The first person to call me Silas out loud was my friend Meg. I almost cried, but not from happiness. We were sitting at my friend Heather’s dining room table and my friends were all painting their nails and I was sitting there, drinking a margarita and trying to concentrate on the conversation and not think about the email I’d sent asking them all to refer to me by my new name. They had all sent me texts or emails in response, telling me I had their support, but it had only been 12 hours and no one had said anything in person yet. Everyone was acting like everything was normal.
“Silas,” Meg said. “Can you pass me the Kleenex?”
I don’t know if the others heard her or—if they did hear—if it was weird for them, too, but I suddenly couldn’t breathe. It felt so not normal to be called Silas instead of Lindsay. I immediately regretted my decision. What if this meant I was wrong about being transgender and I never should have asked people to call me something else? What if I was right, but had chosen the wrong name? Was it too late to send another email, beg everyone to call me Andrew, or Charlie, or Sam? I hadn’t expected it to be so hard—not for me at least, since I had wanted a new name—a male name—for so long, and since Silas felt so perfect in theory.
That was the beginning of June, at the end of my first year of graduate school, but by the time I went to visit my family for the Fourth of July, I had gotten used to hearing it, and it felt different—better—than being called Lindsay ever had, even before I started to wonder about my gender identity. Suddenly I had a hard time remembering to answer when my parents (who I still didn’t know how to tell) called me Lindsay.
A year before I became Silas, during my first year of graduate school, 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 was 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 ’80s and ’90s, 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 was 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 only been friends for a couple of months and were still getting to know each other; 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 in it, I’ll call you Maddy to protect your identity. Deal?”
She sighed. She looked dejected. “I didn’t live the life of a Maddy, though. I’ve lived the life of a Nicole.”
How would my life be different if my mom hadn’t vetoed Erin Karen because of the near-rhyme? Who would Erin Karen have been? What would her childhood have been like? What if there hadn’t been some prenatal mistake, some sort of cosmic event—I don’t know what I believe caused the incongruence between mind and body—and I had been born a boy, and been called Scott? Would I still be here, the person I am now, or would my male body, and the name that I carried, have taken me in a completely different direction?
And then I wonder: have I lived the life of a Lindsay? Or did I live the life of a Silas for 24 years without even knowing?
In September, four months after I asked my friends to start calling me Silas, I told my family that I am transgender. It was a shock to them, though my mom insists it wasn’t that much of a shock—I had been embracing my masculine side for years already. They simply thought I was a lesbian, even though I had never confirmed nor denied my family’s assumptions. By the time they started to ask questions, I had started to realize that being a butch lesbian wasn’t the life I was meant to live, and I didn’t know how to tell them that while I did date women, I wasn’t gay.
While my family’s reaction was positive—my parents told me they loved me no matter what, and my grandmother said, “I don’t care. Why would I care?” and changed the subject to tell me about the ongoing saga of her kitchen remodel—things weren’t easy for them, or for me. Part of me thought that, in telling them, a weight would be lifted—and it was, but then it was replaced with the burden of relearning our family dynamics, how were are supposed to interact with each other. My mom and my grandmother started calling me Silas just before I went to visit for the holidays a couple months later, but my dad and my brother took longer to get used to the change. Because I hadn’t started hormones yet, and because I’d had short hair and worn men’s clothing for a few years already, the name-change was, for them, the biggest difference. It’s the only one they could see. And they hated it.
It was jarring when they used my old name. I was startled every time they said it—and they did, frequently that Thanksgiving and Christmas and a little less often in the months that followed. I don’t think they even meant to, necessarily—it was just a habit they hadn’t broken yet, but also probably a habit they weren’t all that interested in fighting.
I would be more likely to understand if Lindsay meant something special, but it doesn’t. It’s not as if my parents picked it because it would connote hope, or courage, or brilliance. Lindsay just happened to be popular the year I was born. It was, in fact, the 49th most popular girls’ name, which means that 6,530 American girls were named Lindsay in 1987. Two were in my class from kindergarten to 12th grade. My parents simply heard it somewhere—they don’t remember where exactly—and decided they liked it, and that it sounded good alongside my brother’s name, Michael.
And yet, they picked it. They gave it to me. They thought long and hard about what would sound good with our last name, about what name they could picture themselves yelling across a crowded playground. The very fact that they called their only daughter that for 24 years makes it mean something, to them at least. And I gave it up. I threw it away.
When I first started talking to my friends about being transgender, I told them I was thinking about a name for myself—a new name, a boy’s name—and people told me, “But Lindsay is a boy’s name. Or it can be anyway.” They suggested I keep it, or at least change it to something similar. Or something with the same nicknames. Or keep it as a middle name.
But the connotation of the name for me, growing up in the ’90’s, is female. It makes me feel female when people call me that. It makes me feel as if I should have been someone completely different, someone I can never be. I see Lindsay as a cheerleader. I always picture girls with names that end in y (or worse, in i) as cheerleaders, as bottle-blondes. Lindsay, Courtney, Stacy, Nikki. They’re too cutesy. Lindsay is a teenager who goes to football games on Friday nights with her friends, watches romantic comedies, has an athletic boyfriend with a one-syllable name like Joe or Rob or Steve. (I think a lot about names. When friends tell me they’re pregnant, I’m the first person to suggest names. When they have their kids and announce what they’ve picked, I secretly grade them: A for Eliza, B+ for Daniel, F for Pheonix spelled eo instead of oe.)
When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a Lindsay. I never have, even when I still called myself that, still told other people to call me that. I always felt like I was a fraud, like the name didn’t belong to me—it belonged to someone else, and I needed to give it back. I needed to get rid of it.
I thought for a while that I might pick the name Andrew. I thought for a long time, that that was who I was. I’d look in the mirror and think, that could be me. I hate the name Andy because of my brother’s weird friend from high school, and I don’t like Drew, either—it just doesn’t sound like a real name to me—but Andrew. It’s undoubtedly masculine, without question, and yet there’s a softness to it in that last syllable. It’s a name I felt like I could live up to.
A few months before I chose my name, though, I moved to Ohio for graduate school and met two more Andrews. Two guys whose company, it turns out, I enjoy immensely, but who are just two more additions to a long list of Andrews who are nothing like me. Now, when I hear the name Andrew, I picture specific people—my friend Andrew the Ph.D. student, my friend Andrew the fiction writer. I couldn’t see myself as an Andrew anymore; I would have to change too much of myself to become one. Just like with Lindsay, it felt like a name I was borrowing, one I had to give back.
So I started looking again.
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.
TODAY IN SLATE
Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS
But the next president might.
The Extraordinary Amicus Brief That Attempts to Explain the Wu-Tang Clan to the Supreme Court Justices
Amazon Is Officially a Gadget Company. Here Are Its Six New Devices.
The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything
It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.
How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?
Here are the facts.
The Plight of the Pre-Legalization Marijuana Offender
What should happen to weed users and dealers busted before the stuff was legal?