Strength in Distance: Why I Started Using a Pen Name

Photo by JR Korpa

Names are power. Names are also safety. To continue to resist, I need a new one.

Names are power. Anyone who’s changed their name has a unique appreciation for how they define us to the world. In this arena, the conversation often turns to how our names are chosen; how they came to us. It’s important to note that everyone has feelings about their names and it’s part of normal conversation to discuss how we feel about them, but when a name is acquired the relationship is more explicit. For a long time, sharing my name was an act of defiance: a statement that I was me. Lately though, I find my feelings about who I am is changing. And as most of us know, a name doesn’t always fit.

The truth is, I am beginning to feel exposed by my work. I have readers approach me semi regularly to say it’s helpful to read these essays, so I don’t want to stop, but I find some of the things I want to say too explicit for my day to day life. Basically I am living the experience, but my experience is driven by things other than my gender transition. Having the writing bleed into my life as it has actually interferes with the experiences I write about.

I’ve written in the past about how there is a certain strength in being seen as an ally rather than a member. It’s actually my cisgender friends that inspire me to continue; they share articles and content that push for transgender rights regularly. They showed me that I can share things that matter to me without being explicit about my past. That actually, I can be woodworked and active without sacrificing either thing.

Yet again I find myself exploring visibility. When I started writing, using my given name was an organic choice: it was my name, I was writing about things I was open about. Broadcasting this thing about me was a political statement but it also gave me a sense of strength. My life was in a precarious space, but I was Clara and people listened to me.

As life settles down and my problems turn to things other than my gender, that voice isn’t giving me the strength it was. My name still matters, but I find that I’ve moved on; this stuff matters, but my experience of being partially woodworked is what I want to convey. I want to talk about being quietly queer.

"BEING QUIETLY QUEER, FOR ME, MEANS I’M NOT EXPLICIT ABOUT CERTAIN DETAILS ABOUT MYSELF IN MY PRIVATE LIFE"

Being quietly queer, for me, means I’m not explicit about certain details about myself in my private life. Details that are necessary to share should I want to write about it. And so my name is a problem as long as it’s attached to my writing. I’m finding strength in distance now where before I needed to be close to this aspect of myself.

As much as I love my name and want it known, it is a liability. So, like before, I changed it. Well. Took on another one. This isn’t like the last time I changed my name, but the feelings are similar: I’ve outgrown its use. My name holds a different significance, and for me to continue I require something new.

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Though there are many echoes from the last time I changed my name, it’s obviously quite different. I’m keeping my name, for a start; I’m gaining a second one. Like the last time, this name feels comfortable for what I want it to do. It feels safer, and I can already see myself using more explicit language about myself again as I write this. Certain words were avoided to keep my personal association with the topics ambiguous. I’m not avoiding them as much here.

""BEING TRANSGENDER PLACES US AT THE FRONT LINE — THERE IS AN IMPORTANT PERSPECTIVE THAT COMES WITH THAT."

One thing I’ve discovered from distancing myself from the topic of being transgender is how human the issues are. That actually, we could be talking about anyone’s rights of expression, person and identity. Being transgender places us at the front line — there is an important perspective that comes with that. Backing away from the front line in my private life gives another perspective entirely. One I want to share.

In a way, it shows me how important outsiders are. We need allies because they can convey this idea that our rights are for all of humanity better than we can. They can talk about how anti trans measures affect them as outsiders. Their words amplify ours; they create space for us by speaking out.

I find that I’m being listened to more as I’m perceived as an ally rather than an outsider and I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that. That shift in privilege is jarring because I am a member of this group. That people don’t see me that way is analogous to my experience of being an acceptable immigrant here in the UK: white, English-speaking, not following a specific religion. I’m ‘one of the good ones’, as racists say.

I’m becoming one of the good queers and I’m not sure how much I like that, as useful as I find it. All the same, I’d be a fool to not use the tools put in front of me. The woodwork is comfortable and it affords me a perspective that differs from much of the work on this topic, so I may as well run with it and see what we can learn. I’m finding strength in that distance.

I suppose the point for all of us is to find our own way to resist. My way is to write under a new name the things I can’t make explicit under my given one. You don’t have to go to pride to resist. You don’t have to wave a flag or go to rallies. Using our words is enough. Whatever we choose, we need to do it our way. My way isn’t everyone’s way and that’s OK. Like so many things, we just get thrown in and discover what works. Names are power, and I can do better work with more than one.

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