My birth name can be difficult to spell because it is not phonetic. Complicating matters is that there is another more popular spelling of it. My original name is not very gendered in that girls and boys can be called it without much incident. When I was five, a blustery travel agent insisted that my name was pronounced “seen” despite my mother’s protests. I sat there confused thinking of Sean Penn and Connery, wondering if they had ever had to explain their names. I think the argument ended in a stalemate.
Sometime around 2003, people of various walks of life and ages (including middle schoolers in a Saturday enrichment program) began to independently call me “Josh.” Several people remarked that I seemed like a “Josh.” I wondered what a Josh seemed like and why I did not represent a Sean.
Concurrently, people began to question by sex when they solely heard my voice. The admissions letter to graduate school read, “Ms. Sean…” and often when I would speak to a customer service agent, I would get “ma’amed.” Already beginning to feel fluid in my gender, I was not affronted. In fact, I was flattered. I do not think I ever corrected the person who missexed me because I was concerned that s/he would become embarrassed and perhaps even get in trouble by their supervisor. I started to wonder how often I had used the wrong pronoun when talking to people on the phone, even folks whom I thought I knew well. I felt guilty. Once during a winter holiday season, I spoke via phone to a customer service representative who referred to me as ma’am. She was very friendly and warm, and began asking me if I had children and a partner, what I was doing for Christmas, and if I was shopping. I answered factually and she seemed to pity me for not having kids or a significant other for whom to purchase gifts. I was convinced that if she thought I were a man, the same questions or sympathy would be not be sent my way, and this felt sexist. I felt too bad to correct her (him/hir?).
The language of pronouns can be confining especially when gender often is so fluid. In some settings, people can act and/or be perceived of as more feminine or masculine. I wish American society would think outside of dichotomies, stop conflating sex with gender; as well as more highly value gender queer identities, spaces, and most of all people.
In 2005, I began to go by “Sem” on professional list-serves. Despite the gender fluidity of my natal name, using my initials seemed to better reflect the gender queer space in which I was and am situating myself. I wondered if a name ever really belongs to someone if another person has given it to them? I have begun to use Sem with more ease and frequency. Though I am unsure if I will legally change names, being called Sem feels congruent with my being.
Recently I rejoined a writing group that I had not attended in about 2 years. When I was initially there, I was “Sean” but by being called “Sem” this time around, I felt more comfortable and as though I was communicating from a more authentic voice.