Reintroducing Myself to the World

Changing my name was the first step in acknowledging my trans boyhood.

by Marlin Xie

Credit: Marlin Xie

As the first semester of my sophomore year of high school came to an end, I stared into my bathroom mirror, and a speck of doubt began to devour every thought I had about who I was. A fog swallowed my mind, and I realized I couldn’t recognize my reflection. Or maybe, I thought, the person in the mirror was someone that wasn’t me. Something had to change, but I couldn’t tell what. 

I leaned in closer to the mirror and took a hard look at myself: waist-long hair, stereotypically cute pajamas, and an unmistakably feminine physique. A sigh escaped my throat as I squinted at my reflection, trying to see if there’s anything that I could do to relieve this uneasy feeling. 

Then, a thought occurred to me. If I can’t change my appearance, then what about my name?

Trying to Find Myself

I’ve never liked my given name. I’ve always found it too feminine. I distinctly remember times in elementary school when I wished my parents had named me something more gender-neutral like “Skylar” or “Alex.” But at that time, I didn’t know that changing my name was even a possibility. 

Even as I stared blankly into the mirror, it would be five more months before I accepted myself as a transgender boy, even though I had already spent years reflecting on my gender. I didn’t want to even accept the possibility that I was a boy because it would reset everything I understood about myself.

To ease myself into this revelation, I went online and sought out YouTube videos by transgender creators about how they discovered their identity. Then I rambled on for hours to my queer friends about how I didn’t feel like—and had never truly felt like—a girl, but was too scared to identify as a boy. They reassured me. I decided to test whether going by a non-feminine name would help me feel more like myself. Plenty of cisgender people use nicknames rather than their full government name; it’ll be just like that, I justified to myself.

For a lot of transgender people, choosing a name is one of the hardest steps in the process. It’s much more difficult to find one that feels like you than to simply follow what was given, and there’s a fear of realizing later that you might dislike the name you picked.

For me, though, it was surprisingly easy. I knew from the beginning that there were certain criteria I wanted my name to meet, one of which was that it had to relate to the ocean. I’ve been interested in the ocean my entire life and it defined a huge chunk of my personality. So, I googled “words relating to the ocean,” and, after ruling out potential candidates such as “Ray” and “Coral,” I settled on “Marlin.” It’s masculine leaning and the name of a cool fish, and that was good enough for me! I decided to take the next step—testing the waters, if you will—at the start of the spring semester.

Hello, My Name Is… 

The choice was between seeing someone else live out my life and living it for myself. I wanted to live.

February 1, 2023, was the first day I went out into the world as “Marlin.” For the entire hour-long commute from my home to school, my mind ached as it scrambled to think of a script to recite to my peers and teachers about my new name. I couldn’t risk embarrassing myself and needed it to go as perfectly as possible.

A voice in my head tried desperately to convince me to hold off for another day. 

There’s no rush to do it now.

 It’s illogical to bring this up in the middle of the school year. Everyone already knows you as [deadname]. 

Why are you making things harder for yourself? 

Are you stupid?

However, I knew I needed to do this. The choice was between seeing someone else live out my life and living it for myself. I wanted to live.

My school is very accepting of queerness, so one might think that altering my name would be easy as pie. To some extent, you’d be correct! 

However, the process of actually going up to a teacher, opening my mouth, and praying my words came out coherently was still terrifying. I felt panicked over when I should make my name known. 

In a weird coincidence, my first class of the day, chemistry, got assigned to a different teacher for the second semester of the school year, one I’d never met before. Because he was new to my class, he took attendance by reading everyone’s names out loud, rather than simply scanning the room to see who was missing. 

As he started working his way down the list, my eyes bored into my desk in shame as I waited to hear my legal name be called.

A strange anger bubbled inside me. Logically, I knew that my new teacher would not have known any other way to address me, but it still hurt when he called out the wrong name, and it felt unfair to be wounded by something inconsequential to everyone else. 

I quietly sat through the remainder of class and tried my hardest to take in the lesson, but my mind kept wracking over the exact words I would use to tell my teacher before I left the room.

As the class ended and my classmates filed out the door, my chest pounded as I went up to him. 

“Hey, just wanted to let you know that I go by Marlin, but it says [deadname] on the attendance sheet.”

“Oh, sorry! Let me just…”

He looked down at the names he’d copied down on the seating chart, the point of his pen landing on the square with my government name as he pondered something for a moment.

“Could you spell it for me? Is it ‘Marlin’ with an ‘i’ or an ‘o’?” 

Suddenly, I felt ridiculous for ever being nervous. I clarified the spelling of my name, and waved goodbye as I left the room. Heading toward my next class, relief washed over me as I realized that I had gotten past the first hurdle. 

That day, I was so focused on hurrying through all the people I needed to inform that I never actually stopped to think about how I felt. Looking back now, this moment was when I realized that changing my name was worth it, that doing so had helped me feel more at ease.

Is It a Paradox to Be Chinese and Transgender?

I began to feel anxious again when I realized what my next class was: Chinese 2. I’ve spent the majority of my life believing that I am not welcomed by my culture because I’m queer. I worried that my teacher, a fellow Chinese person, would disapprove of me.

As I entered the classroom, thoughts of how dismissive conservative Chinese communities often are of queerness swirled in my head. From the recent shutdowns of LGBTQ+ friendly spaces in mainland China to the strict gender roles instilled within me since childhood, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was about to show a “real” Chinese person that I was a traitor. 

Before class began, I walked to my teacher’s desk with one goal in mind.

“Miss teacher,” I muttered. She shifted her gaze towards me. “I would prefer if you called me Marlin from now on.”

She was silent for the briefest of moments before handing me a pen and tapping the blank spot next to my legal name on her attendance sheet. 

“Write it here,” she said. 

I let go of a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. It’s almost comical how reassuring such a small gesture can be. Thinking back on it now, over a year later, I see it as a turning point where I realized that these two points of my identity could coexist. Yes, logically I knew that being queer and Chinese weren’t mutually exclusive, but it wasn’t until then I felt OK to exist as a Chinese transman. 

I really cared about what she had to say about my name change because I knew that other Chinese adults in my life—my family—would not react well once they found out, or that they would simply never catch on. I needed someone that was like me to acknowledge me for who I am.

The rest of the day went well. Every teacher I told responded with some version of, “Thanks for letting me know.” Excitement ran through my veins as I got on the subway to commute home that day. I held onto the handrail and looked into the window, and a translucent reflection of me, speckled in dust particles and stains, stared back. I didn’t mind the mess.

As I started into my window reflection, I wondered when, or if, I’d ever tell my parents. They would surely catch on eventually that something had changed, but I didn’t want to deal with these consequences before I had to. 

I didn’t want to deal with them chiding me for “disrespecting” the name they had given me (as they later said), essentially outing myself before I fully knew who I was. 

Rebirth

It took people a while to get used to my name, and it took me even longer to remember to react to it. But, through this process I’ve been able to rediscover a lot about myself and feel much more confident in my conclusions. I fought and earned the ability to see myself clearly. 

Even after sharing my name, it took me almost three more months to realize that I wanted to go strictly by “he/him” pronouns, and an additional month for me to get my first short haircut on my own terms. But none of that would have been possible had I not taken that first step to express myself. 

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