Throughout our lifetimes we may experience moments where we question or challenge parts of our self, our identity, the way society operates, and the way we live our life within the confines of society. When I was in elementary school I had my first “identity crisis” and it was all because of my name. I know unisex names are more common now and it’s even seen as “trendy” to name your child a name that society deems acceptable for the opposite gender. But an elementary school student isn’t typically aware of those trends and gendered notions.
Growing up in a society where gender roles and stereotypes are often uncompromising, perpetuated by society through many modes, and strictly assigned at birth, it’s difficult for a young girl or boy to comprehend what gender neutral implies and furthermore, how to navigate through your early schooling with these alleged gender norms and parameters. Those deeply engrained notions all start when baby girls are assigned the color pink and baby boys are given blue. Although tough to decipher when I was a child, as a twenty-something I can more accurately reflect on my childhood and the confusion, pressure, and misunderstandings I felt concerning society’s views on gender as a girl with a “boy’s name”.
Until first grade, I thought my name was “normal”. It sounded just like the Laurens, Caitlins, Hannahs, and Katherines in my class. I looked similar to them, wore dresses, “liked” the color pink, and enjoyed playing with dolls. It wasn’t until a boy named Dillon enrolled at our school and became my new classmate did I realize maybe my name wasn’t viewed as completely feminine.
I tried working through my newfound confusion though my first grader mindset and struggled with questions like: If this boy shared my name, did that mean it wasn’t a girl’s name? If my name is a boy and girl’s name is it more one than the other? Is it more common for girls than boys? If it is a boy’s name, why did my parents name me Dylan when I’m very clearly a girl?
Now that I’ve had nearly two decades to process, reflect, and understand how limiting our society’s opinions of gender and what’s “gender appropriate” are, I feel a strong passion and urgency to speak out about my experience growing up with a unisex name and how others made me feel because of it. I understand that in a larger sense, the bullying and unwanted comments I received due to my unisex name are rather insignificant compared to the harassment children, young adults, and adults experience on a daily basis in regards to their gender identity. However, I want to call attention to the pressure and intimidation I felt from my peers because I think it highlights a larger issue about gender, society’s engrained gender norms, and the misunderstood ideas of femininity and masculinity.
The taunting I experienced in elementary and middle school in reaction to my assumably “more male name” may seem trite in the grand scheme of gender-based issues, but I believe the initial ridicule of my name speaks to our society’s antiquated, rigid, and intolerant views on gender and sex. My seemingly masculine name was only accepted as more masculine when society framed it that way – it’s not what the individual believes to be true. I never gendered my name until my classmates starting pointing it out upon the new kid, Dillon’s arrival. My name was just me and I didn’t think anything of it until classmates asked unwanted and judgmental questions like, “Were you supposed to be a boy?”, “Did you look like a boy when you were born?”, “Were your parents just confused?”.
Although questions like those stung, I became exposed to the reality of stereotypes, societal norms, and unfortunate accepted beliefs at a young age (even though that consciousness wasn’t fully formed till later). In high school I became more aware of how the mindsets perpetuated by society can be widely believed and carried out by some of my peers, especially when there’s no one to speak out against those misguided and unfounded ideas. Until I reached a point where I felt more comfortable and supported to speak up, the more people teased me about my name and gender, the more I believed what they said to be true. And my experience is just a small aspect of a larger problem where people’s perceptions and opinions of others are so strictly influenced by society, that we perpetuate close-mindedness, misinformation, and discrimination.
Although my experience in being the subject of harassment based on society’s gender norms is just a small piece of a much more injurious, unsympathetic, and unfair system, I think my story should still be noted for the covert prejudices and misinformed views people held in regards to gender. My story may just be about my name and the opinions people had about my name’s questionable femininity, but I hope this post allows you to see beyond that. I hope that the confusion, judgmental questions, and mockery I faced as a child in regards to the debated gender of my name help people recognize our society’s misunderstandings, discomfort, and animosity towards perceived gender roles and social norms.
The more we sit idly by and allow society to dictate what types of behaviors, appearances, identity attributes are gender acceptable, the more we enable a cycle of hazardous societal values and affronting beliefs. So how does this all relate to a name? How do society’s perceived and perpetuated gender norms hurt others? Why do we believe that there is a specific set of attributes and behaviors that are only acceptable, desirable, and proper for one gender over another? Why is our society become so rigid and unforgiving in our understanding of gender?
I certainly don’t have all of the answers to those questions, but I am passionate about working towards a society that is more compassionate, open-minded, accepting, and progressive in their beliefs, actions, and concepts of gender. I love my name and I wouldn’t change it for the world. No matter what society says.