Eight rooms

On Saturday i went with a friend, B, to check out the Wellcome Collection’s new exhibition: Eight Rooms, Nine Lives. This is part of their season looking at Identity and Identification – of obvious interest to me as a trans person, especially as one of the ‘rooms’ was devoted to April Ashley, one of Britain’s most famous trans women.

As it happened, although Ashley’s room was interesting – especially the footage of her being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, it was the one which focused on the actress Fiona Shaw which made the greatest impression. It was supposed to demonstrate the multiple identities that an actor takes on; and, to this end, there were four or five TV screens on which you could watch Shaw playing various roles: for instance a mad woman in Gormenghast and a rather overwrought lady in an Ibsen play.

I can’t honestly say that i looked at these and saw someone changing their identity; but they were thrilling performances – Shaw is a true virtuoso. The standout was her portrayal of Richard II. For some reason though this only worked for me as an audio experience: if i looked at the screen there was no magic; but if i looked away and just listened I got goosebumps. It was that powerful.

I don’t think the issue was the ‘cross-gender’ casting – after all, her voice is just as female as her appearance; but rather that the physical aspect of her acting style is overdramatic. She has a tendency to gesture abruptly and stare wildly. Yet this exaggeration doesn’t carry through to her voice, so as long as you don’t look at her you aren’t bothered by it.

Not surprising then that the other exhibit which made a great impression on me was also audio-only. This had Shaw and her mother reciting a poem together. The idea here was to examine similarities and differences in their voices. For me, however, it was the relationship between them that was captivating: identity is interesting, human relationships are fascinating.

Other rooms focused on people such as Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA testing, and Samuel Pepys – although in truth this room was really an exploration of diarists more generally. Some of these were interesting, but not always for reasons related to identity or identification (an old computer made you think of how technology had progressed, the cover of an old novel caused you to reflect on how illustration styles have changed). Only one disappointed where I’d been expecting great things: Claude Cahun, a French photographer obsessed with androgyny. The endless self-portraiture was exhausting and really rather boring: self speaking to self in a vacuum.

Overall, it was an interesting exhibition, if a bit uneven. B commented to me that she felt there was a lot of padding – exhibits that were very similar or of little relevance – and i agreed with her. I was also disappointed with the presentation. The rooms were little more than wooden partitions; little attempt had been made to make them feel like rooms or individual spaces of any kind.

More satisfying than the the exhibition is the book, ‘Identity & Identification’*, which has been published to accompany it. In it you find interviews with people as diverse as the singer Billy Bragg, the Jewish-British journalist Jonathan Freedland, the philosopher Julian Baggini, trans woman Roz Kaveney and the Somali-Dutch former politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Each interview is a thoughtful exploration of the person’s identity and in the case of the philosophers and scientists of identity as a concept and neurological phenomenon.

The depth and subtlety of the interviews is wonderful. Reading through them it came to me that identity is rather like an iceberg: we conceal more than we show. I can see two obvious reasons for this: the first is that aspects of our identity may rest on things which we feel might be contested or not understood by others; the second is that we take much of it for granted, so don’t think to ‘perform’ it. Unless asked, we may not even be aware of why it matters.

There’s a beautiful example of this in Jonathan Freedland’s interview. He says he identifies as Jewish, male and British in that order. When asked why he has singled out the fact that he is male, Freedland replies:

I suppose because i think it goes to something quite psychological – the inner voice as it were… And that, to me, feels like such a male voice.

As soon as i read his words i realised that this is also true for me – so true that i’d never even noticed. Fascinating from a trans point of view but also illuminating in a broader sense: we only really come to understand who we (feel we) are when we engage with others. Human relationships: not just more interesting than identity then, but essential to it.

All in all: 7/10 for the exhibition; 9/10 for the book of the exhibition.

* Identity & Identitification: ISBN 978-1-906155-86-5 (Black Dog Publishing)

What’s in a (fore)name?

Imagine if your child – or indeed brother or sister – changed their name. How would you feel? I don’t mean their surname, although if it wasn’t being changed for traditional reasons, in other words on marriage, then that might also be an issue for you. No, i mean their forename, the name by which you’ve called them ever since you’ve known them. In the case of your child, the name you gave them.

This is something almost all trans people do when they transition. Most forenames are gender-specific and, where that isn’t the case, the ambiguity itself may be problematic. Names are as much about who we want to be as about who we actually are – at least when we choose them ourselves.

Most people of course don’t choose their own names. Their names are chosen for them. As i suggest above, in our culture this is done by parents; in others a wider circle of relatives may be involved. In some societies there is a naming ceremony. We don’t have that but it can be argued that baptisms have historically fulfilled the same role. A public act of affirmation takes place in which this person and that name are joined together. The closest secular society generally comes, sadly, is the miserable little ritual of registering the birth. Something so magical reduced to a bureaucratic form!

I am however wandering off on a tangent as usual. The point is that names bind people to other people, in particular with those who claim the right to name them. When a trans person changes their name they are – even if they regret the fact – rejecting that claim. It’s easy to see how this may be experienced by the person or people who named them, i.e. their parents, as a rejection of themselves and the parent-child bond itself. This may be felt more intensely in modern Western society than in more communal cultures, because the forename is more likely to be a personal choice, a name that had a special resonance for the person’s parents or one which they found specially beautiful; rather than a traditional name they are handing on dutifully, just as it was handed on down to them. I’m thinking in the latter case of the way that it was much more common in the past for people to simply inherit their father’s forename for example.

Imagine looking at your little girl and naming her Linda, because you know that it means ‘beautiful’ and that is what she is to you: so beautiful. And you love her so, so much. Then ‘she’ grows up and tells you ‘she’ is transitioning* and, as part of that process, will be changing her name to Louis – or perhaps something totally different, like Joe or Mark or Brendan. The loss of the name can feel like the loss of your relationship, like the rejection of your love.

The loss of a name can also feel like the loss of a person, and this affects relationships far beyond the parent-child one. Those labels we attach to things come to feel like part of them, which is one of the reasons it can be so hard to understand the poetry of a language very different from your own. I remember hearing the Turkish word for star – yıldız –and wondering, ‘how on earth can that mean ‘star’? It doesn’t have any star-ness about it’.

With people we’ve known a long time, the name becomes so entwined with the person that, particularly in cases where we know no-one else with the same forename, we can end up feeling as though that name is the word for that person. When the individual in question announces they’re changing their name it feels, therefore, as if they’re announcing that the person you know, perhaps even love, is also going to cease to exist. Brothers and sisters may be badly affected by this, but interestingly i think it hits close friends harder.

Of course, the person who is changing their name is also affected by this association of name and person. For them this can be a confusing time: on the one hand the (apparent) possibility of completely re-inventing themself – for they are not immune to the association between name and ‘self’. On the other, the worried feeling that they have in some way unrooted themself. Should they choose a name which expresses who they think they are – or at least would like to be? Or should they select one that re-roots them in their family tree: the name of an ancestor, the name their mother said she would have given them if they’d been born a boy**, a male** version of their existing name? Should they ask someone else to name them? If so, who?

There is also an anxiety which only the newly re-named person knows, but which they will often keep a secret, even amongst friends. That their new name feels alien to others is easily accepted. However, as the individual to whom the name ‘belongs’, the trans person must act from the outset as though name and person are one: it is precisely this identification that gives a name its strength. Yet in the early days it’s a hard slog. Making sure you don’t fail to react to ‘your’ name when called, teaching yourself not to turn when you hear someone call the name that used to be ‘yours’: these things take time, effort and commitment.

It’s an odd thing: in a sense names are just labels, but somehow they’re more than that. Much more.

* ‘ Transitioning’ is short for ‘transitioning (between) genders’ or similar expressions. It describes the process of ‘moving’ (via hormone therapy, surgery, legal applications, etc) from living in one gender, generally the one aligned with your biological/genetic sex, to another. For most people the ‘journey’ is male -> female or female -> male, but there are some people who conceive gender in more complex terms (genderqueer) and also those who start from a more complicated position (e.g. those who are intersexed).
** These last two examples assume the person is a trans man, rather than a trans woman. Of course, it could just as easily be the other way round. I tried making the sentence gender-neutral, but it was unwieldy and didn’t read naturally.