I recently decided to change my Twitter and Facebook first name from “James” to “Jayms.” While my friends and family have been largely accepting and unquestioning, I would like to explain why for me this makes a significant statement about who I am and how I have evolved in my lifetime.
It’s not that I dislike my birth name: James Fernand Andris. Once, as an adult, I was visiting mom and dad in my hometown and was at the time very much into our family history. We were sitting around relaxing and talking one evening, and I asked them both, “Who was I named for?” Simultaneously, mom said “Saint James” while dad said “King James.” After much chuckling—and being at the time in one of my atheist periods—I said, “I think I prefer the King James Version. I’m no saint.” It’s also not the first time I have tinkered with my name. When I made my first album of songs in 1985, I felt I needed an artistic name. I knew that my patronym had sometimes been spelled “Andrisse,” a Walloon spelling. For that album, and for some time after, the songwriter became Jim Andrisse, pronounced ahn-dréese. But, just to make it clear, I liked all of those names: Andris, for my Belgian French ancestry, Fernand for my dear father, and James, with the nickname Jim or Jimmie when I was small, well, that felt alright to me.
Nice and right as my name may have seemed to me for almost all of my life, I have come slowly to see that it deeply misleads people about who I am. Other places I have tried to explain this hidden me in depth and detail, but here I am just going to state the facts as boldly and bluntly as I can, adorned with little explanation. I do not fit the gender binary distinction of male/female. Caveat: neither the doctor nor my parents got it wrong. At birth I had a penis and testicles, no doubt about it.
On the other hand, who you become isn’t just a matter of genitals. You also have to buy into the binary gender system of the culture. Again and again, I opted out of choices that a non-problematic identification with the male pole of the gender binary required. These “opting outs” included fighting, contact sports, stuffing my feelings, choosing a female sex partner, hard physical labor, and much much more. Also, while it’s much too complicated to go into in any detail, there were non-binary biological things that kept happening to me: low testosterone, breast development, many wierd and undiagnosable but very real physical symptoms. I kept hiding my secret rebellion in men’s attire and basically “passing” as a straight male for the first three decades of my life.
It is equally true that the female side of the binary was not calling to or haunting me to explore it. Oh, sure, I dressed up in mom’s clothes once or twice, and I appeased my gender-fucking male friends for a time by going out in drag on Halloween. But this was not tickling my fancy, it was just some kicky fun. Frankly, I don’t really like to mess that much with my physical appearance. I am what I am. Give me a $15 haircut once a month, a drawer full of tee shirts and jeans, and that would be enough wardrobe, thank you. I don’t even like rings; they get in the way of my piano playing.
The fact is, I just don’t fit this gender binary definition of a person falling somewhere on a female/male scale. I don’t even want to call myself “androgynous.” I have mostly viewed myself as a person first. I also think that is what has made me so open to having so many close women friends. Being gay, I don’t see a women as a sex object, but also, I see everyone as a person with their own unique point of view, and I am curious about what that view is. It doesn’t bother me when I see a person with gender ambiguity; by contrast, it infuriates and upsets many people. I’ve never understood why that is.
I think the fact that at least at the psychological level, I stepped outside the gender binary has led me to see a lot of things more clearly than people who have chosen to function within it. For many people, for some inexplicable reason, choosing man or choosing woman for an identity means creating your own children in your own image. I think the world at large has pursued ths goal so lustily that we have now nearly destroyed the planet from creating too many people for its resources. I think I decided by my twenties that it would not only be ok for me to have no children, but that whether people appreciated it or not, I was actually doing the world a favor. Now don’t get me wrong. I know that children are a blessing, to their parents and to the world. What I am saying is that too many children is a curse on the world, notwithstanding the individual child being a blessing.
There is one more insight that results from my being agendered that is worth sharing. I really get that all these civil rights issues—women’s rights, gay rights, lesbian rights, transgendered rights, intersex rights, queer and questioning rights—they all grow out of male privilege. Male privilege is built squarely on the gender binary. Male privilege asserts that men make better and wiser decisions than women, that men deserve the power that has accrued to them. On this view, because men are superior, they can never be “fucked.” Besides whever pleasure that might or might not result from sex, male privilege sees sex as a form of domination and submission. Rights for all these groups would challenge that rule. It may seem that this is a bizarre oversimplification of the problem, but I do think that ceding power to women and sexual minorities must strike many men as a form of being raped. On the other hand, someone like myself, who is definitely not committed to maintaining the gender binary, see the equalization of power as necessary.
Now I know that the last two paragraphs must seem to some people like a tiring lecture in political correctness. If that is true of you, so be it. But try to understand my main purpose in including them. Remember, I started out to explain why I changed my social network name to “Jayms” from James. The fact is that, as much as I spent most of my life liking it, my name carries with it a truckload of gender binary associations. Using the name “James” allows me to wrap myself in the flag of male privilege. It’s a safe bet that a potential employer, seeing that name on a job application, immediately covers that application with a nearly unlistable string of expectations about abilities, performance, trustworthiness, and on and on.
I could write a whole blog on passing and hiding. But I will just say this. For the past two years I have spent a lot of time building up a dossier of convincing reasons why I am not only gay, but also intersex/transgendered/nonbinary. Ok, I needed to do that for my own clarity, but it is not going to help me with becoming an authentic person. It is not going to convince anyone else, because why would someone other than me spend that much time thinking about who I am? What I have come to see is that being nonbinary is just like being in a political group or in a church. You just have to show up and do the work. So I have joined the trans community now. I realized that for the most part, all of my friends (and I love and appreciate them dearly) are either wholeheartedly ensconsed in the gender binary, or they are, like me, hiding out and passing as gender binary, all the while realizing to some degree that it does not really accurately define them. I will never really see the light until I stand in the light being shed by some of my newer and braver and more “out” nonbinary acquaintances, hopefully some of which will be friends.
But back to Jayms. It’s funny how the inspiration to change my name occurred. I was looking about my personal page on Facebook, and I noticed that the pronunciation of my name “James” was given as JAYMS. It’s been a real struggle to step out of my binary male skin. I’m old, I have a closet full of tee shirt and jeans, I don’t like to spend much time adorning myself. Every time I put on a favorite outfit, I’m stepping into the binary male identity I hid in over a lifetime. And I have to admit that the thought of stepping into a skirt or a shirt with the buttons on the left is pretty scary. I’m not called to do it, and it would call down a lot of binary hate stares and speech on me. Calling myself “Jayms” on Facebook and Twitter has an aspect of cowardice to it. But it also has an aspect of courage to it. You can never unsee that. If you care about me (and these are the only people I worry about), you will contemplate the fact that the “Jayms” represents my struggle to come out honestly as a person who really rejects the gender binary for myself. You will no longer project all those male privilege stereotypes automatically on me (if you ever did).
There is one other advantage to choosing to change the spelling of my name but not the pronunciation. I’m doing you a big favor, actually. You never have to worry about mispronouncing my new name. That worry will arise when and if I ever change my pronoun to “they.” And I am strongly considering doing just that.