By Cassandra Pinkus
I never was very good at writing in cursive. I remember in the second grade hearing another student mention that the teachers in the higher grades didn’t care if your homework was written in cursive or not. Right then I figured, if they don’t care later, why should I do it now? I started turning in my homework in print on that day, and never wrote another word in cursive for years.
Sometime later in my childhood I learned that sometimes you need to put your signature on certain papers. It seemed that the only expectation for a signature was that it be written in cursive. I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t matter that much though, because I didn’t need to sign my name very often.
I thought of when I saw my mother or my father sign their name. Whether on a report card or a check, the pen-strokes were always quick. It was clear that it was not the letters that counted. When they were done, I could make out clearly the first letters of each name, and all the rest seemed to descend into mad squiggles. When I went to sign my own name, somewhere I understood that no one would read the letters.
A first mark to indicate the name’s beginning, followed by a wave of jagged ink. A second mark to indicate the name’s end, and another cacophony of squiggled lines. The signature was not a thing to be read, but an action to be performed. It was done not when it was received, the way one writes a letter. It was done when the signatory had left their essence drying on the page.
Not caring much for cursive, not interested much in customs, and not identifying much with my name, I did what I was to do in a thousand differing situations with the passing of time: I went through the motions. A first mark to indicate my first name, followed by a wave a jagged indifference. A second mark to indicate my last name, and another cacophonous dance to abandonment.
I did not realize what I was doing as I was doing it, but I was to come to understand my error by the insistence on the repetition of this social ritual. Over and again I would put my essence onto the page, representing that I had been in a place and endowed my will to a purpose, and each time it would come in this same way: false and with resentment. Each motion, repeated, divided. The first letter of my first name stood at the head of a slashing line that sought to rub itself out, ending in an exuberant burst of ‘good riddance’, only to begin again in a plainly false capital and run itself out into nothingness.
Every of our actions carries significance, and each of our moments has the potential for affirmation. I have realized that this is true infinitely, in countless iterations, even in moments as brief as the stroke of a pen. In writing a name, the name is spoken and its referent summoned into presence. In speaking an identity, a unity is affirmed and manifested. One cannot speak I without being I, and it is precisely in the speaking of I that I appear as myself. In the case of a false name, a presence is called forth in tandem with an absence. In the name there is something missing and something extra. This incongruity is itself given presence by the active use of the false name, resulting in a feeling of vague unease often associated with gender dysphoria in transgender persons.
My name has always felt like a placeholder. I was given a gender ambiguous first name by my parents, as well as a decidedly masculine middle name. I was told at an early age that my middle name was given to me in case I was not happy with my first name. Somehow in their minds they thought it likely that I would not be pleased in ambiguity, so they allowed me an out, a sure and plain path toward a normal cisgendered life. I could just call myself my middle name. It sounded like just another way of saying that embarrassment at being perceived as female was not only likely, but also understandable. I wasn’t even born and my parents had already decided that it would be shameful for me to actually be female. I cannot say with certainty their minds at the time of my naming, I only know how my mind received it. The message was clear: I was to conform to the masculine gender.
When I was young it didn’t often seem to matter. Though I did not like sports, neither was I pressured into them. I didn’t understand the other boys, and I didn’t like the things that they liked. That didn’t matter though, because my parents never really pressured me to conform. For that I am thankful. I could be any kind of boy that I wanted. If only I had known at the time that I was a girl.
I remember the kids at school would make fun of me. In first grade the boys would heckle me, saying, “<name omitted> is a girl’s name,” every time emphasizing the word ‘girl’. I think they expected to shame me, to somehow embarrass me by calling my gender into question. I have learned that this is a thing men do to each other. Their idea of an insult is to be called a girl. Even when I was in first grade, it didn’t make any sense to me. Exactly what is wrong with being a girl?
I must have cried every time a boy said that to me at that age. I would dread walking in the open spaces between the classrooms, fearing that somewhere around a corner I would hear the shaming words shouted from some insensitive bully, and I would be overtaken by tears again. If I thought there was nothing wrong with being a girl, why did I cry? Why did I cry every time?
It was clear what was being communicated to me by these callous children. I was expected to conform to the masculine gender. I was supposed to enter into accord with the boys, accept that there is something wrong with being a girl, and proudly defend my superior masculinity. Except none of that made sense. What is so great about being a man, except that we live in a male dominated society? I didn’t know what to say, so I cried. I cried to learn that this is the world as it is: a world where women are considered somehow lesser than men. I cried to learn that if I was to survive, I would have to find a way to hide my femininity. I cried to learn that, although my name was gender ambiguous, to others, I would never be anything but a boy.
My feminine essence was not welcomed in by my world, so she did not come. I accepted my given name and I used it as I was expected. Over time the name has changed in my mind. It has been remarked that I did not have to change my name, because my given name was gender ambiguous.
I did have to change my name. Because I was never him. For me now, that old name represents only absence and false expectations. It recalls a shadow that has haunted me forever, a shadow from which I seek to shake myself free. Through the passing of time and the accrual of experience, that name has come to signify for me the curse of having to live under a false gender identity. It is a false name, and I reject it.
Over the course of time I have learned about the determination of my various assigned names. My last name was inherited from my fathers’ grandfather, while my middle name passed down from my mother’s maiden. I shall share in brief the history of each, to perhaps illustrate their significance and the reasons for which I have left them behind.
The last name I was assigned has come to me from a line of appropriations and abandonment. At Ellis Island, my ancestor was given his last name after an immigration officer did not care to write his name correctly. Whatever his name was before the lazy American transliteration I can only guess. There is little I know about my grandfather’s father but that he was abusive and mean, and ultimately left him to be raised by his resentful uncle, who was also abusive and mean.
What is this name to me? What exactly am I to be proud of from this twisted history? True, my grandfather was a good man. He was humble and dutiful, one of the rare strong few able to break the cycle of violence and allow a fresh start for the next generation, free from inherited pain. But his was a new virtue, not an old one. His was a goodness discovered in the course of his life, by his own choices and experience. The name’s history remains the same for me.
The life and history of my middle name is a different story. As I’ve mentioned, my middle name was chosen from my mother’s maiden name, which was given to her by her father. Her father’s story goes something like this: He was a Jew who fled to America to escape the Holocaust, but before he could come to California to marry my grandmother, he had to emigrate through Argentina and make his way north.
When he was admitted to the States, he provided a false name so that he would pass as a gentile and face less scrutiny. He would continue to hide his Jewish ancestry for many years, in fear that even in America he was not safe from the Nazis. He even converted to Christianity and raised his children accordingly. This is how I got my middle name, this gentile-sounding name worn as camouflage for protection.
When I decided to give myself a new name, I knew that it would have to be different. It would have to fix everything that had always been wrong. It had to stand for everything I had felt denied, and to celebrate everything once subject to shame. In that vein I knew what I wanted to say. I knew what I had to stand for.
I stand for affirmation.
I stand for pride.
I stand for visibility.
I stand for being honest and for making no apologies.
My mother’s father was Jewish. Although he may have been ashamed of that, I am not. His name was Pinkus before he changed it; it is the name that I have taken as my own. That is a history that I want spoken, not silenced.
In the same way, it was time to rid myself of the placeholder. My own name had to say something, to stand for something, and to essentially embody that singular presence I had always denied. It had to speak my intangible truth, and simultaneously provide a space for my own arrival.
I have always had an affinity for world mythology, particularly that of classical Greece. With the priestess of Apollo in mind, I settled on the name Cassandra. She was the daughter of the king and queen of Troy, and was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo. The story goes that he gave her the gift as a ruse to seduce her, but when she rebuffed his advances, he spat in her mouth and cursed her, such that that no one would ever believe her prophecies.
Who among us hasn’t felt like we could fix so many things – if people would just listen? I have had a unique resonance with her story because I also have Asperger’s. For me this means that I enjoy a very active intelligence, yet my intelligence is countered by extraordinary challenges in self-expression and social navigation. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt frustrated at the gap between what I can plainly see and what I can effectively persuade someone else to believe.
So today I live, having chosen the name Cassandra Pinkus. My name now feels like my own, and weighted with the significance appropriate to a name. It stands for history, and it stands for presence. It stands for pride, and it stands for visibility. I am everything that my name represents.
I am trans.
I am a woman.
And I’m not apologizing for that anymore.
Cassandra Pinkus works as a baker and barista living in Portland, Oregon. She hails from southern California, but has traveled far in her journey to self-realization, with marked detours to Costa Rica and Beijing along the way. She is currently working on writing her memoirs chronicling her transition, and tryinerg to make some sense out of her life between sips of coffee. She can be reached via her Facebook fan page (facebook.com/CassiePinkus) or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.