Let’s Call People Names

Roxane Gay is really cool. She is an incredibly intelligent with a sharp wit and a the unique ability to straddle both academic and popular subjects with ease. This morning I started reading her latest collection of essays Bad Feminist, which I’ve been very much looking forward to for months. It’s really good! She is just so great and, in the most easygoing of ways, suggests you question what makes you you. It’s an absolutely healthy act and something she can speak at length on, given her personal experiences.

I followed her on Twitter this morning, too. Her Twitter handle is “@rgay.” I love that handle. “@rgay.” I wish that was my handle so I could tell people, “Hey, I @rgay.” That is a joke for a fourteen year old boy in 2001 and, although I checked myself immediately, a spark came out of my ear at recalling Gay’s allusions to her queer experiences and history. So is Roxane Gay gay? Somewhat. Could that be because her name is that of a left-of-center culture? Probably not—but maybe it is?

I started thinking about people I know with names that are equally as left of center, almost literally her name. The first one was an English professor I had in college named Gay Cima. She was the raddest little white lady and, while super tough and occasionally very mom-guilting on students, her teaching helped reframe how I view news and media. The class I took with Professor Cima was called “Staging Anti-Slavery” and walked in between the subjects of English, History, Theatre, and Performance Studies. Her goal in the class was to help us analyze and contextualize (and recontextualize) the wording around black bodies. The thesis for the class was that reference to other bodies as “animalistic” or “savage” or “different” means something big. The words are re-enslaving. As we’ve seen in recent months with how murders and murders of black and whit bodies are presented, this terrible historical act is very much alive. Professor Cima’s work points out and corrects how other bodies (specifically black) are still being enslaved in culture.

What does that have to do with her name being “Gay”? Potentially nothing. It probably has zero to do with zero. Yet, I wonder if being called a name associated with an oppressed people since day one of her life opened her mind to all that were oppressed. Maybe this is how she became so attuned to these discussions, seeking to help in the best way she could. This is all conjecture. This is the making of a documentary that I would love to film called My Name Is Gay. Perhaps it will be made in a few years.

Then there is a guy I used to take improv classes from at Upright Citizens Brigade called Ben Siemon. His last name is not pronounced “Simon” nor is it pronounced “Simeon”: it is straight up a homonym for “semen.” His name is sonically “Ben Semen.” Ben Semen. He is a gay guy, too. It’s something I have never talked about with him but something I wonder about a lot. His name—like Roxane and like Professor Cima—sparks a great wondering about things like chicken and eggs: is he gay because of his name or was he gay before his name? Are Roxane and Professor Cima concerned with other bodies because of their names or were they always predestined to be this outward thinking?

Who knows this answer, really. I’m not sure if they even know. I did come up with a crazy theory that I am sure most people will scoff at: what if we start giving more birth names that challenge the norm or are the assumed antithesis to who that person is? This could be simply naming more people “gay” or even “little” or “black” or “other.” By naming someone as an outsider even if they are not a part of that group definitely aligns them with that group, even if that is not who they are.

(Yes, this could get tricky too or even inspire hate for the community because someone is dropped into that world. This is still fascinating, though. How does it feel to be “gay” at all times even if you aren’t technically “gay”? Is this the same as having the same name as a celebrity? Or is this something different?)

How many times have you taken pride in someone else having your name? This is the same idea. Science has even pointed to hearing our name activating special parts of the brain. Names are important! It’s like an article in The New Yorker explained a few years ago:

These studies suggest a sort of linguistic Heisenberg principle: as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it. It’s difficult to imagine a truly neutral label, because words evoke images (as do maluma and takete), are associated with other concepts (as are “north” with up and “south” with down), and vary in complexity (from KAR to RDO). Still, you don’t need to worry too much about what you name your children. The effects are subtle, people with non-fluent names succeed all the time, and norms change.

Those norms do change and, now, having a name like “gay” may not be as weird or snickered at. It does have an affect, though. Maybe we should call people names for the sake of empathy. Perhaps this could be how we reframe the world, by renaming and naming people after outsider communities, cultures, slang terms, and names? Maybe we should name bigger cities or states or entire countries, therefore making your own personal, universal pride something that relates to an entity even more universal and without a geographic pin attached to it?

This could be useful. Wouldn’t it be nice if linguistics and naming could usher in a new way of thinking?

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