be nice to a disabled person is harmful in the extreme, both to the self-esteem of many disabled people and to how valid relationships (of any kind) are seen between disabled and able-bodied people.

I know of one situation where a lesbian couple- comprised of a Blac woman in her forties and a blind white woman– in her twenties had a lot of problems because of how they were perceived in public. The older partner felt that she was always seen as the caregiver of her younger partner, not as her equal, let alone as her partner. Given the history we have in this country (and others) of women of colour being in caregiving roles related to white children, elderly people, or sick people I can certainly see how this perception could have really hurt, on so many levels. Ultimately, from what I understand, it was one major factor that damaged the relationship beyond repair.

With all of these meanderings, the one thing I keep coming back to is humanity. the humanity of people in a romantic relationship. The humanity of people just headed off to college. The humanity of college students eating lunch in the cafeteria.

I don’t want to say we’re all the same, because we’re not–and that’s a good thing. I’m not saying that there aren’t really special, generous people out there–because there are.

They’re just not generous and special in who they choose to eat lunch with in a public space with multi-person tables and general seating.

Jun 062012
 

privilege

priv-lij] Show IPA noun, verb, priv•i•leged, priv•i•leg•ing.

noun
1.
a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich.

2.
a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities: the privilege of a senator to speak in Congress without danger of a libel suit.

3.
a grant to an individual, corporation, etc., of a special right or immunity, under certain conditions.

4.
the principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities.

5.
any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government: We enjoy the privileges of a free people.

 From dictionary.com

I’ve been rolling these ideas around long enough. It’s time to bring them into the light. They’re not all pretty. As someone who aims to please, I fear alienating people. I will endeavor to be as transparent as I can in unpacking my own privilege, even as I ask people to unpack and be comfortable sitting with theirs.

These aren’t new concepts for me. I’ve alternately embraced and wrestled with them since my early years as a naively eager college student studying Women’s Studies. I embraced language that could help me give voice to my own reality as a person who inhabits two minorities—womanhood and disability. Some of my journal entries from those days are insightful. Some of them miss the mark in ways it pains me to read.

Recent discussions among those who identify as sex-positive, sex-supportive, or sex-inclusive have got me thinking again.

Here are some thoughts I’ve put together. They’re pretty raw and unformed. I’m leaving them that way on purpose.

People with privilege, whether you identify as such, or are given that label, it’s okay to feel discomfort.

You can, as I know you’re eager to do, use your privilege to help. If you have money, you can give it. You can do without a couple of extra Starbucks lattes throughout each week and use that money for the good of your choice. You can speak out on the necessity (for both workers and clients) of decriminalizing sex work without the fear of being fingered and censured for being a sex worker. You can use your collective energies to make sweeping societal changes that will make our world more comfortable for people with different disabilities, of different sizes, etc. Who you are will dictate what means the most to you, and how you and your privilege relate to those with less or different privilege.

First, though, you need to feel a little uncomfortable. I know you don’t want to. You just want to help. Remember that for years it is we who have felt uncomfortable. Not saying it’s right; that you should feel uncomfortable just because we have. But there needs to be something more than just knowing on your part..a building of connections, a space and time for listening before doing.

You think we’re yelling at you…and maybe sometimes we are. Consider that when people speak out, it’s usually because they feel safe to do so. That’s an important first step. Creating a safe space is no easy feat, so if minorities are speaking out, this is a good thing.

Am I preaching?

I am a person of privilege. IN spite of the fact that every day I leave my house I run the risk of experiencing an environment that excludes me in some way. IN spite of the fact that every time I leave my house I, a married and college-educated woman with a house of my own, (all things valued in our society) “.run the risk of being treated or talked to as a helpless child. In spite of the fact that as a disabled woman I’m at an increased risk (statistically, and even more importantly anecdotally) of experiencing violence, that my wit, charm and intelligence are overlooked with automatic assumptions of what I can or cannot do….

In spite of all of this, I have enough money to live, enough money to enjoy a suburban life. When I emigrated to the U.S. from Canada, the process, though fraught with bureaucracy and woefully expensive, was smooth, in no small part, I am sure, because of my fair skin and native tongue of English. Oh, and I had the financial means to hire a lawyer, a specialized immigration firm even, which further smoothed the process.

I don’t speak to you with an unprivileged voice. I don’t (intentionally) speak to you with an angry voice. IN spite of how it looks, when I speak to “you” I speak just as much to myself.

But I do speak to you in a voice of diversity. Every time I walk into a room, I visibly change its minority composition. Reid Mihalko, glancing around the room at Momentum’s closing keynote, saw me taking notes on a piece of adaptive technology. It struck his eye as an aspect of diversity, a not unwelcome aberration in a roomful of smart phones, empty hands, and perhaps even a few pens and notepads. It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable with this reality of mine—that I do change the landscape, and I can choose to continue to struggle against this, or I can use it to speak out. Positive experiences, like having the difference I bring simply acknowledged, help with this, as more often than not when I change the landscape, there is palpable discomfort or anxiety.

So, while I have more to say about privilege, what it means and some of the more subtle ways in which it plays out, I’d like to propose that we slowly move the conversation over to one of acknowledging and exploring diversity and inclusion.

Mar 302012
 

Tomorrow morning Dr. Ruthie Neustifter and I will be presenting our workshop “ready, sexy, able” at the Momentum conference.

Our aim with this workshop is to inform, of course, but it is also to jumpstart the dialogue on sexuality and disability. With knowledge comes power. With discussion comes truth, and freedom from shame. Our North American mainstream media teaches us that sex is a luxury, a reward for being young enough, fit enough, “attractive” enough, wealthy enough. Our lived reality is one of many different bodies and many different life experiences.

WE’ve gathered together this list of definitions and resources.

This list is not complete.

Follow the instructions in the document and add your own knowledge.

Or email me at
robin@robinstoynest.com

Having trouble viewing the document? It’s a little persnickety for screen readers.

Clik here for a straight HTML version and email me at the address above if you have any suggestions.

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?