THE STORY OF MY NAME
My birth certificate had a blank space on it in the box designated for a First Name. My parents chose a name but couldn’t agree on a spelling (Sean vs. Shaun) so my identity on that form showed Patrick McCarthy - male - but that was really never me.
As a child, I moved between spellings of my name and also between the boys and the girls in the schoolyard. For as long as I can remember, I was baffled by the intense gender division imposed on me from the adults in the world. I enjoyed playing with some of the boys but I also felt at home with the girls. So why would a teacher yank me away so harshly from the girls? I was an open, curious, joyful little kid who just wanted to play with my friends!
Over and over again I was taught that my desire to play with the girls was a problem. My Dad was particularly alarmed and refused to pay for gymnastics or dance classes. He told me not to cry, smacked my face and screamed at my mother for making me a sissy.
My father’s anger frightened me but I still wanted him to love me. So I tried to fix myself and become the boy he demanded me to be. During those periods I would use his spelling Sean. As a result, in third grade my name was called out over the loudspeaker and I was summoned to the principal’s office to explain why I was writing Sean when my forms listed Shaun, the spelling my mother used when she signed me up for school. I still remember the face of Mr. Wiseman, the principal, staring me down, puzzled, “Don’t you know how to spell your name?” I stood there in silence, shame closing in all around me. That was not the first nor the last time that I wanted to disappear.
Franklin Elementary School was when I began a lifelong habit of abandoning myself, when the seeds of self-loathing grew deep roots inside of me so that I ended up living at odds with myself. It wasn’t until many years later, after countless hours of therapy and recovery work, that I recognized the sense of dread I had been carrying around, living with an unconscious belief that there was something terribly wrong with me.
When I lived in Europe for two years during college, I became even more name fluid. In the underground club scene in Berlin, I went by Eu (an abbreviation of my father’s drunken neologism Eupithius). Then in London, while pursuing a degree in dance composition, I adopted the name Pic Mac (which I considered a cheeky reference to my difficulty in choosing a name) but I promptly dropped it after I performed in a dance showcase and a critic asked if my name was an expression of a special affinity for Big Mac hamburgers.
I started film school in New York a few years later with the name Shon Mac, proudly proclaiming in my youthful zealotry that my shortened surname was designed to “castrate the patriarchy.” But my new psychoanalyst urged me to accept the limits built in to life so I decided to embrace my ultra-Irish-sounding name and made films as Sean Patrick McCarthy, which caused a boyfriend to later teasingly call me “The Queen of Potatoes.” He found this very amusing. Me? Not so much. I tolerated his jokes but I took myself very seriously and had yet to learn the healing power of laughter.
Around this time, I would sometimes use my student loans to shop at a $5 store where I bought an eclectic mix of shabby dresses and skirts. I especially loved one long denim skirt which I wore on the day I was rejected from a directing class by a professor who looked me up and down and said he didn’t want a “troublemaker” like me in his class.
I had limited language and only minimal conceptual framework for my kind of gender fluid expression but I liked to call myself “gender fuck” (which I picked up in the queer downtown music scene). I soon learned that this term was pretty inflammatory, particularly with my family. Back where I grew up, discussions of gender and sexuality had always been a nonstarter. My earnest attempts to introduce my family to feminist theory had been humorous at best or downright explosive. Later, when my father, who never graduated from college, saw that I earned an A in The History of Sex, he stood up at his favorite watering hole and loudly boasted to all of his drinking buddies, “I don’t need a fancy Ivy league degree to tell you the history of sex: people fuck!”
Making films provided an outlet for me to explore the different sides of myself but without a real sense of community or compassionate self-awareness, it became too painful to move through the world feeling like an aberration.
So in my 30s, with the support of my psychoanalyst, I attempted to “embrace myself as a man.” I stepped back from my film work and took a corporate gig using my father’s masculine Irish spelling Sean. Going to the office in Banana Republic boy clothes… well, that truly felt like I was in drag! A part of me longed to be a good boy and to fit in, but I was miserable. That’s when I really started to medicate myself with weed, wine and men.
That was also when I was forced to confront the blank space on my birth certificate. My mother bought me a plane ticket to visit her and acknowledged my decision to adopt my father’s spelling by putting Sean on the ticket. I appreciated her generosity. But this spelling was not on any of my documents and I was turned away by the airline representative who required me to show an ID with the name Sean. As I stood there explaining my lifelong name dilemma, I realized it was finally time for me to resolve this situation.
But like my parents, I couldn’t decide on a spelling so I changed my name to my confirmation name, Agustin, which I took from my maternal grandfather. I always liked this name and still do - it means great! But over the years I have also come to see that my gender neutral birth name really suits me.
Even though the process is inconvenient and I feel vulnerable to announce another name change, I have now completed the legal steps to make Agustin McCarthy my middle name and to adopt my mother’s family name.
Getting here has been a circuitous journey but I am grateful to say that I finally like myself and my name.
And what spelling did I end up going with after all these years?
For me, identifying as a non-binary person is not only about my gender identity, but it is also a part of my spiritual practice grounded in the Buddhist principles of loving kindness. Whenever possible I aspire to avoid polarizing categories and to pursue a middle path - so I chose a third spelling.
Hello world. My name is SHON KEANE. Good to meet you!