I made a list of popular names from 1987, thinking that maybe I could pick a name that would sound right, that would sound like maybe I was really named that, like that had always been what people called me. None of those names felt right though: Michael, Christopher, Matthew, Joshua, David, Daniel, James, Justin, Robert. I kept going further and further down the list—Brandon, Anthony, Nicholas, Zachary, Aaron, Mark, Paul, Gregory, José—and none of those felt right, either. I kept looking, thinking I’d find something eventually, but I started to lose hope. I started to think I’d never find the name that felt like mine. Then I thought maybe the reason I couldn’t find a name was because I was wrong about being transgender—maybe it wasn’t the answer to all the questions I’d had for years. And so I stopped looking for a while.
Eventually someone suggested picking a family name. I thought about it for a while—maybe Charlie, after my great-grandfather, but I’d grown up hearing stories about him from my grandmother, his daughter, and the name seemed like too much to live up to, like naming myself after a legend. I kept wishing I could pick something from my dad’s side—something Danish—but the ones I know are all taken by my uncles and their sons and it felt weird to me to name myself after a living relative I hardly know.
Then, on a list of popular names in Denmark, I found it. Silas, No. 21. It’s not Danish, actually—it’s from the Bible. But it’s more popular in Denmark now than in any other country. If you search for my first and last name on Facebook, most of the men who show up live in Copenhagen, Odense, or Frederiksburg. It means “man of the forest,” and though I’m not a survivalist, I was a Girl Scout for 15 years and most of my best childhood memories take place in the woods behind my parents’ house.
That night, I looked in the mirror and said it out loud a few times. Silas Hansen. Silas. Si. I didn’t cringe the way I did with some of the others; didn’t shake my head in disgust, didn’t feel like I was a fraud using someone else’s name. Finally, it felt right, like it had been my name all along.
My 88-year-old grandmother has never been good with names. It’s a trait that’s carried on the second X-chromosome in my family, along with bad knees and asthma and anxiety. Grandma says it started with her mother and her four sisters. They’d all be in the same room and then one of them would leave and they’d just end up calling each other by the wrong names. “Maude, can you hand me that glass?” Hazel would say to Myrtle, when Maude had just left. And Myrtle would respond, without even thinking.
To my grandmother, I have never been Lindsay—always Kim, my mother’s name, or Andrea, my cousin’s. My mom is always Terry, her older sister. Aunt Terry is always Kim. She calls my cousins, Holly and Andrea, by each other’s names. Now that Holly has two daughters, Kelsey and Katelyn, she calls them each other’s names, or their mother’s, or mine. My brother Mike is Tim, after our dad, or Floyd or Don, my grandmother’s brothers, who have both been dead almost a decade.
“I’m not senile,” she says. “I’ve done this for years.”
A few weeks after I told my family I was trans, when I was home visiting for Thanksgiving, my grandmother started using my new name, except she couldn’t say it. She kept saying “Cyrus” instead. My mom kept making jokes out of it, like calling me “Billy Ray.” A few weeks later, the night I got into town for Christmas break, she asked me to pass the salt at dinner, but called me Mike, then Tim. “Sorry,” she said. “I mean Cyrus.”
I started biweekly testosterone injections the February after I told my parents I was transgender, and—after paying a $140 fee, and swearing in front of a judge that I wasn’t changing my name to avoid debt, or for other fraudulent purposes—legally changed my name that June. Even now that my voice has dropped, and my facial hair is slowly filling in, and my driver’s license has the right name and gender marker, I still wonder: What if, five years from now, after the hormones after truly made their mark, I stop thinking that Silas is the right name for me?
But the thing I love most about the name Silas is that I don’t know anyone else with that name. I’ve never met another Silas and so I don’t have a picture in my head of what one looks like, sounds like, acts like. Silas is a blank slate. If I were a Matt or a Jack or an Andrew I’d feel as if I had to live up to that name, as if I had to do it justice. If I were a Charlie, I’d feel as if I were carrying around my great-grandfather’s name, his legacy. But Silas is mine.
Sometimes, since strangers do not always read me as male right away, people assume that I am a girl named Silas—it doesn’t sound all that masculine, at least not the way a name like John or Joseph does. Part of me hates it when this happens, but at the same time, I’m a little bit grateful that the name borders on the land between masculine and feminine, the way I do. I see Silas as someone who can cross over into one or the other anytime he wants, anytime he needs to. I’m the guy they call when they need someone to help move their couch, or when they need something off the top shelf and can’t reach—and I balance it out by being the guy they call, too, when they can’t remember how to cast on stitches for the scarf they’re knitting, or when they need a good chocolate chip cookie recipe. That’s why Silas works for me. I can carry that name with me as I learn how to be a man, learn to navigate this land of men’s bathrooms and facial hair and talking to girls as a straight man without losing sight of who I am, who I used to be. And, in the end, what more could I want from a name?
A longer version of this essay was originally published in the Colorado Review.
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