“What’s in a name” is a quarter-long project by NBN Opinion in which individual writers explore the personal significance of a name.

Hi, my name is [Redacted], but you can call me Jo.

I come from a small town. I’ve lived there my whole life, so I never had the opportunity to “reinvent” myself when I was a kid. A few moments and experiences from elementary school defined my whole educational career. My decision to quit cheerleading and join the little league football team was often the most important one to my classmates, and as such, it became one of my distinguishing characteristics.

This essentially just meant that I was “different,” “unique” or whatever other words teachers and parents wanted to use to keep from directly saying that a girl playing football and hanging out with guys was weird. Around second grade, I remember girls in my class experimenting with their hair and clothing to be more feminine. I, on the other hand, was playing in the mud after school with my football team and loving every minute.

There were moments, though, when I was reminded that, as much as I didn’t fit in with the girls, I also didn’t fit in with the boys. Tackle football came quickly in third grade and I couldn’t try out for my old position as center. The boys felt like they had to be more careful with me, despite growing up with me for years. I wasn’t feminine enough to fit in with the girls, but the boys clearly didn’t deem me “manly” enough to be with them.

[Redacted] never quite fit me right, either. It was too feminine of a name, too girly. It frustrated me to no end. I wanted a nickname for the longest time, but there’s not really a shorter version of [Redacted], and no one had bestowed a nickname upon me. I had to accept that this feminine name was mine. I didn’t have any choices.

Until my freshman year of high school. I was the football manager and stood with my favorite coach before the game. He casually asked me what my middle name was, and I told him. It was more feminine than [Redacted], so he immediately told me that it “sucks.” I laughed, informing him that I would pass the information on to my mom. He chuckled and we fell into an easy silence.

“Your new middle name is Jo.” It was so simple, but it changed everything. “Jo.” Not feminine, but not really masculine. Somewhere in between. Not delicate or too abrasive. Doesn’t spend hours doing their hair or going mudding. It settled something in my confusion over my identity and presentation.

He called me Jo for the next four years, and I felt confident. That name, “Jo,” meant something more than he may have intended, but its effect was all the same. The nickname soon grew into a name that I could resonate with, a name that was mine. I answered to [Redacted] in class, but I felt more confident and comfortable as a Jo than I ever did as [Redacted].

When I came to college, I realized that I had a choice: I could continue on as [Redacted] or embrace Jo. That day with my coach on the football field could be a fun memory or it could be what it had been for four years: a lifeline. A reminder that I wasn’t a divided house, broken between masculinity and femininity. I was not fractured between two polar opposites. I was complete, regardless of gender presentation or identity.

I chose Jo. Throughout high school, Jo gave me so much, but I didn’t realize that the simple act of choosing a new name would teach me something. I know I never had had the opportunity to change what I was perceived as in high school. My engagements when I was younger followed me and became my identity. But I am so much more than being smart and liking football. College means that I can choose who I am and change that as need be. I am not a cookie cutter; I am a rubber band, stretching and changing form as I go.

My name is more than a signifier of my incomplete femininity or almost-lack of masculinity. My name is a signal that I am my own person. I choose, from here forward, who I am and what I enjoy. Yes, I am partially a product of my upbringing; I wouldn’t be who I am without it. But I am also a product of my decision to be whoever I want to be. I believed for a long time that I had no choices, and maybe I didn’t. But I do now. And I choose to be more than anyone recognized me to be. More than I recognized myself to be. I am not broken. I am not severed or splintered. I am doing what I want to do as myself, as the version of myself that I wanted to be before I could come to campus.

I got on the plane as [Redacted]. I got off as Jo. And I haven’t looked back.

Thumbnail photo licensed under cc-by-sa-2.0.