There is Magic in a Name
Each one of us has an identifier called a name. Many times it is far from unique, however that is unimportant. It is a way to say who you are. Many of us will decide to take shorter forms of those names to use on a day to day basis. Those who know of us, and do not actually know us, however are forced to use the full versions. Many of us did not choose our names, the majority of us have names provided for us, by our parents. A name is magic, some of us love our names, some of us hate them. There is one gift that transgender people have, although it is quite a struggle for many of us. Choosing our own name.
Having been adopted at a very young age, 5 months old, my name has already been changed once. I will be moderately unique even among transgender people for having had three complete legal names over the course of my life. Each name carried different implications and a different future. There was a different life stretching out before each person, a different life stretching ahead of each identity.
My first name is the name that a teenage girl gave her first son. The first name given to me by a parent. Steven Douglas Browning was born. Named after two elder brothers, family ties were strong in my name. Family came first. He remains inside me, living on as a part of me. Steven has no memories and was never self-aware enough to give himself a nickname. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have them. I just don’t know them. He is at my deepest core, and always will be. Does he exist beyond my subconscious? I presume so but how do one separate what is his decision making from my own? This is the problem in speaking in third tense, he is not truly separate. He will always be me, and I will always be him. That identity, will also always be my own.
However, a choice was made on my behalf, by my mother, to remove me from what she thought would be a very difficult life. She placed me in the arms of another family. To gift me another identity, another life. In some ways it was the end of a life and another birth. It was a new future, her gift to me. It was the best thing she could have done in her situation. However, the first fracture of my identity had occurred.
When I was adopted my name was changed. A second name given to me by parents. I became Joseph Mason Troiani. Named after a recently lost paternal grandmother Josephine; my name continued a long standing tradition to have a Joseph or Josephine at every generation. An identity was started of high expectations and many gifts. I moved to an upper middle class family, however, something didn’t feel right. It wasn’t long before I started feeling like, this name didn’t fit me. There was something about it, but every time I was called Joseph it felt bad. Even from my earliest memories and ages, something about this new name, this new identity, it did not feel right to me.
So, I accepted my first nickname. Many people were calling me Joey already, but I wanted everyone to do it. There is magic in a name, and somehow a simple shortening of a name felt comfortable. That’s all it was, a shortening. I went by that for many years. However, it carried a kind of gender neutrality I wasn’t expecting, and didn’t realize until recently. As Joey I grew down a middle line of gender, in a way that most people don’t. Many people that know me from childhood knew me first as this name. Joey was carefree and happy. To this day that name, and the use of it, reminds me of a childhood that in many ways I wish I could return to. I lived an informal life and tried to stay out of ‘nice’ clothes. I look at pictures of me from those days. I was happy to live this life. Joey was a happy child. Joey lived until Sixth grade. Joey, while people still call me that from time to time, no longer exists.
When I entered sixth grade, the world changed. All of a sudden Joey’s gender neutrality became a liability. I had entered a world of boys becoming men, and girls becoming women. I had entered puberty, and so had everyone around me. My gender neutral identity began falling apart though bullying and laughter. Quickly, Joey became unfeasible as an identity. I panicked, overcompensated, and became Joe.
This transition was quick, and forceful. I faced hate, with anger. I quickly demanded that everyone stop calling me Joey. A new identity was born. This one took the easy path. This identity was a mirror. It created shells and identities that people wished to see. Joe was a different person, a different identity, to everyone around him. However, he served the most important purpose to me. He was my protection. He protected me from the world around me. He protected my soul from the judgement of my own body. He protected my mind from the hateful things people said. He was the ‘thick skin’ everyone was telling me to develop. He was a man. He fought back in anger, he fought back in strength, he fought back, like a man would.
The side effects were extreme. Like any protection he covered me up, he kept me from growing. He grew in my place. And so during that time I suffered, and tried to break free both of his protection and of him. At the time my only course of action was to attempt to kill him. Little did I know, a name could do that. Many times over the course of Joe’s time, did I try to erode his name. The internet is an amazing thing; it can let you be anyone or anything you want. For me, it was an escape. It was a daily escape away from myself. It was easy to do that online.
Online I didn’t play a lie, I played the truth. I took off the filter. I tried on various names and various identities. In part video games let me do that. I played video games that let me take on other identities and live other lives. But in part I spoke of ‘real life’ as if I were someone else. Many people online thought the player behind the video game was a woman, because the filter came off. I was only too happy to let me make this ‘mistake’. Only those who knew me in real life would gender me as male. So, I had to create a name that fit. I took many nicknames underneath Joe. Certain people only knew certain names I went by… But here are some of the names I responded too at the same time I responded to Joe in real life… Sarah, Jodi, Jessie, Allie, Rei. With Jessie in there, does that name look like a man’s name or a woman’s name?
These names made me feel more real than Joe ever did. I tried at least 30 names over the course of my life. Each name was either gender neutral or feminine, but Jessie and Jodi stuck the best. Those two found a way out past the internet and into real life… Those names carried though, until the day I came out. Now they happily remind me of days of hiding when now, I don’t need to anymore. Those names are no longer who I am, but for a long time they were my identity away from my Joe, my filter.
I met the man who would be my future husband online during this part of my life. He and I grew close and he would eventually move to where I lived in a happy coincidence. When I came out, he expressed that he was wondering ‘when it was going to happen.’ Why was I surprised? I should have expected that response given how I was online, yet somehow I was not self-aware enough to realize it.
At the time I always played female characters in video games, whenever I was given the choice. My friends prompted me at one point. They asked me one of the questions which had I have answered it honestly it would have made me realize all this much quicker. In the middle of high school, I was asked: “Why do you always play female characters?” Joe gave an answer: “I don’t want to look at buff hairy men, I want to look at women.” … Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish I had spoken the truth on that day. I wish I could say: “Because this is a game where you play a role, and that role is more right for me.” I restated that lie many times over the course of my life. I was proud of it. But now, this is one of the lies I regret most in my life. It was the biggest verbal betrayal of my identity.
Then, many years later, it happened by accident. In the early months of 2012, I was living on the North-Side of Chicago. I worked at a recruiting firm. I was at work and I wrote it. I left the “e” off my nickname and wrote “Jo”. I looked at it, I looked away. My heart sunk and jumped for joy at the same time. I looked back at it, and all of a sudden I had to run to the bathroom. I threw up. It was more me; it was more true. It was in a heartbeat, who I was in that moment. I found it, but I thought I would never write it again… This was the first conscious realization of who I was. I was not Joe, I was Jo. A thousand questions went through my head. The first one being why does Jo feel more right that Joe? There can only be one reason for that? Right? I suppressed nine-hundred and ninety-nine questions and went on with my day… Yet, there was one I couldn’t suppress… Would I have been happier assigned female at birth?
I had found the name that would bring me a better life; But it was immediately suppressed. I had no way to answer the question if I would be happier assigned female at birth. I felt overwhelmed by it. I felt like the answer was a resounding yes, but how would I correct that error? I saw no path forward. I buried that moment deep within me, but there was no getting away from it anymore. Each time I saw “Joe” now, it had a little bit of pain attached to it. My name had become painful, yet I chose to suffer through it. I didn’t see a path away from this pain.
I continued my life as Joe but each day became a little harder. Each day became a little more anxious. Each day became a little more depressing. Each day, I slipped further away from myself. I began twisting in as much femininity as I could on a day to day basis but I couldn’t bring myself to write that name again. For a while I tried Joseph, but that brought even more pain. I was slipping deeper and deeper into anxiety and depression. I changed jobs and began working in the technology field. I worked in the high school I attended for those fateful four years. I walked though hallways and classrooms that I walked though as a confused teen. I walked through my past day in and day out. So much had changed around me, yet, I was still this shell of a person named Joe… Each room a daily reminder that I had not changed. Now, I was a confused ‘adult.’
In the eight years since I graduated, the world around me had changed without a doubt. The first time I walked into a certain room as an employee of the school; I stood there. I was stunned. I didn’t move for what seemed like seconds but in reality was easily seven minutes, based on the clock in the room. It ticked by while I was in shock… I thought, and I remembered, it was a computer lab when I last saw it. It was the computer lab where I first learned what was going on September 11th 2001. Now, in the summer of 2012, it was a standard English classroom. The world was a very different place, yet here I was, the same anxious, depressed, scared, unsure, Joe. I was unchanged. I had not grown, like the world had. After coming to my senses, I wrote three words onto the chalkboard… “I am Jo.”
I stared at those words, then erased them. No, I thought, I didn’t need to change. I was growing just fine. Then, over the next two years, anxiety started grabbing me more and more. Questions started appearing in my mind more and more. Joe’s existence became more and more painful with each passing day, week, month, year. I started to see the filters for what they were. I started to see how I had edited myself so deeply that I had lost touch with myself.
The summer of 2014 I had begun to manage student technicians and they did a lot of the legwork of the summer, which was always our busiest time. It allowed me to take a two week ‘vacation’ to be a chaperone on the Japanese Exchange. Something needed an abrupt change. My life needed fixed. The Japanese Exchange was my chance to let the filters go, for at least two weeks. I made a conscious decision to try. As they say, “shame on the road is written off.” That’s how I saw it. Myself, my true self. was my shame. I could experiment there without having odd side effects. I didn’t have to bring myself home, if I didn’t like myself.
As I found/removed filters one by one over two weeks I started to fall in love. I found myself. I found the problem. I was a she, but she didn’t stick around long. On the flight back, he came back. All the filters kicked right back on. I had landed in the land of anxiety and depression. The shell, the filters, Joe, had returned. But now I knew, I knew what was wrong. Fixing it, truly fixing it, was absurd to me. But I decided I would start with a challenge to myself. If I was going to transition, I needed a new name. It was the first step in transition for me. Finding an identity that felt right. I began to experience a time where the thing I hated, and feared, most in life, was a name tag…
I tried on many names and for me the key was to write it. I do most of my best communication though text based mediums, and I found that when I saw Joe, or Jo written is when it affected me so profusely. I started with the names from my past. Many felt like they were a part of me. I started from my past. Jodi, expanded on that to Joanna, Jessie, expanded on that to Jessica, Sarah, Mary, Rei, then I started into a series of Japanese female names I liked. None of them felt right. They all felt like they were part of my past, not my future. I wrote them over and over I filled sheets of paper with these names. I felt down again that I couldn’t find it. Then on a whim I wrote a name I never thought of before. Stephanie. The female Steven. It felt more right, but I still didn’t feel like “a Stephanie” I couldn’t explain it.
And so, I gave up again on transitioning I continued my life as Joe. Then a co-worker wrote it. I saw on an inventory sheet “Jo.” It was a watershed moment. I tried on one last thought. I wrote it “Josephine Stephanie Troiani” In that moment I had combined, my past, my current, and my future. A great deal of things made sense. In a split second a month of struggle was resolved. I know for many people it takes much longer and is a harder fight. I got lucky, seeing Jo made me realize that somehow that was going to be short for the name that fit. After all, “I am Jo.” That day I wrote over and over again… “I am Josephine.”
Tying in my entire past, pre and post adoption. Stephanie is the female version of Steven… Tying in my family, whom I love, and tying in my entire history, and future. That was what I needed. I had decided. My Legal name will be Josephine Stephanie Troiani. It will be my third legal name, but it will be the one I gave myself. It will be my true self. The reason I say “it will be” is because DuPage County Law says I cannot take that name yet. I must have resided in the county for six months. I wish I knew that before I moved. However, for the time being, I am a female with a male name. I go by nicknames.
At this point I have kept using Jo since the day I came out. It has replaced Joe in all places relevant. Just like Josephine will replace Joseph. Josephine is my future. Using Jo helped keep the transition easier for people around me, I think. They don’t actually have to call me something different. It’s not a whole new name. However, it does get hard to remember to write it that way sometimes. I hope too many people aren’t struggling with that. In some ways I feel bad, in some ways I don’t. Would it have been easier to make a clean slate change to something like Sarah or Jessie? There is no way to know, I knew it wasn’t right, there was no way I could have taken it.
However, Jo has a certain meaning to me. The name itself feels slightly androgynous to me. Which, to an extent, is fine. Jo is both Joseph and Josephine. Jo is a person who screamed at society… Jo said “Screw you, I am who I am. I will be the person I was always supposed to be.” And, from now on, I will always be Jo. There is no going back to the passive mirror filter that was Joe. I am and for the rest of my life will be, and answer to Jo. Jo is the thread though my past, present and future.
However, a new nickname has recently risen into my life. A nickname that is not part of my past. It is solely a part of my present and future. Recently I have started responding to Josie. Josie, is the girl taking over from Joey. She doesn’t have to fight society. She just is, and I am her. There is a warmth in this name that I have not felt since Joey. There are no filters, this is a self I never expected to be. I don’t know how to explain but hearing this name takes me back and makes me feel like I never had to live though my terrible times. Josie is Josephine, starting to grow up and be whole.
Jo can fight the wars. Jo can assert against society. Josie will grow. Eventually Josephine will be a reality. There is magic in a name. There is magic in nicknames. It can be stunning even shocking at times, but it is a beautiful thing I never thought I would be able to do. I have found my past, present, and future though the evolution of my name.
Now, you know my name.