Last night, I dreamt of the “Department of Names.” In my dream, they released a statement that infallibly said the name of everything. The names sounded like the thing they described. Cardinals were Crimsings or Spatula-Tails. The fan whirring by the bed was a purrhold, a turnbreeze. And everything agreed with the name it was given.
When a thing changes, the Department of Names said, it is given a different name. But what, then, does that make me?
I’m a girl who kept her boy name, who wiggled between two names for four years.
In undergrad, I used to work in museums. Both the Natural History Museum and the Old Capitol Museum are built of limestone and sit at the center of the University of Iowa’s campus, which is itself the center of Iowa City. It is a very nested community. Everything is something else in the way that wicker is both basket and stem.
In the Old Capitol, I gave tours, explaining to guests that the building was a colonialist monument, then a school, then a museum. It is still all of these things. As it aged, it accumulated names.
I would begin the tours in the University President’s office, where a large wooden desk was built to resemble George Washington’s — I think. It’s been years since I gave those tours, and all the names are graying quickly out, but what remains is the fear that the institutions that guide us might be scale models of the ones that harm us.
I would lead the groups into the auditor’s office. On the wall, there were two maps: the Iowa territory in 1840 and the state of Iowa a few years later. In this room, I would point out how, as the counties spread westward, the Indigenous lands seemed to be pushed, smothered, until the counties were the only thing.
Upstairs, explaining to a group of children that men and women sat in different seats, one asked me, “Where did the kids sit?” I explained that they sat with their mom or their dad or were not allowed into the building at all because of race, or money, or time. “Had childhood been invented yet?” she wondered. I told her the complicated truth, that it had for some.
When these tours were done, the visitors would leave and go elsewhere into a city that is still, in many ways, the same. The architecture is expanding. But the town had the same name.
One summer, I was scheduled to work the same day as the citywide Pride parade, but I only remembered the latter. I had picked out a sundress — black with cherries — and my hair was getting long and curly. I was out to many people, my friends mostly. I was excited to walk around and celebrate. I was younger, less radicalized. No Justice, No Pride was just a chant, a provocative rhyme.
My partner, our friend, and I were covered in glitter and watching as a rainbow of balloons came by on eight roller-skates. My friend, who also worked at the museum, turned to me and said, “How did you get today off?”
“I didn’t!” I said. It dawned on me at the same time it occurred to her.
“Go get changed! I’ll run over and cover for you!”
“No, that’s okay,” I said. I wanted this. It was a liberal town. At least I thought it was. There were flags at the museum! Revelers would be in and out all day! I was in a dress and it would be fine! I was ready for this!
I ran like my job depended on it. I sat behind the desk and acted like it was a normal day and not — in my body, in my life — the time of a small revolution. I encouraged tours.
People came in. Some complimented my dress.
A child asked, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
“I’m a girl,” I told her and she walked on unbothered for the day.
Then my boss came. She was not bothered, but I think she was surprised.
She said “Hi, Brennan,” and then something like, “Is there something you have to tell us?” What I remember clearly was the question: “Are you going by a new name?”
At the museum, it turns out, is in the same business as the Department of Names. We were there to explain exactly what something was, how you could tell, and the dates when they changed.
To tell the truth, it had never occurred to me that my name was expected to change. I have always liked it: Brennan Liam Ward Bogert. It had never seemed excessively gendered. It had never felt like it wasn’t mine. I liked that my mother chose it. I liked the way that it was long, and I liked the alliteration.
But I thought I was supposed to change it. So, without a moment’s thought, I said “Bryn.”
And for years that was it.
After some time, I added another “n.” But no matter how I spelled it, it wasn’t me. I know this now to be even more true as I write it.
It wasn’t until my second year of graduate school that I really decided that it was my name that was meant for me.
In a workshop, my professor asked me how I wanted my name to be printed when I published. She asked what I “wanted,” and that was the first time anyone had. From that moment on, I went through and changed my name back across the web, across all the things I had printed since. My body had changed. My language and style had, too. But I was always the same, and I want, now as much as then, to have the same name. I want to be both things.
Sometimes it feels like we all work for the Department of Names. Our hours pick up each year around pride when we are again asked, “Which letter are you under the umbrella?”
“I’m gay, but I’m queer,” my friend Emma says. “I’m queer, specifically meaning I’m trans.” There are times when it can feel impossible to be two things at once. There is often pressure to pick one. There is pressure to say that either pride is a celebration or a riot.