Adventures in microaggressions: misogyny and ablism in public spaces

I’m tired of this.

I’m tired of men in public spaces who think that my sole purpose is to provide them with entertainment on their way home. I am tired of complete strangers who think it’s appropriate to follow me round a shop and relentlessly question me about my purchases and my visible disability. I’m tired of having “babe”, “darling”, “love”, “sweetheart”, and “honey” thrown at me by random adult men in the shops and on the streets and all over public transport. I’m tired of being grabbed, being thumped hard (but “jokingly”) on the back when it’s clear that I’m relying on a walking-stick for support, having my thigh squeezed by someone who started out polite and got creepy. I’m tired of offering help or directions to male strangers who then spend the next half hour slowly escalating their invasion of my personal space and making increasingly sexually inappropriate comments. I’m tired of doing everything I can to subtly tell them that I’m not interested – reading, having headphones in, not looking at them, responding in monosyllables. I’m tired of the terrifying angry about-face when I finally stop playing their game and following the social script, when I tell them straight-out that I’m not interested, and so “babe” and “darling” turn to “bitch” and “cunt”. I am tired of being told that they’re just being friendly, that I just can’t take a joke, that I should just give them a chance and they’ll turn out to be nice.

I am tired of the way that being visibly disabled makes me feel like an easy target, because I know that disabled women are disproportionately at risk of being abused, and I know women to whom this has happened. I am tired of having to ask people to give up priority seats for me when I’m using my walking-stick, and believe me, I am sure as hell tired of strangers asking me questions like “so what’s wrong with your legs?” or “what have you done to yourself?” or even “so is it degenerative?” I am tired of being in pain so frequently. I am tired of how slight changes of plan can make things awful – I am tired of going out with a heavy backpack or without my walking-stick, because I am sure that I will not have to do much walking, and then ending up in pain because things changed. I am very tired of having to turn down some amazing opportunities because I can’t guarantee that I’ll have enough energy enough on the day to (for example) travel to the other end of the country, give a workshop, and spend the night on an unfamiliar sofa. I am tired, tired to the point of tears, of how slow and laborious recovery is, of feeling like I’m just about treading water.

I know things could be much worse. I know that I have privileges that shield me from other forms of microaggression; that being white and middle-class and financially stable and a UK citizen are all things which, while they may not erase the things that happen to me, can mitigate their effects (for example – after a horrible train journey, in which a man begun by asking me about train times and ended up being invasive and terrifying, I could spare the money to jump into a taxi rather than risk being followed home by him). And I am angry that this is the case, angry at the forms of structural power that run through the world and leave so many people worn down and hurt and disenfranchised, angry at the systems which coerce people into wielding their privileges as leverage against their oppressions, angry angry angry.

I am angry, I am tired, and I am not going away.

(NB: I don’t usually write and upload posts this quickly. I have some part-written posts which deal with some of these issues in a more nuanced way – but I’m currently battling a moth infestation in my flat and just needed to vent. As such, this point may well contain things that are ill-considered, faily, or oppressive: as ever, please do call me out if I’ve fucked something up.)

Three resolutions for 2014

Well – it’s 2014, and so I’m going to post my resolutions for the year.

I do have mixed feelings about the institution of New Year’s Resolutions – I feel like they’re often adopted with a sense of explicit ‘permission’ to have failed by February, because hey, nobody ever really sticks to new year’s resolutions, right? At least in my experience, there’s a pervading view of the new year’s resolution as being meant in the same spirit as someone with a hangover saying “I’ll never drink again – I mean it this time!” – an sort of expression of “wow, I sure did indulge over Christmas / drop the ball on my plans for last year / waste a lot of time playing Minesweeper – better sort myself out!” with the understanding that things will drift back towards the status quo eventually. But on the other hand, my 2013 ended on quite a low note, with grief and illness knocking the wind out of my sails, so even the illusion of a fresh start as dictated by numbers on a calendar feels like a good thing. I also think there is a certain symbolic value in taking stock and making plans at the time of year when the days around me begin to lengthen once more and I emerge from a form of hibernation. There is a lot that I would like to do and learn and make, and I want to make 2014 a year in which these things happen. So I’ve actually been thinking about resolutions since the beginning of December, and trying to work on the foundations for the year ahead as much as I’m able to.

Anyway. I have resolved that I will:

1. De-centre whiteness in the media that I consume.
Read more books by people of colour; watch more films/television shows by and starring people of colour; actively seek out artists of colour who are currently performing in the spoken word and live music scenes. If I get The Cutlery Drawer up and running again, make sure that people of colour are represented in the lineups. I reached the conclusion that this was an important thing for me to do some while ago, and I would like to be held accountable in this regard, which is why I’m making this resolution publicly. In the light of the shocking racism that’s already being enacted by white feminists this year (seriously! It’s been two days!) this feels even more crucial: I need to address my white privilege. And that doesn’t mean reading about the existence of structural racism, shaking my head with disapproval at the injustice, and then saying “okay, all done here!” It doesn’t even just mean calling out racism in fellow white people when I see it. It means recognising that I am entrenched in a white-supremacist society which systematically devalues the creative and intellectual work of people of colour, relegating this work to a ‘specialist’ interest.* It means accepting the fact that by consuming media and creative work without addressing the white-supremacist nature of the creative industries, I am tacitly supporting racism. It means making the effort to actually hear the voices of people of colour – political voices, artistic voices, voices that speak from and to a vastness of experiences which my white privilege means I can ignore. It’s not enough to follow blogs and tweets by people of colour, when of the 22 books (poetry, fiction, and academia) I finished reading this year, only two were written by authors of colour. (I haven’t been tracking my film/TV/music consumption in the same way, so I don’t have numbers, but: those are also for the most part pretty damn white.) So, in 2014: engage, engage, engage with the creative and intellectual work of people of colour, and de-centre the whiteness which currently dominates my media landscape.

*Which, y’know, sounds rather like the grossly racist and classist claim that the word “intersectionality” (coined by a woman of colour to articulate her experience of oppression!) is too ‘academic’ and ‘specialist’ for working-class white women to understand… oh but wait, it’s alright, because those claims are now being swept under the rug as part of the vile meme about ‘reclaiming’ intersectionality (from women of colour who are being framed as ‘abusers’!). Urgh.

2. Focus on my writing, and getting it out there.
Draw up a plan for the year – make sure I’m writing, recording, researching, performing, and submitting work to magazines/anthologies. Go back to having a calendar of poetry/fiction submission deadlines, and send out work regularly. A couple of specific ambitions: headline a poetry night; get at least three things published (including at least one piece of fiction); have the fairytales collection approaching completion (or at least, comprising over 10 finished and fully edited short stories); be somehow involved in next year’s Crick Crack fairytale show. In line with resolution number 1, engage with criticisms of white authors/authorship, and with ways to keep my work from being white-dominated/white-centric (e.g. Lena Dunham’s Girls – Racialicious is currently down but that post is still readable on the Wayback Machine) while also not crossing into cultural appropriation or exotification (e.g. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl).

3. Take care of myself.
I went into more detail with this one on Facebook – but essentially, recognising that I have limited time, energy, and emotional resources, and allocating these to the things that matter most to me. This includes getting back into a good self-care routine (which I rather lost in November, due to a friend’s death and getting various kinds of ill again) which in turn includes allowing myself to relax and have ‘off’ days; maintaining physiotherapy and enjoyable forms of exercise (swimming, dance, and hiking – but only when I can do these things); regularly planning and cooking meals which are nutritious, and tasty; doing a sufficient amount of work in my day job; doing creative things which aren’t tied to ideas about ‘success’ or my future as a writer/performer (e.g. getting back into handcrafting things, which I’ve been doing a bit of over the holidays and really enjoying).

So, that’s my 2014. How about yours?

Autumn to winter

It’s been a while since I updated with what’s going on in my life, so – for anyone who might have been wondering – here comes an abridged account of the past few months. (I’d like to talk in more detail about many of the things below, but perfectionism means that I’ve been putting off posting anything until it’s just right, which means this blog has carried on being empty! So for the meantime, a whistle-stop tour of what’s been happening since August.)

Nine Worlds was an absolute blast – I was shattered by the end of it, but I had an amazing time. I spent most of my time in the Queer Fandom track, with forays into various others, and loved performing at the Bifröst cabaret. The “Better History = Better Fantasy: Writing Outside the Binary”  panel that I spoke in was an incredible experience: the audience, the chair (Alex Dally MacFarlane), and the other panellists (Koel Mukherjee and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz) were all bursting with information and enthusiasm, and the discussions sparked were so valuable. I took a lot of notes and really should write about this properly at some point, but, yeah, it was such an awesome space – and I was really pleased that even though this wasn’t a panel “about” race, the other two panellists were women of colour (because structural racism/sexism still exists in queer spaces, and definitely exists in SFF, and can only be addressed by empowering marginalised voices). I enjoyed every session I attended, was wowed by the beautiful things for sale in the vendors section, and briefly cosplayed as Queen Chrysalis. And the geeky disco was great. (Absurdly, I think a favourite moment was when I realised that every time I was a speaker (and one time I wasn’t), I had managed to get the room briefly and intensely angry about all the inherent misogyny in Steven Moffat’s oeuvre. Seriously, he’s all over British television right now, and there’s insidious sexism oozing out of everything he creates.)

If you’d like to read more about Nine Worlds right this minute (as opposed to waiting for me to write more, if I ever get round to it) there are some lovely reviews up on blogs Serenity Womble  and Ferretbrain – I’m linking to those because even though I didn’t go to all the same sessions as those bloggers did, their experiences and perspectives (as feminist and/or queer people who felt welcomed) are pretty close to mine. Oh, and following my talk in the Academia track about Margaret Cavendish as an early writer of (or precursor to) SFF, I was invited to contribute an article on this topic to the first issue of Holdfast Magazine: it’s available to read online here.

If Nine Worlds was intense, the Edinburgh Fringe was… well, perhaps a new word needs to be invented to describe how intense it was. I’d been in Lashings show-runs before (Oxford Fringe 2012 and 2013), so I’m used to them as distinct from our more variety-show style gigs; I’d stayed in the Edinburgh Lash-flat before (as a guest) so was prepared for the delightful ‘queer feminist vegetarian commune’ vibe of life there; however, combining the two for a week of performances was new and challenging, particularly as someone with unreliable health (I was unwell for quite a bit of my time there). The packed auditorium of radical queers on the last night was the perfect reward. As well as performing in the Lashings queer panto Fanny Whittington, I managed to do some poetry at Flea Circus‘s 3-day slam and Other Voices’s alternative spoken word cabaret, and saw some great shows (highlights included Sophia Walker’s poetry, Rachel Parris’ musical comedy, and Lisa Skye’s highly individual one-woman show Ladyboner).

My costume for Transpose as The Queer Agenda - a hand-lettered t-shirt (reading "To Do: - Feed cat - Buy soy milk - Smash heteropatriarchy and cissexism") and a rainbow bustle. I wore this with rainbow galaxy leggings!

My costume for Transpose as The Queer Agenda – a hand-lettered t-shirt and a rainbow bustle. I wore this with rainbow galaxy leggings!

Staying with the topic of performances, my absolute favourite thing the past few months was the Hallowe’en edition of Transpose. There were readings from Kat Gupta, Jacq Applebee, Sandra Alland and myself; films by and about trans disabled people (introduced by Sandra Alland, who was given funding to mentor them in making these films); and music from Squid and the Krakens (moonlighting as They Came From The Sea) and of course CN Lester. Everyone was, pardon the expletive, fucking brilliant – and €385 was raised for Transgender Equality Network Ireland. I also loved how creative the costumes were – CN came as the Gender Binary, which led to a number of similarly conceptual costumes such as the Lavender Menace (a superhero/ine in delicate shades of purple) and Fifty Shades of Grey (an all-grey outfit strung with housepaint colour sample sheets) . My costume was the Queer Agenda (see picture!) and there was also a contingent of Lashings villains: Dick and Osbourne from Fanny Whittington; and from Cinderella, the eeeeevil Baroness Scratcher and her son Boris (who, along with Dave, comprised the Snotty Stepbrothers). The auction was full of highly tempting items, including a year’s supply of CN’s baking (!!!) and a cross-stitched “Don’t be a dick” sign. Again, I really want to write more about everything, but for now – there’s an review of Transpose (written on Facebook by a long-time fan of the events) reproduced in CN’s link above: there’s also a review (with pictures!) on Jacq’s tumblr, and another review here.

At Transpose I read one of my fairytales, “The Mermaid’s Wish” – a response to the Andersen story, rather than a retitling of my other mermaid-related fairytale – and, honestly, I’m really proud of how it went. As I said in my post about Verse Kraken, I find it interesting that I’m moving away from my initial model of expressly not-doing responses/retellings to specific stories, in which I was more about making use of prevalent tropes/themes/motifs as “ingredients” for new stories. I think it’s partly because the more research I’m doing, the more I want to engage actively with specific source texts as well as the genre as a whole. (I also keep meaning to blog about what I’m researching  – maybe soon…)

Related to this, I’m doing a workshop on fairytales at the upcoming LaDIYfest Sheffield this Saturday. It’s an all-ages workshop (by request of the organisers), and will hopefully get people thinking about gender and sexuality in fairytales and even inspire them to get writing their own. I’m very excited to have been invited to do this, and am really looking forward to it. The whole event looks like it will be fantastic – check out the full workshop timetable here. (If I feel up to it before LaDIYfest, I’ll write a longer post about fairytales – and I’ll definitely try to write something on here summing up the workshop, as I imagine it will be really productive and interesting.)

And on the topic of workshops, I also facilitated a workshop about transgender representation in student media at the recent ULU Autumn Liberation conference, using as case studies pieces published in student media in the past few years. Unfortunately it was the day after I received news of a good friend’s death, so I didn’t manage to cover everything I’d hoped to do. The group were forgiving, though, and I hope it was still more valuable than if I’d simply dropped out.

I’m currently unwell again – apparently grief lowers your immune system – and so have been spending a lot of this month indoors  and at something of a low ebb. I’ll admit I’m scared that this could be a health relapse, even though I know it probably isn’t. Most of this post was drafted a few days ago – before I went to the third in the Trans Seminars series at the University of Warwick, and in further advance of LaDIYfest, which is now tomorrow! So, I’ll leave discussion of the seminar for another time, and finally post this entry. 😉 I hope you’re all well, friends and readers, and I’ll try to get into the swing of updating more regularly!

Poetry, ponies, potpourri

Busy, busy, busy.

It’s coming up on a year since the knock to my health – the one that laid me out for a huge chunk of time, right into the early months of 2013. That’s a strange thought. I am very glad to be out of the woods, back on the horse, and all the other proverbial things. It’s hard not to feel like I’m still desperately playing catch-up. But even if that is what I’m doing, I think it’s gone pretty well so far. I’m living primarily in London again, which feels like a smart move – partway between Oxford and Brighton, my old home and my ‘adopted’ home, so I’m doing less of the suitcase-nomad thing.

Poster for 'Bifrost' - the Nine Worlds queer cabaret night!

Poster for ‘Bifrost’ – the Nine Worlds queer cabaret night!

I’m getting back onto the poetry performance circuit – a couple of open mic performances, some poems as part of Lashings sets, and (most excitingly) not only the fundraiser for Brighton’s first Trans Pride, but on the stage at Trans Pride itself. I’m heading up to the Edinburgh Fringe later this month, and I’m hoping to do some poetry sets as well as being in the Lashings show (follow it on @lashingsofgb and #FannyWhittington!). Oh, and then there’s the very exciting event depicted in the poster to the right – Bifröst! I’m super stoked to be performing at the cabaret night put on by the Queer Fandom track at Nine Worlds. And just look at that beautiful poster – all credit to Tori Truslow, track organiser.

Staying on the topic of Nine Worlds, I’ll be speaking at the convention proper as well as performing in the queer cabaret – I’m delivering a paper about Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World as part of the SF&F Academia track (Saturday, 10:00-10:30, Royal C&D), and participating in the ‘Better History = Better Fantasy: Writing Outside the Binary’ panel on the Queer Fandom track (Sunday, 10:00-11:15, Britannia).

I haven’t yet decided on all the panels and events I’ll be attending: it’s absolutely packed with amazing stuff, and I’m sure no matter what I choose I’ll be missing out on some brilliant discussions. The Nine Worlds programme pretty much defines ’embarrassment of riches’.

Queen Chrysalis - MLP villain and (IMO) goth style icon

Queen Chrysalis – MLP villain and (IMO) goth style icon

And after a little bit of worrying about whether I’ll still look like a Serious Academic or not, I’ve decided, to hell with it, I’m also going to cosplay. As a villain. From the My Little Pony reboot. Mostly because I love green-and-black outfits, and villainy – but also because damn it, artefacts of popular media and media aimed at children are interesting and just as worthy of critical engagement as more traditional/literary texts, and there’s nothing wrong with dressing up. (I’m taking inspiration from the brilliant Marta Wasik, who at Roles 2013 delivered her paper “Fairy-Tale Feminists? Interrogating the contemporary representation of girlhood though the figure of the Disney Princess” while wearing a glittery tiara.) So I’ll be spending Saturday looking like a humanoid approximation of this creature on the left. I need to get hold of some fangs.

What else has been going on? Well, speaking at the last Transpose (about two crypto-queer historical figures) went very well – in fact, it was on the strength of that talk that I was booked at Nine Worlds. I’m eagerly awaiting the next Transpose, where – if you’re very lucky – you may get to hear a new fairytale or two. The rest is pretty quotidian stuff – settling in to my new place, catching up with old friends, doing various things for my health, and so on. And as always there’s the thinking and writing – I’ve got quite a few half-written blog posts waiting to surface, and bits and pieces of poetry that are slowly taking shape. I’m looking forward to getting more things finished.

Flying update + last day to register for ‘Being Ourselves’

Hello, world!

A very quick thing – I’m speaking at ‘Being Ourselves’ in London next Saturday (June 1st), a free Albert Kennedy Trust event aimed at young trans and/or intersex people, and their friends and supporters. If you’d like to attend, today is the last day to register (which you can do by emailing studentlondon@akt.org.uk with the subject line “Being Ourselves”).

As a more general update, the gloriously hectic month continues – I’ve been to #roles2013, #qfpraxis, #transseminars, and #troublinggender – all academic conferences to do with gender and/or sexuality, where I’ve listened to some fascinating ideas and research, delivered papers of my own, performed radical queer feminist burlesque twice, and (in one particularly surreal instance) heard a paper which examined my project The Cutlery Drawer as an example of the “cut-and-paste” and “DIY” nature of the trans music scene (which, the paper, concludes “isn’t”, in the same way that punk “isn’t”). On top of this, I’m continuing with my very exciting internship working on All About Trans with On Road Media, and am in rehearsals for the premiere of Lashings’ newest endeavour, queer lefty pantomime Fanny Whittington. Oh, and I’m still writing, of course.

If the long list of academic conferences above has whetted your appetite for hearing people talk about transgender and/or genderqueer things, then you’re in luck: the videos from the Spotlight on Genderqueer conference are now appearing online! The YouTube playlist currently has Zowie Davy’s keynote speech, my own talk ‘Approaching Genderqueer Historiography’, and James Hooper on anachronism and ‘transvestite monks’. (I am, of course, desperately wanting to go through the video and correct all the little slip-ups, as well as add back in five minutes’ worth of the material that I excised to be sure of coming within the time-limit – but as a good friend informs me, unchanging perfection is the death of creation, so I should be glad that there’s an imperfect talk of mine up on the internet. 😉 ) For anyone who is interested in my work on Woolf, the Prezi from my more detailed discussion of Woolf at ‘Troubling Gender’ is available here.

That’s all for now – see you on the other side! (And perhaps either at ‘Being Ourselves’, or the opening night of Fanny Whittington at the Oxford Fringe…)

Transparency: an inevitable announcement.

I’ve been advised by a friend that it’s a strain to be anything other than a whole person.

That is, in a way, the point of this blog. No more cordoning-off of the various parts of my life, this is where I aim to inhabit them all: vaguely-established activist, burgeoning poet and fiction-writer, life-long geek, aspiring academic, committed feminist, proud queer, and so on. And yet I’ve been walking a rather awkward line for some time, and I’m tired of doing so. Rather than try to keep a lid on this any longer – and given what I’m doing in public life anyway – I think it’s easier just to say things outright, here and now.

I’m trans.

I’m the Trans Rep on the NUS Women’s Committee, and I have been since 2011. I requested that official documents refer to me only by my initials, and as such, have been doing this job with a certain level of ‘incognito’ status that has been increasingly frustrating to maintain. The (apparently) contentious nature of this position being held by a female-assigned individual who identifies both as a woman and as trans has, ultimately, strengthened the campaign’s policy on trans inclusion.

Since then, however, I’ve become increasingly vocal about trans issues under my own name. If you look at this blog, you’ll see that I’m presenting workshops and academic papers about trans and genderqueer identities, that I’m writing on trans issues and trans representation, that I’m performing poetry at trans and queer events – that I am already very publicly aligned with a movement that treats the broad spectrum of trans identities with legitimacy and respect. I’m also speaking in my Trans Rep capacity on a panel at the upcoming NUS LGBT Conference, and am shortly to begin an internship working for Trans Media Action – both will, one way or another, probably involve an awful lot of social media. With all of that on the table, I feel I have reached a tipping-point: I can’t believe there are many people who would respect me as a cis ally doing this sort of work, but turn against me to discover that ‘trans’ is also a word I use to describe myself. And perhaps more to the point, I don’t really want those people in my life.

So.

I consider myself a woman in that it’s a term which more-or-less describes the gender role in which I live, the upbringing and socialisation I have experienced, the types of gendered oppression I face under patriarchy, and – inasmuch as one can use terms like ‘man’ or ‘woman’ to describe bodies in any sort of meaningful sense – the body which I inhabit.

I consider myself trans in that it’s a term which more-or-less describes my complex relationship with my body and with my gender presentation. Were I asked to use a more specific word, I’d go with genderqueer.

That is an accurate description of how things are for me right now – as with any other identity label, I use them descriptively rather than prescriptively. And that is about as much information as I feel like I owe the world at large right now.

Writing this blog entry for the public domain was surprisingly hard, given that I’ve been a vocal trans advocate for many years now and that I’ll often discuss my personal investment in this when in the rather more intimate context of my poetry readings or workshops. But I’m sure that for every friend or acquaintance reading this for whom it’s very old news indeed, there are a number of others scratching their heads. I am – honestly – not wanting anything out of this except to relinquish the sense of being constantly on my guard whenever I write publicly under my own name. The cat is out of the bag, and can now run off chasing leaves if it would like.

I would appreciate it if anyone who might want to get in touch to ask questions would take a moment or two to consider their tone, and perhaps see if those questions can be answered by reading that which is already out there. Below are a few (by no means comprehensive!) recommendations for starting points: I may add more later.

– A (still-running) series of questions from cis readers, answered at CN Lester’s blog by a panel of trans people and beginning with a list of 101 recommendations.

– Jack/Judith Halberstam (who has occupied and critically examined the ground between ‘butch’ and ‘trans’ for years) on pronouns.

– CN Lester again, with a tonne of amazing links: on ‘academic’ and ‘authentic’ understandings of oneself not being incompatible; on how appearance does not constitute identity; on dyadic terms being counterproductive; and since I’m linking to CN in a ridiculous frenzy already, you might as well read this one too. (And I’d also like to publicly thank CN: without their support, I wouldn’t be posting this today.)

– Brit Mandelo on navigating the space of ‘genderqueer’, and political identification as a woman. [Content note: instance of body-essentialist language; note added 29/03/13 14:40 after request in comments.]

My name is the name I tell you it is.

Recently I’ve once again been meeting a lot of new people. In many ways this is wonderful, and definitely better than being bedridden. But there’s one thing that’s beginning to grate enough that I’ve decided to write a blog about it: the reactions I keep getting to my name.

My name is Hel. You know that, because we’ve just met, and that’s what I’ve introduced myself as, so that should make it reasonably obvious that it’s the name by which I wish to be addressed. Yes, I know, it sounds like “hell” – and believe me, I have heard almost every conceivable variation on the jokes you could tell.

I’m sure that people with more obviously “foreign”-sounding names get a worse time of it – for example, I know far too many people with Eastern European names who have been pressured to change them to something more “English”, to blend in. I am very much aware that in the grand scheme of things, I am not bearing a great weight of oppression when it comes to unusual names. I have white privilege, a passably middle class accent, and a name that – while it’s hardly “Sam Jones” – isn’t too obviously connected to a specific ethnicity, and still conforms to Anglophone ideas about pronunciation. So, I know it could be a lot worse for me, and I hope I’m not minimising the struggles of others by discussing my own. But yes – when you ask me if it’s my “real name” or if it’s “short for something” – I really, really don’t understand why. My name is the name I tell you it is.

I’m not sure why it matters where my name comes from: whether my Old Norse-speaking dad named me after a formidable goddess as a nod to his Viking heritage; whether it’s a name formed from the letters of my initials; whether it’s short for Helga or Helena or Heloise or even Ethel; or whether it’s just a phoneme with no particular meaning or history that has still come to signify the person who is standing here talking to you. (I’ve also said ‘yes’ to most of the above explanations in discussion with curious strangers at some point – mostly because I feel like it’s easier to give an answer, any answer, than to say “why do you need to know?”)

I’m aware that it sounds like a curse-word. I’m aware that it’s rather uncommon even in Scandinavian countries. I’m aware that I could just use a different name. I have gone by other names in the past, and was considering using something else for the world of writing,* but honestly – Hel is the name I keep coming back to, because (to rather labour the point here) it’s my name. Every other name I’ve used has turned uncomfortable and ill-fitting, or felt like a temporary pseudonym. Not that I’m against naming oneself afresh  – I think it can be incredibly valuable, and someone’s chosen name should always be respected. But I don’t feel like I can just pick one and know it will stick in the same way ‘Hel’ does. Perhaps because the movie version of The Hobbit is still reasonably fresh in my memory, this quote sums up how I feel: “I am Gandalf, and Gandalf means… me!” It’s the same here – Hel is the name I answer to, the name I think of myself as, the name which ‘means me’. It’s weird and awkward and unusual and I don’t even really like it that much, but there we go. It’s my name, because it’s my name, because it’s my name. Please stop asking me if it’s my “real” one.

Further reading:

Rose Lemberg, co-editor of Stone Telling, writes on the persistent erasure of her co-editor Shweta Narayan by people who write only to “Rose Lemberg”, whose name reads as Anglo-Western. Even though both are immigrants (see Rose’s article), an Anglo-Western name affords privilege: an Indian name does not. [This text edited 21/03/12 to reflect further discussion with Rose about the history of her own name.]

Galatea at Lashings of Ginger Beer Time, on the racism and anglocentrism in the treatment of Quvenzhané Wallis.

CN Lester on “real” names, in the context of being trans.

A collection of different perspectives on naming and trans identity,  submitted by various people to The Self Made Men.

Flyover Feminism has just begun a roundtable discussion of names: the first one, by Nikki at ‘Are Women Human?’, discusses her experience  with names from the perspective of being transracially adopted; the second, by Soulamami, discusses having an ‘ethnic’ name, and the complexities around naming her daughter.

Edited to add: @AutistLiam on Twitter went searching for names containing ‘hel’ on BabyNamesPedia and found 338 names offered for boys, and 599 offered for girls!

*I’ll probably end up using a mix of “Hel Gurney” and “H. L. Gurney”, depending on the context, but to me that’s essentially the same name anyway.