"IS THIS MR. SMITH?" Life With A Gender-Neutral Name

Especially now, when ambiguously gendered names are actually extremely common and names that were historically masculine are commonly used by women and girls, names and salutations are even more of a minefield than they were before.

Dec 28, 2012 at 4:30pm | Leave a comment

“I will bet you a dollar,” I said, leaning across the table toward my (male) dinner companion, “that the waiter is going to return the credit card to you.”

He looked baffled for a moment, like he was running through a quick Rolodex of possible reasons I might make this assumption -- was I referring to the fact that waitstaff often assume men are paying for the check, perhaps?

“Oh,” he said, when he finally got it. “Your name.”

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Photo credit: Louis David

LADIES ( AND OTHERS) ALL UP IN YER NAMES, USIN' 'EM

Even before I changed my name, I had a rather gender ambiguous name -- in fact, most people would argue my previous name leaned masculine and this one definitely does. Using my initials makes it a bit more ambiguous, although I note that most people seem to default female when they see my name but don’t know what I look like. I’m not sure if that’s because of the kinds of things I write about, or because of the long tradition of women writing under initials because sexism made it hard for them to sell work under their own name.

See, for example, J.K. Rowling.

Under my previous name, waiters routinely returned the credit card to the man at the table. Security officers questioned my gender. I was once, notably, assigned a male roommate in college because the very detailed roommate request form, for some reason, didn’t include a gender assignation. Most of my junk mail came addressed to Mr. Smith.

When I called to yell at the phone company, they’d ask me if I was calling on behalf of my boyfriend. The Social Security office once reminded me that they couldn’t disclose information to anyone other than the individual associated with a given Social Security Number. Countless job interviews opened with the “Ah, so you’re actually not a man” realization.

Under my current name, I encounter all of the same things (except for the roommate issue), but now they just make me laugh instead of making me bitter; hey, at least I chose this name, you know? And I like my name, rather a lot, but at the same time, my names have given me a very interesting insight into how the world works.

Although I do wish people would stop pronouncing my name like “Simone.” No offense to all the Simones of the world, you're lovely people, but my name ain't spelled that way. 

I deliberately chose a masculine name for a variety of reasons, most of which have to do with my own gender identity. But I know a lot of people who deliberately use their masculine or ambiguous names (Jamie, Chris, Jordan...) as a tool, and a potentially very valuable one. Sexist biases in society mean that you’re more likely to get a call on a resume, or be treated seriously, if people think you’re a man. Which means that an ambiguous name can be a foot in the door, as commenters point on this Reddit thread.

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Photo credit: Jack Dorsey

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Racialized names, too, make a big difference, as illustrated in a detailed study noting that people with names that “sound Black” are less likely to get positive responses to resumes. My own stepmother changed her Chinese name to an Anglo name to deal with racism -- and people are always shocked when they meet her and find out that despite her name, she is very much not a white lady. She uses her Chinese name in private with family, a not uncommon situation.

Names matter, and having had two gives me kind of a distinct perspective on the issue. My prior name was not just masculine, but juvenile and humiliating. Intriguingly, when I was perceived as a man, people had no problem with it -- they assumed it was a nickname, and it was taken in stride. Men, it seems, are allowed much more leeway in naming conventions, and can go professionally by absolutely ridiculous nicknames.

As soon as people found out I wasn’t a man, and that it was my actual legal name, there was a sense of palpable distaste. It was incredibly difficult to be taken seriously in professional environments, which is why I started going by my initials so many years ago.

Like others among the multiply named, I’ve had an insight into a world most people don’t get to have, getting to interact with society under two different guises. Nothing about me has changed other than the name on my ID, yet many things around me shifted with the change of name.

And, like a lot of people with masculine names, I’m sometimes forced to do some subtle coding in the way I present myself if I want to be perceived as something other than a man -- when I was querying in search of a literary agent, for example, I found that a lot of agents weren’t sure how to address me in a response. Was I a Ms.? A Mr? Most settled for “Dear S.E.” as an opening salutation, settling for the uncomfortable informality of a first name due to lack of other information.

For me, of course, that coding is complicated by the fact that I’m not a Ms., so I can’t get around it the way a lot of women in the Reddit thread do, by signing things with a Ms. or with an initial and a feminine middle name. (My middle name, for the record, is also masculine.)

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Photo credit: Quinn Dombrowski

THE NAME REVOLUTION IS NOW

Especially now, when ambiguously gendered names are actually extremely common and names that were historically masculine are commonly used by women and girls, names and salutations are even more of a minefield than they were before. And the meaning of names becomes even more fraught, too, when it comes to high stakes situations like resumes.

For women with names that aren’t easy to gender, the world is a constant tightrope walk of being presumed male. And for some of us, one of the most gratifying moments of that performance is meeting people and having their assumptions and expectations shattered -- the CEO with a masculine name who turns out to be a woman, for example, or the female engineering student who shows up to an all-male workgroup with a smile and an “I’m sorry, were you expecting someone else?”

Oh, and the waiter? He brought the guy the check. He pointedly handed the check to me and the waiter blushed. 

Posted in Issues, names, sexism, gender