Transition: The Renaming of Hope

I will miss Anne, with the well-placed e and easy shape. Steep climb, perfect point, and the slide into the runout of three short, round letters. The way the letters smooth across the page in a tiny creek of repeat, nn, and slip into silence. Anne. I will miss the way her name sighs. Anne. It’s quite ordinary, really, the taper into nothing and the beauty of that sweep.

I will miss the way Anne fits with Molly and Ellis. I’m Molly, and this is my partner Anne and my kid Ellis. Anne doesn’t say her name, unless she’s standing in front of an extended hand, forced to own something. But I say it, like a mantra sometimes, a reminder of where my feet stand. Molly, Anne, and Ellis. A reminder of where her toes are headed. She doesn’t even know her own name yet.

I will miss the voice of a decade of whispers, of vocal cords still short and lithe. The voice that hides behind compression shirts and silence and my willingness to speak, that presses down and adjusts its register, wishing for longer, thicker cords pushing sounds to a depth her small voice can only imagine now.

I hope she lets me record I love you before I have to let her voice go.

_____

Anne and I have been discussing transition for years: her genderqueer childhood, boy clothes and bullying, harassment and fear, bras and binding and decades of depression. Forty years she’s been dreaming of this, creeping infinitesimally closer to himself. Finally Anne is shedding the she and the trappings of that pronoun and walking away from her name toward the open empty of trans, whatever that shift will mean for her. For me. For our family. She to He, maybe T. No matter. I will miss Anne—parts of her anyway.

Anne wants big biceps and broad shoulders, her hips shaved straight. She wants a new voice, and a new name that fits the way she feels. She wants confidence and safety. She wants height she cannot have.

“I’ll be a short guy,” Anne said one winter day, a half-smile deepening her dimple. “It’ll give me away.”

We were flipping through pants hangers in the men’s section at Savers thrift store in Midtown Minneapolis because Anne needed dress clothes for a work conference. Lots of decade-old khakis, pleated, with 34″ inseam. She’s 5′ 5″ and will walk on those hems. Anne fiddled with her hair, cut boy-short in back and rumpled on top, her blue eyes scanning hopefully for the right hanger.

“Let’s cruise over and check out the boys’ section,” I said, pulling her in for a hug.

“I’m a shrimp,” she whispered to my chest.

Turns out, one of the best places for Anne to buy clothes is The Children’s Place. But it’s hard to stand with authority and present a paper at the American Association of Museums conference on developing a standardized lexicon of culturally sensitive ethnographic collections when you’re wearing the same pinstriped pants as the teenager checking badges at the door.

Testosterone can’t grow a femur, can’t lengthen the tibia and fibula like a drawbridge rising. Even weekly injections have a limit. But T will rearrange her face, redistribute fat to thicken her forehead and broaden her jaw line. I imagine tiny globs tumbling over each other, connecting, combining, and redividing on the slow migration to their new home. Fat slips from hips and thighs. Voice drops. Skin toughens. Body hair grows thicker on every surface, face becomes coarse with the slow emergence of stubble. Many of these changes are permanent, but some last only as long as the hormone remains in the blood. Most of them happen so slowly—wisps of whiskers can take years to show up—but the voice plunge happens in the first few months, and once it deepens, can’t be reversed.

Not all transpeople take hormones or have surgery. Many linger somewhere in the middle between male and female, in just the place Anne has stood her whole life, facing the world in a genderqueer body. Living this ambiguity is sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance because it’s expensive to go to the doctor and fill prescriptions, and it costs thousands to go under the knife. Anne doesn’t (yet) take testosterone and hasn’t made any medical transitions. Likely she will. Or maybe not. We’re saving money, just in case. But those choices don’t determine whether or not Anne is trans, they just let other people recognize her intentions when she walks down the street. A beard helps.

Testosterone regulates hair growth patterns and the maternal line decides who goes bald, so, will Anne’s sandy brown tousle slowly recede off her newly prominent forehead? Maybe. Anne’s dad and brother are bald. Her maternal grandfather, too. No one’s sure what happens when T visits and stays a good long while in a body already sculpted by estrogen. No one can say exactly which hereditary patterns and family traits translate when someone so deep into life moves from female to male. FTM. No one really knows just yet. Ellis will grow up knowing.

Anne first started telling people she was trans during the summer I was pregnant with Ellis, but only her parents and closest friends. I was proud of her and hoped she’ d tell others, get it out of the way before our lives grew infinitely more complicated by a newborn. But that’s not Anne’s way. She takes quiet, measured steps. It took her nearly two years after Ellis’s birth to come out to a few more people, to hedge closer to a new name and even consider testosterone.

Ellis was born on 9 September 2012 in the barely morning hours, covered in meconium and shouting from his very first breaths. With his fair skin and light hair, his giant cheeks and blue eyes, his deep right-cheek dimple, he looked like Anne from the second he came out.

The OB glanced at Anne: “If I didn’t just deliver this guy, I’ d guess he came from you.”

In his first couple years of life, Ellis grew to look more and more like Anne. Yes, he had my eyes and chin, but mostly he looked like Anne. Not just his features and skin; the resemblance was more nuanced than that. Small gestures and expressions: something in the pucker of his lips, and the way he tucked his thumb between his ring finger and middle finger; the way his thick feet flexed and wiggled, his toes actually able to grasp things; the way he smiled so big his eyes disappeared in folds of joy.

“Seriously, Anne,” the pediatrician said at one of Ellis’s check-ups. “He looks like you. I mean, just like you.”

“It’s just because I look more like a baby,” Anne said, scrunching her nose.

And she did a little bit, or youthful anyway, with sweet soft cheeks, gentle blue eyes, and a dimple that wouldn’t quit. Her plaid button-ups and Levi’s 285 jeans. Broad shoulders, strong legs, and sturdy feet. She stood grounded in her brown hikers and walked with solid steps, even if she didn’t always feel that confidence. When I walked next to Anne, my body shaped from years of wilderness travel and softened by pregnancy, dark hair clipped short in back and angled past my cheekbones, wearing my black hoodie and striped scarf . . . well, we looked as though we belong together.

_____

I can’t remember the very first time Anne told me she wanted a new voice. It was before we had Ellis, but I can’t place the moment specifically in the timeline of our decade together. I imagine a dramatic conversation in the canoe while we paddled the Canadian Quetico lakes for two weeks; I know we discussed it one darkening day on Agnes Lake while the thunderheads marched in on whitecaps and wind. But maybe those canoe conversations were more theoretical and not so personal. I can picture a conversation on the jungle trail in the Osa Peninsula after a twelve-hour hike to the river crossing where crocodiles lingered, but maybe that was when we talked about a friend’s transition and his emerging voice. There was the conversation in our tent at the base of Mount Lemon and another in the kayak off Orcas Island. I can almost hear her voice.

I do remember the moment when Anne’s desire for a new voice indelibly wrote itself into the pages of our story. It was deep winter in 2014 when Ellis was about sixteen months old and we were living in our century-old house in South Minneapolis. One night we were lying with the soft moon shining on our mattress, blankets tight, Anne nestled in the spoon of my hips.

“When I talk, everyone knows I’m a girl,” she whispered. “I really need a lower voice.”

My breath caught, my feet tingled. “Oh, boy.”

“Exactly,” she said. “I really want it to be deeper.”

Ellis woke us the next day, clutching a book as big as he was. “Want to read with me?”

I squeezed Anne’s sleepy hand, then scooped Ellis into bed. Sitting between us in his Darth Vader T-shirt and pink whale pants, a toilet paper roll for a bracelet, Ellis narrated the story, flipping pages as if he were reading.

Listening to that tiny voice, I couldn’t fathom that someday it would drop and deepen, that he’ d become a cracking-voiced teenager and then a deep-voiced man. Anne leaned over and whispered to me, “What will we do with a man-child?” I just couldn’t imagine. But it wasn’t hard for Anne to imagine, to anticipate the day her son’s voice will drop lower than her own ever will, testosterone or not. She told me as much a couple weeks later.

We were eating pancakes at the breakfast table, Ellis poking strawberries onto his fingers, and Anne said, “When Ellis was born, I mean, that first night in the hospital, I stayed up all night watching him breathe.”

I imagined Anne staring at the rise and fall of his tiny rib cage, “I didn’t know.”

“Staring at him, I kept thinking, He’s my kid. I get to watch him grow. My little boy.” Anne paused. “Then it occurred to me. I have a son? Really?” I pictured Anne shaking her head a little as she reached out to touch his sleepy cheek.

Anne spoke softly, head bowed and eyes glancing at Ellis chattering away to his strawberry finger puppets. I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant and I didn’t ask, but I heard the nostalgia in her voice and realized that she was going to watch her son have the childhood she wished she’ d had, or the childhood body anyway, and that to witness him grow up would be beautiful and painful and, perhaps, draped with moments of jealousy.

_____

Ellis talked constantly from the moment he was born. Shouted, really. His newborn grunts became animated shrieks punctuated by flailing limbs and, at a freakishly young age, before he could even stand on his own, he started to speak—literally.

Anne and I would listen to his nonstop baby babbling all day and sometimes even at night when he cooed and giggled in his sleep. We’ d look at each other across the dinner table, in the grocery store, on stroller walks, while Ellis was holding forth in a garble of sounds, and we’ d laugh. I’ d say, What’s going to happen when he can talk? When he has actual words? Anne would smile and shake her head.

One July day when Ellis was ten months old we were hanging out in the backyard. I was sitting in the grass, stretching to get ready for a jog, and Ellis was lying in the hammock with Anne. Quiet breeze. Gentle sun. Suddenly Ellis pointed his chubby finger straight up into the branches of the giant maple and said, “Tree.”

Anne looked at me, eyes wide, and silently mouthed, Are you kidding me?

“What did you say?” I whispered to Ellis, “Say it again, bubba.”

There it was—Tree. He said it on an evening walk past a row of ash trees, reading a bedtime book, and looking out our bedroom window at the birch raising its peeling white trunk into the deep morning sky. Tree. Tree. Tree. And so we learned exactly what would happen when Ellis had more words: he would say them all the time, over and over again. His voice clear and bold, just the opposite of Anne’s childhood experience.

_____

As a kid, Anne could go days without talking. Silence at school was easy because the teachers knew her whip-smart brain and straight As, knew how her shy eyes trailed the ground, and how without much pressure at all Anne would cry. They let her be quiet. She helped the librarian reshelve books at lunch and left immediately after school. She didn’t play sports or go to pep rallies or dances. In fact, any day she could find an excuse, Anne didn’t go to school at all.

When she did go, she was harassed and bullied relentlessly. She didn’t know how to get help because there was none—no support groups or safe spaces for gender nonconforming kids, or even the language to describe them. The school counselor told Anne not to cry because that made the bullies tease her more; that counselor essentially told twelve-year-old Anne the ridicule was her own fault.

At home she didn’t have much room for her voice, either. The airspace was filled with two other voices: Anne’s mother narrating everything she did and talking about her students or friends or the book she was reading about immigration while she served pizza and garlic bread; and Anne’s brother, all-star on the football field, state champ on the wrestling mat, and student body president, telling story after story about high school as his pepperoni cooled. While Anne’s mom and brother talked over one another, her dad shook too much salt on his food, winked at Anne, and turned to watch the birds at the feeder outside the dining room window. Anne picked at her food, rolling quiet on the curve of her tongue.

“Five days,” she said. “Once I didn’t say anything all week and no one noticed.”

“What made them realize?”

“They didn’t. I got too sad and asked my dad to pass the salt,” she said. “He didn’t hear me.”

Anne’s parents may not have acknowledged the silence at their dinner table, but maybe they always heard it and just didn’t know what to say, because there were no words. No household term for trans, no language to even imagine what their daughter was going through. And so their support was offered in muted gestures and quiet allowances. They let Anne buy clothes from the boys’ section and have her hair cut boy-short starting in preschool. They bought her a dirt bike and a BB gun. Didn’t push dolls or ruffles or Easy-Bake Ovens.

Her parents’ quiet support was a kindness deeper than Anne could understand as a kid, but one she has grown to see with time and distance. And maybe it wasn’t enough, hard to say, but Anne did know she was loved by them, even if they didn’t know what words to offer.

Shyness was not all that silenced Anne throughout her childhood. She also didn’t talk because her careful gender ambiguity crumbled with every syllable she spoke: the slight lift at the end of a sentence, the reach of her range, and the softness of the vowels betrayed her every time—her voice and her name forced her to be a girl. I can imagine the awkward interactions with a reluctant grade-school Anne.

What’s your name? a grocery clerk or receptionist would ask.

Anne would whisper, if she spoke at all.

Can you say it again? I didn’t quite hear you, a new neighbor might say.

Anne would stare at the ground, clutching her thumbs and shuffling her feet.

Did you say Ian? Silence. Sam?

Or sometimes it was Dan, or Ethan, or Evan. No one ever heard Anne in the swallowed syllables she spoke to her toes. No one could imagine that a girl named Anne lived in the short-haired, high-top-wearing, baggy-shirted body before them—not even Anne.

Even now, when she’s an adult, it’s hard for people to imagine that someone named Anne lives in her still genderqueer body—until she speaks. She can’t sneak past her high voice. The apologies come after Anne has been sir’ed by someone: a store clerk, a flight attendant, a waiter. I’m so sorry. Excuse me. They flutter their hands. I mean, of course you’re a woman. It was just a quick glance. I don’t have my glasses on. Often people bend in too close to her face: I’m so, so sorry. What they don’t know is that the apology should really come after they refer to Anne as she or ma’am. What they don’t notice is that when they say he or sir, Anne flushes with pride, even in the face of frantic hands. Someday Anne will leave that high pitch behind, exchange it for a coarser sound, and avoid the frazzled apologies.

Even if she takes hormones, Anne’s voice will likely not register quite like a man’s. When a testosterone-taking trans guy speaks, the voice is often a giveaway to the people who know to notice. Not my mom, though, or the bank teller or the barista. It’s difficult to identify exactly what is different, but there is usually a quality to a voice forced lower with hormones, a certain roughness to the sounds as they elbow their way through newly thickened vocal cords, that is distinctly trans.

Anne and I know transfolks who never lost the scratch and croak of their transition voice, and some whose voices deepened and passed as male but were never smooth or pleasing to listen to. Anne worries those problems will happen to her, and they could. There’s no way to prevent her voice from cracking or to anticipate what it will sound like in the end.

Anne brought this up one still-frozen March day, not long after the night she admitted wanting a deeper voice. We were walking from the grocery store to the car with eighteen-month-old Ellis humming and draped over Anne’s back like a cape and my arms loaded with paper bags.

“Sweetie,” she said, “I’ll probably sound like a teenager at first. Sort of squashed and crackly.”

I took a deep breath. “Then I’ll be your sugar mama.”

“Or it might be smooth as butter,” she said, a coy smile. “You never know.”

The checkout guy had been trans. He’ d smiled shyly while he fumbled our apples and yogurt into a bag. Seeing Anne, he knew he was both visible and safe, not a usual combo for a transperson to experience.

“But seriously,” she sighed, scraping the icy windshield. “I’m worried it’ll sound weird.”

“It might,” I said, shrugging. “No biggie.” Then I shoved the groceries in the trunk and slipped behind the wheel, thinking, Who cares? Either way, you’d be happier.

Anne and Ellis tumbled into the backseat singing “The Bear Went over the Mountain.” I sat quietly waiting for the car to heat up, considering my own question: Who does care?

Anne kept singing, “Grrr went the bear and roar went the cub,” while she buckled Ellis into his car seat and tightened the shoulder straps. I thought again. Maybe I do. Anne’s voice is the one that I’ll hear every day for the rest of my life, the one that will whisper I love you late at night and I’m here when a fever spikes, that will shout, Go, go, go! at Ellis’s soccer games and embarrassingly cheer Bravo! Encore! at his cello recitals. Hers is the voice that will grow old and raspy next to mine.

Sitting there in the warming car, I realized that it was me who cared. A lot. I wanted to scream, No, I don’t want your new voice. I don’t want any of it. But I glanced at Anne in the rearview mirror—her deep eyes holding the years of pain and silence, her fragile smile holding a thin line of hope, her hand holding Ellis’s—and I stayed quiet.

“Ready?” I said. Then I put the car into gear and slipped into the icy flow of Lake Street traffic.

After that night, I began to wonder how scratchy Anne’s voice might be, if it will still seem like hers, if it will still sound sexy to me. But if taking T means Anne will talk, will order pizza or call Ellis’s doctor, will speak to the neighbor about the weather or to the coffee guy about the weekend, will tell Ellis stories or wake up excited to say even just one word, then the change will be worthwhile. If she’s speaking she’s growing, even if there is gravel in her voice.

Anne tiptoes toward hope on the rise and fall of every letter lilting off her tongue, because her transition depends not on hormones but on the words she shares with the world and those she swallows again.

_____

One September evening, just after Ellis turns two, Anne and I are on a date, the kind that starts with therapy and ends with wine because that’s the kind of time we get together these days. We are sitting on a restaurant patio eating curry, a twinkle of lights strung above us, a tall wooden fence separating us from rush of cars and busses on University Avenue. We are discussing parenting and groceries, top surgery and hormones, a new name.

“I want to have it figured out by my birthday,” Anne says.

“Sounds realistic,” I say, my mouth full. “What does ‘figured out’ mean?”

“Done. Cured,” she smiles. “Gender puzzle solved.”

I hold up nine fingers. September to June. A perfect gestation.

We drift to Ellis stories and weekend plans, but names simmer on the table between us, Evan, Lewis, Maxwell?

I pack the leftovers while Anne heads to the bathroom. She doesn’t usually go to public restrooms alone. We go together, my clearly gendered body announcing us, because most women don’t like genderqueer folks in the stall next to them or sharing sink space and paper towels. But we know this bathroom is single-stall and no one will harass Anne. That’s how she survives each day—one safe pee at a time.

The tap of breeze on crisp sunset leaves. My purple striped scarf loose and long. The slant of sun on my plate. Anne emerges from the patio door, and as she walks toward me with strong steps on the cobblestones, I see him—really see the emerging him wearing Anne’s blue gingham button-up. There he is in her jeans and hikers, stealing her stride with each footfall.

As she moves past tiny hanging lanterns and tables of laughter, I can feel her gentle face slide into a strong-jawed smile. Blink. I can touch her once-soft forearms through muscles and hair. Blink. I can smell his sharp sweat. My breath catches the sweet sigh of her name, Anne, and I watch him walk toward me, still tracing the shift of those shoulders I fell in love with a decade ago.

“What?” she whispers.

I smile, take his hand, and wonder at the tightness of the grip.

Most transmen on T have hands disproportionately small for their new bodies. They can grow muscle and shift fat with hormones and workouts, but the structure of the hands, the basic foundation of how the palm meets the fingers, stays constant. Their hands can muscle up, but they’ll only be so long.

“I like my hands,” Anne says, turning them over and back again, fingers stretched wide, veins wrapping tendons.

She doesn’t like much about her body, but she believes in her tough hands—strong bone structure, square palm, fingers just the right density and agility to be equally skilled at labor and art. She can chop wood and lay brick with the same precision and grace that steady her hand to examine a thousand-year-old pot. When I watch Anne teach Ellis to trace with a crayon, tighten a screw, or hold a cricket, the quiet curve of her fingers cradling his, I hold my breath and hope that Anne’s hands can carry her through transition, that they will still feel tough at the end of her someday-hairy arms. I hope they will still feel like hers when they belong to him. I hope they will still feel like mine.

_____

There are layers and layers of learning how to re-gender yourself. It’s not just new clothes and a new name. Not just wide stance and strong shoulders, nor just taking up space and talking loudly. For many transmen it’s about how a guy props the door with his foot, that imperceptible difference in the kick of leg and tilt of hip. The tight nod hello. How a guy holds his toddler, no hip, arm crooked high. To teach yourself gender is to walk through the world as an artist, noticing details not meant to be noticed, watching each shift and sway and breath to find out how we codify and signify gender, and then to try on that skin day after day after day.

But re-gendering is also about a shifting wardrobe and a new configuration of letters to make a name. The clothes seem to be much easier to change, one shirt at a time, a new way of tucking or rolling, or not. Yes, it’s heading to the men’s or boys’ section, but it’s also about figuring out which stores carry extra-small button-up shirts and men’s size 8 shoes. Not many, as it turns out. And it’s also about discerning which styles accentuate shoulders and de-accentuate hips, a much trickier task. There is no manual, no checklist, no comprehensive website; the process is mostly about so many details that are learned along the way, observing people and listening to stories shared by other genderqueer and transpeople, and it’s about so much patience.

_____

When we met ten years ago, Anne still wore women’s clothes. Not particularly girlie ones, but still. She had earrings, 16-gauge stretched, but earrings just the same. She wore Hanes-Her-Way and fumbled with clips on an underwire. The accumulation of women’s clothes were lead on her shoulders and she walked slightly hunched over, offering only flashes of eye contact and a beautiful smile touched with sadness. But that’s who I fell in love with, that complex and gentle person, bursting with compassion and patience, shy and open, solid, and living what felt to me a tender ambiguity. I fell in love with her as she was, chest and all.

Slowly Anne has shed this life, a decade of subtle shifts. Shirts to the thrift store. Ears stripped naked. Sideburns cut straight. Her shoulders lifted ever so slightly. Boxers and boy jeans. Tight sports bras to try to flatten her chest.

So many quiet changes.

Then, one spring a couple years before Ellis was born, Anne visited a friend in St. Louis and returned with a suitcase of thrift-store clothes and a whole new style. Her friend is a professor of masculinity studies and a dapper queer—a perfect companion for someone teetering on the edge of trans identity. She led Anne through the basics of Dressing Male 101.

A front pocket distracts people’s eyes. One pocket. Not two.

Patterns, like plaid and gingham, mask bumps and bulges.

Shoulder detail—buttons, flaps, visible seams—draws attention and makes them look broader

Men roll sleeves three times and tuck their shirts.

When I went to pick up Anne at the airport, warm breeze drifting off the tarmac, I looked right past her, thinking she was a teenage boy. I actually drove the loop again before I spotted her. There, on the sun-speckled sidewalk, Anne began to shed her name and crawl away from the pronoun she. A painfully slow transition, but I could see it starting to happen, even if she couldn’t say so yet. She had left for the trip in a baggy T-shirt and shorts, then returned in a plaid green button-up tucked into dark jeans and standing straighter than I’ d ever seen, shoulders relaxed and hands quiet, looking at people walking by. Our eyes met, and I blushed.

“Oo-la-la,” I said, slapping her butt as she loaded the suitcase.

She teased my hand away. “Too many people.”

I pulled her in for a kiss, held her there a while, then whispered, “They’re just jealous.”

We got in the car, windows down as we merged onto the highway.

“What do you think?” Anne said.

“It’s good,” I said. “I like it.”

And I meant it. Despite how it caves me to remember that significant shift, that emerging of the more masculine Anne, I thought she looked hot in her new boy clothes.

“Me too,” she said, settling in to the blow of the wind, eyes closed.

Anne wore her new confidence as well as she wore her new style, and for a few months that carried her. But button-ups and rolled cuffs have their limitations, and the clothes still bulged slightly over her chest. She wanted to hide more. Stifling sports bras weren’t enough, and Ace bandages would bruise her ribs and damage her lungs, so Anne turned to tight nylon compression shirts to flatten her chest. Years of binding have broken down her breast tissue, essentially pressing it back into the body, and for a while that has hidden enough. Someday surgery will likely take the tiny bit of breast tissue that remains.

When Anne first started to wear compression shirts, we didn’t talk about it. I got some old ones from a trans friend and tossed them in the laundry. Anne put the clean clothes in the dresser and the compression shirts disappeared from my drawers. She wore the old, stretched-out shirts for months, and when I rubbed her back, I felt the seamless slip of my hand over nylon. Still, we were silent. Eventually Anne ordered new ones, longer and tighter. Shirts so tight she got stomachaches; shirts so tight she stood and faced the world in a whole new way. Back tall and feet steady, even if she couldn’t feel it at first.

For a while, even through these changes, I could sometimes still touch her chest, if I asked. It was always quick and short, and never during sex. Then not at all. Now I can’t imagine touching her chest, reminding Anne that she has breasts, has curves, underneath the binding. I don’t even know the slide of her back without the weave of a compression shirt. I don’t know how it feels to wrap my arms around her nakedness and hold the softness of her belly, the boldness of her bare back. It’s been five and a half years and I don’t know if I will ever know that skin again.

_____

Naming a human being is hard. I have no idea how to do it, and neither does Anne. It felt nearly impossible for us to name our baby, just a tiny being whose spirit we barely knew, yet even with just those first flutterings of personality our child had a name. We had to find it, shape it, and give it to him to carry in his still-tight fists. Anne and I needed a week, and a changed birth certificate, to hand Ellis his name. To really feel it and know it and share it.

Because we didn’t know the sex of the baby before the birth, Anne and I went to the hospital with a list of possible names and the hope that one would work. We knew the middle name was Ellis regardless of the baby’s sex. Ellis, inspired by Melissa, a late aunt Anne adored. We left the hospital with a name on the birth certificate, but did so reluctantly. We told our families and closest friends, but made no larger announcement, no Facebook post or group email. We spent the first days of our baby’s life calling him nicknames—bubba, love bug, tiny E—but never his actual given name. It just wasn’t his. I wrote an email to our families: “Hold the monogramming, we’re changing the name.” And so we renamed our one-week-old the name we’ d grown to love but had relegated to the middle, the name that finally chose our kid—Ellis.

So, if it’s that hard to name a newborn, how do you name a person with forty years of history, decades of connections, and a lifetime of expectations? How do you find a name that tells those stories and the ones still growing? How do you find a name you want to call yourself? How do you plant your feet here?

“I don’t want a trans name,” Anne said while we were jogging along the Mississippi one Sunday, Ellis asleep in the stroller. “You know, the obvious ones, like Aiden, Myles, Rae.”

I glanced at Anne, eyebrows raised, “But you are trans.”

“I don’t need the world to know that up front,” she replied.

That’s exactly what I need, I thought, People to know up front.

“Makes sense,” I said with a shrug. We were silent for a few paces, then as the path narrowed and we headed downhill single file, I whispered to myself, You shouldn’t have chosen me.

Anne knows I don’t hide things, especially emotional things, very well. She knows I don’t want to. When something joyful happens, I tell my family and friends, and sometimes the guy on the bus. When I’m grieving or stewing or fuming, I tell people just the same. Anne knows that conversations with people untangle my feelings and give me breathing room. She also knows that sometimes her silence suffocates me. And I know that sometimes that same silence saves her.

Anne’s been researching names for years. She has lists in notebooks, on the computer, in her journals, and even on a giant poster on the bedroom wall, which hung next to another giant poster with potential baby names on it before Ellis was born. There was some crossover, including the name our kid ended up getting. A few months after Ellis was born, I said to Anne, “You could go with Ellis II. Baby first and parent follows.”

She laughed. “Another way to queer our family.”

Exactly.

Anne could change her name a million ways. She could, like so many transmen we know, use a male version of her given name or a similar-sounding name. Anne would become Andrew or Andy, maybe Dan or Stan or Graham, all of which she rejected immediately. She could reclaim her mom’s maiden name of Wells, or adopt Whidbey, the island where she was born. Some transpeople ask their parents to rename them, but that’s risky and definitely not Anne’s style.

Her favorite research technique is movie credits. We slouch in our seats until the very last words scroll away, whispering every possibility, and every absurdity. Names of catering companies are fair game, but mostly we look for real options.

Steven. George. Mike. Jack—too much our dads’ generation.

Milo. Byron. Linus—too hip.

Maxfield—possible. Calloway—thumbs up. Lucas—on the short list.

Anne and I discuss the growing and shrinking lists. Some names persist—Charlie. Sam. Obie. We try names at home, but that mostly makes us giggle, or cry, and so far nothing has stuck.

It’s not quite right, she says about each name, even the favorites. Doesn’t feel like me.

Of course, I think. Because it’s not you yet. But it would be.

Makes sense, I say in my most patient moments. You’ll figure it out.

If you don’t try something, you’ll never know, I say in my less patient moments.

In my darkest moments, I say nothing at all and stare at the list penciled in the spiral notebook—Nolan, Elliot, Lewis, Theodore, Ethan—and imagine meeting new people. “This is my kid, Ellis, and my partner, _________,” I would say. I watch the fictitious neighbors filing away their assumptions and expectations about me and my straight family, and I start to cry.

Anne and I discuss names, but ultimately I don’t get to decide. Anne is naming herself. It’s her identity and she isn’t really asking my opinion. It’s not that I think she should, but I feel so powerless, as though I’m supposed to accept the lists and be open to whatever she chooses, supposed to play it cool. But I hate Lewis and cringe to think of saying it every day. Nolan reminds me of a high school bully I knew, and Ted is an ex-boyfriend I don’t want to think about during sex. But I’m not invited to be that honest. I have no eraser to wield. Just silence and sadness. And brewing anger. And shame for feeling those things.

When we meet someone and fall in love, the name is there, being worn. If we don’t like it, we simply deal with it. If it’s awkward, we get over it. But we enter the relationship knowing. I committed my life to Anne knowing her name, her body, and suddenly I didn’t. And still don’t.

There is no word for a genderqueer person raising a kid. There isn’t a standard name for a child to call a “mom/dad.” I mean, yes, there is the word parent, but who wants to wake up to, Good morning, parent, or hear, Parent! Parent! shouted across the swings and sand? Maybe if we drank afternoon tea while wearing elbow patches or spoke French at the dinner table. But we’re more the rolling-in-the-grass kind of crowd. Anne, Ellis, and I.

Anne researched options and found ways that other queer families have made do with the gaps in our language. There weren’t many prospects—Maddy, Mapa, Baba, Moppy—and none of them appealed to Anne.

Most of the queer parents we know went with Mom and Momma, regardless of gender identity. But Anne couldn’t do it, couldn’t compromise—with her parent name, her style, or her behavior. Not now, not in high school, not when she was a toddler. Anne has a photo album from her childhood and in it there is a picture of her wearing a pink dress with lace cuffs and matching bloomers, her wispy blond hair curled around her chubby cheeks. It’s the last one of her in a dress; she was two years old.

As Anne grew up and suffered through puberty, she couldn’t grow her hair or wear make-up to stop the world from staring. She couldn’t walk lightly then, and she wasn’t going to enter parenthood with quiet steps. For all her shyness and shame, Anne always knew where she couldn’t compromise. There were some things she couldn’t change no matter who pressured her. There was a clear line Anne couldn’t step over no matter how lonely she became, because if she did, she knew she would shatter from the inside out.

When Ellis was born Anne decided, tentatively at first, on Poppy. She liked it, but was nervous to tell people, curious how the name would be received. I imagined her practicing introducing herself: “Poppy.” “Yup, I go by Poppy.” “He calls me Poppy.” “Yes, P-o-p-p-y, like the flower.”

I watched her during those brave moments when she first told people her parent name, and I could almost feel the flush rise in her, despite the solid way she stood, feet wide and shoulders set, her hope hanging on to the steep round of the capital letter P. Poppy.

Anne didn’t tell her parents she was to be called Poppy until a month after Ellis was born. They lived far away and didn’t ask questions during phone calls; they simply waited. Perhaps her mom and dad knew the name would be something different, something difficult to hear. Or perhaps they didn’t think about it, assumed she’ d be Mom because that fit what they thought of their little girl grown parent.

Poppy. Her dad integrated it seamlessly into his very next sentence and didn’t look back. He spoke to Ellis about his Poppy, spoke for Ellis and addressed his Poppy. Anne’s mom managed to call her nothing for a couple months. For her, the situation went deeper than a name. She had imagined her little girl would birth a baby, adding a branch to the Iverson family tree and a girl to the Daughters of the American Revolution. She loves genealogy, finding connections and bloodlines of ancestors as far back as possible. What to do with a non-bio baby? Then, a Poppy to boot. She just couldn’t say it.

I don’t remember how long Anne’s mom took to start calling her Poppy, or what made her change. Maybe it was watching Ellis’s baby cheeks scrunch with joy when Anne held him close and said, Hey Peanut, I’m your Poppy. Or maybe it was seeing the flush of joy on Anne’s cheeks when everyone else called her Poppy. Or maybe it just took time for her mom to unravel the dream she had for her daughter, and to rewrite how she fit into Poppy’s new story. And maybe her mom wishes she’ d done something more or something quicker, or maybe not. But in the end, she started saying Poppy with apparent joy on her own face.

Anne’s mom wasn’t alone in avoiding the word. People we know well—coworkers, neighbors, even Ellis’s babysitter—still refer to Anne as Mom. It seems like sometimes they just forget, but I think most of the time people are uncomfortable using an offbeat name. When Anne is alone with Ellis and people say, Go find your Mom, or Sit on your Mama’s lap, Ellis looks right through Anne, leans to peek around her, turns in circles looking for me and says, “Where is Mama? She’s not here.” Anne is Poppy; for Ellis, that is enough. He knows that some kids have a Daddy, and some don’t, but no one else gets to have a Poppy.

We’ve taught Ellis to call toddlers babies or kids and to refer to adults as grown-ups or parents. He hugs Anne and me close and says, You’re my parents. We’re a whole family. Ellis doesn’t have to say she and he when they works just fine. There is no need to make binary distinctions with a toddler, or any of us, really. When a pronoun is unavoidable, two-year-old Ellis moves gracefully between he and she when he talks about Poppy, intuitively shifting pronouns depending on context and conversation, taking cues from me or the people around him. When Ellis transposes he and she or substitutes they, he isn’t making a mistake; he’s living linguistic fluidity and accepting difference unconditionally. He’s not gender bound. If we listen, he’s teaching us how language doesn’t have to define identity, that we are bigger than the pronouns people use to describe us, that we don’t have to be one thing or the other because we can simply be both, or many.

_____

Not long after the date night, Ellis and I were crossing the Lake Street bridge, his wispy toddler hair blowing in the fall breeze, when I heard the term trans-trender for the first time. We were walking behind a pierced, cis-gendered teenager wearing an off-shoulder sweater and skinny jeans who said to her iPhone friend, “He’s totally trans-trender. You know, for attention.” This comment slipped casually from her mouth, as if being trans is as cool and easy as getting a tattoo. But there is truly nothing trendy about being trans. There is mostly fear and danger, and plenty of shame. And trying not to be noticed.

It’s not hip. It’s not a fad. It’s scary.

As a teenager, Anne stayed home as much as possible, and she still does so as an adult—avoiding public places, opting out of concerts and dinner parties, skipping hikes with friends. I go, taking Ellis’s hand and heading to the park or the restaurant. Yes, Anne stays home because she’s introverted, but also because, no matter what one’s age, it’s hard to be genderqueer and stared at. Anne still freezes around teenagers, haunted by high school bullies. She melts when she witnesses kids mocking each other, sinks into her small-framed heart that took the blows of the cruelty that defined her childhood. She won’t hold hands in public or walk by a group of men at night because no matter how much the queer community and academia discuss gender spectrum, the average American wants the binary boxes on forms to make sense and be absolute reality. Anne doesn’t want to face that animosity while eating ice cream on a summer night with her family.

For her, the worst part about being out in public is not having anywhere to pee, or at least anywhere safe. Not the men’s bathroom, and not the women’s. She has learned to hold her pee for up to ten hours to avoid a public restroom, especially a multiple-stall one. But occasionally it’s unavoidable and Anne has to walk past the sign with the stick figure in a skirt and deal with whoever is in there. Sometimes it’s fine, and sometimes it’s terrifying. But peeing in public is always intense and totally exhausting. Anne has lived this dynamic her entire life, and it never gets easier to stand there on her own two feet when the meanness gets right in her face:

“What are you?” said a woman to the Wrangler-wearing ten-year-old Anne in a roadside Texaco bathroom. Grabbing her own daughter’s hand, the woman then said, “Jesus, where’s your mother?”

“Prove it,” said the pack of sixth graders to second-grader Anne in the school bathroom one fall day.

What the hell are you doing? says one woman after another. You’re in the wrong place.

Anne lives an echo of You’re in the wrong bathroom and You’re not supposed to be here, which, over a lifetime, sounds a lot like You’re wrong and You’re not supposed to be. Shame wraps Anne, binding her breath to her ribs and forcing her to fold instead of stand tall. There she is, standing with dripping hands in bathrooms across the country while the air grows tight around her.

I’ve watched women enter the bathroom, see Anne at the sink, and step back to check the sign on the door. Most come in again and ignore her, some glare, a few wait outside until she leaves. Sometimes women report that there is a man in the women’s restroom. I stare at the mean faces, my feet planted, and say to Anne, “Take up all the space you need.”

_____

I imagine the day Anne changes her name, starts testosterone, and begins to pass as a guy. I imagine she will shed her shame and walk lighter, more open to people and engaged in the world. The difficulty won’t recede; it will just be renamed and redistributed. Our lives will likely get easier, or at least less scary—but still hard, a new kind of hard. For me anyway.

Sometimes on long runs by the river or in the silent moonlight on our mattress, I say to the imagined vial of testosterone and still-wrapped syringe, I know you are, but what am I?

It’s not that I worry about how my identity will change once Anne transitions more physically, more publicly. I’ll know my face and how my clothes fit. I’ll know his eyes and how he sees the world. What makes me panic is how the world will see me. I imagine my queer identity fading into Anne’s facial hair, and my ability to own my queerness drowned by her deepening voice. To out myself will be to out Anne. I don’t see how I won’t become invisible.

I fought hard for my queer identity. Growing up in a military Catholic family, I had some work to do in my twenties. Nose ring. Big boots. Dykey glasses. Buttons and bumper stickers about the binary gender system. Pride parades and drag shows—too late and too raunchy, but I showed up. My body didn’t necessarily read as queer, so I could choose when to come out and when to fade into the safe, straight walls. I could put on my privilege like a cape of good intentions. Most of the time I stood with conviction laced into my Dr. Martens and tucked into my big belt, fighting to be seen.

Holding Anne’s hand queered me. Standing next to her gender-nonconforming cuteness outed me to the world. What a relief. Anne fought all her life to blend in and I clamored to be noticed. As Anne transitions, she’ll shift from being seen as a queer dyke to being a straight white guy—suddenly tossed up from years of isolation to the place of privilege in our narrow mainstream world. And me? What will become of me? I’ll be seen as a straight girl living in the Longfellow neighborhood of South Minneapolis with her husband, toddler, two cats, and a dog in our two-story house with a porch in front, raspberries in the garden, and a giant maple out back. I try to imagine the assumptions people will make about my family and my life, about who I am and what I stand for. You can see us now, standing side by side. Hand in hand. Ellis tight on my hip. Anne’s feet facing forward and my toes outturned, the way they always are.

This is not what I signed on for.

 

Molly Cooney is a queer writer, mother, and teacher who spends as much time as possible outdoors. Her work can be found in the Gettysburg Review and the North Dakota Quarterly, among others, and she is a winner of The Loft Literary Center Mentor Series Award and the University of Arizona Poetry Center Manuscript Award. Cooney recently finished a manuscript about leading an Arctic canoeing expedition and is currently writing about life with her trans partner. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches writing.