I have a traditionally male name. I mean, sometimes it’s used as a girl’s name but not very often. I was also born in 1980, when Michael was the most popular name for baby boys. I’ve heard speculation on why my parents chose this name, but I don’t really know the whole story. My mother didn’t have an ultrasound — I don’t think it was available at the time — to be able to determine my sex before I was born, so it’s not implausible to think maybe they were hoping for a boy.
Anyway, in my early school years, I teased frequently by being called a boy. That’s a boy’s name. I went through a phase where I only wanted to wear dresses and I would introduce myself by saying “My name’s Mikel, and I’m a girl.” It was a big deal to me. I was mortified about that time at the idea of mom wanting to get me a pack of plain t-shirts from the boys section (though they were cheaper). I was mortified at the idea of even walking into the boy’s section in a store. I heard the explanation, over and over, that my name was ok because it’s spelled differently than the boy’s name. I got tired of there needing to be an explanation.
One day when I was sitting on the toilet in the school bathroom — probably about 3rd grade — I had a moment of self-doubt. How did I know I was a girl? Well, I reasoned, I must be because boys have this mysterious appendage called a penis and I didn’t. I wasn’t really sure what it was that I did have, or how to check, but for the time being it was proof enough to me that I didn’t have what boys have.
When I had a new class in school, from my public school days all the way to college, teachers taking roll in a new class would see “Mikel” in their student list, and look to my left and right before finally realizing that I am Mikel.
At that time in my life and for many years after, the idea that someone might have a gender that does not match their organs would never have occurred to me. I started thinking about it again when I was introduced to the idea that one should ask a transgender person what pronouns they prefer to be applied to them. I’ve been misgendered — mainly in written communication — more times than I can even remember, so I have some idea of what that means. I’ve grown so used to my name being mispronounced, misspelled, and sometimes (intentionally or unintentionally) feminized, that I forget it bothers me until I get that sense of immense satisfaction when someone I don’t know actually gets it right on the first try.
When I left home for college I was actually sorted into the boy’s dormitory at first. There was no marking on the application to say if I was male or female, and it was just assumed from my name that I was male. When they couldn’t find my dorm assignment among the girls it was not hard for me to guess what had gone wrong.
My husband has told me of funny reactions he’s gotten when telling coworkers the name of his (then) fiancée.
I’ve gone to job interviews where the interviewer was clearly expecting a man. It was obvious by the brief moment of confusion when a woman walks in saying she is here for an interview. A discussion of my name has also made a great conversation starter when I’m feeling social. I tell them my name and see that look of “did I hear you right?” on their face along with worry that they will offend me if they get it wrong. And every now and then someone tries to call my Mika or Michelle. They are perfectly fine names, but they are not mine.
I still get mail all the time addressed to “Mr. Mikel.” I’ve thrown out perfectly good free return address labels because of the “Mr.” And whoever made my permanent ID card for the zoo and science center membership decided my name is spelled “Mikal” even though it was spelled properly in the application. Maybe since Mikal is a girl’s name and Mikel is a boy’s name (and that couldn’t be right!?). An innocent mistake probably, but that sort of thing has gotten old. I haven’t decided if it’s worth the trouble to get it corrected as long as the card works.
I’m good with my name. It’s my identity. It’s also been a lifelong lesson on what happens when one lives in defiance — even just a tiny little tiny bit in defiance — of gender norms.
I know I’m a woman, not because of my anatomy or because of the label I was given at birth. I know I’m a woman because I know who I am. And I trust that other people know who they are as well.