A name like chocolate, melting on my tongue
When I first met Declan, I was still a girl. Not by chronology, but by assignment at birth, inculturation, and self-identification.
We became acquainted in a conservative church, where I’d embraced the Christian concept of complementarianism and proselytized about the immutability of gender, warbling on about the thrusting nature of masculinity and the supple receptiveness of the feminine. I bought in completely to the mindset and all its virulent manifestations. My hair was long, my heels high, and makeup was a requirement before leaving the house.
Declan, by contrast, was never a girl, despite assignment at birth and insidious inculturation. But he wore bras he hated, gave up dreams of being a professional ball player, and did his best to cope with life while living it as someone he wasn’t.
When we met, we were both married to men and proud of ourselves for performing the role of biblically-excellent wife despite Declan’s gender identity and the turbulence and dysfunction in our marriages. We became good friends, close friends, deep friends.
And then we fell in love.
For as long as I can remember, my mother vehemently proclaimed that my name was SUZANNE. Not Sue, not Susie, not Susan. SUZANNE.
The etymology of Suzanne is “graceful lily:” a soft and bending thing, implying fragrant fragility. I did my best to conform to that image.
We should be careful what we name things. Names have power.
Some years back, a client sang Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne to me the first time we spoke on the phone. I’d never heard the song before, and his singing wasn’t great. The experience was intensely uncomfortable. This was long before the #MeToo movement, and he was a client and a man, so I did what was expected and tittered in response, performing the role of bending lily according to the shape of my name and the generations of cultural expectations which traveled with it.
Rejection of all those expectations has been slow; the plates of my psycho-emotional terra shifting tectonically, unobservable without timelapse image captures.
I love reading old comb-bound cookbooks which include the names of the people who submitted recipes. In some of them, women list their husbands’ names rather than their own, merely planting “Mrs.” in front.
Mrs. Richard Dickinson.
Mrs. Franklin Würstchen.
Mrs. Peter Pene.
The identities of these women who lived, cooked, and loved has been erased, neither first nor surname printed as proof of existence outside of marriage. The rules of law and custom negated a need for individual identity, and being who and when they were, they bought into it, just as I bought into the concepts of gender fed to me in my own era.
Declan and I have been through several legal name changes together. First when we divorced our exes and took back our “maiden” names, then later, when we married. We each took the other’s last name as a mutual giving and receiving of histories, of identity, of self.
Declan will soon change his first name from the one assigned by his parents to the one he chose. He likes the name on his birth certificate well enough when someone else bears it, but it was never him. When he pondered what his true name was, the sound arrived as epiphany, immediately resonating:
Its truth settled around him, a mantle of affirmation and acknowledgement, a source of power and control.
Declan’s mom struggles with this issue as many parents do. Diane was the name she selected at his birth, cooed as a young mother, and yelled as the parent of a teenager. It’s the name she’s always associated with the firstborn child she adores. Many parents feel like something is stolen from them if a name is rejected, as if the very act of naming gives them possession over our beings.
“Her name is SUZANNE,” my mother demanded.
Possession starts with our parents, and for many women shifts to husbands who believe they possess us through the changing of our names. But no one possesses us, and possession doesn’t equal love.
The importance of naming is a common theme in folklore and mythology. Jewish and Christian stories show characters being given new names at points of growth or change, connoting that the new name is a truer name. Genie lore instructs that knowledge of a person’s true name gives you power over that person. A true name offers insight into their inherent nature, their essential being. Knowing it means knowing the person themselves. It means intimacy, and intimacy is power.
For years, I called my beloved Dolce; an Italian word which means sweet, or dessert. The nickname was intimate and true in many ways; his presence was a gift, a reward for having choked down a lifetime of struggle which scoured my soul of pride and optimism. Declan was balm for that pain, tantalizing me with the taste of hope, of safety, of a future which promised comfort and delight. He made me realize that life could be delicious; a thing to be savored rather than an endless, painful cud-chewing.
The word was like chocolate, melting on my tongue.
Writers tune in to the way letters combine or collide to create not only meaning, but sound and mouth feel. The D in Dolce is harder than in Declan, but the rest is a soft trailing into the romantic. Declan is another experience altogether; the first syllable suggesting pine, water, and fresh air, the last syllable wrapping you in comfort and protection. Both names are lovely in their own ways, both contain Ds and Es and Cs and Ls, but they’re so different in character. So particular in connotation and enunciation.
Transgender people understand the significance of names better than most. They endure an ongoing reality of being called something which is out of sync with their essential beings. The lucky ones, like Declan, get to explore what their true name feels like.
Declan was always Declan, regardless of what his parents called him. The name Dolce is still true and yet no longer fits him. He’ll always be chocolate, but tempered, poured out, and molded into a shape of his ongoing making. He’s himself now, even if his name doesn’t conform to anyone’s sense of ownership or of previous understanding.
When I was a teenager, I rebelled against my mother’s insistence and asked people to call me Zanne. I liked the strength of the nickname. Zanne sounds like a superhero, whereas the soft susurration of the “soo” in front of “zanne” transforms it into lily-like submission. Decades later I abandoned Zanne when I left my ex-husband, because the power I’d felt in creating the sobriquet dissolved in the acidity of our marriage, eroded by the loudness of my insufficiency each time he spoke it. But I’m done defining myself by what others cling to or expect: a creature formed in their own image-making.
I’m ready to reclaim it:
Power is unleashed when we accept the truth of who we are and allow that truth to blossom and grow.
Generational-trauma healing power.
As Declan explores the kind of man he wants to be, I’m invited to examine my own gender and name. Suzanne was my mother’s demand. Zanne! became my exe’s barked command. Now I get to choose who I am.
We all have the gift of crafting ourselves. And the responsibility.
Today my hair is short, my heels low, and makeup optional. I’m still figuring out what any of it represents. But I know one thing:
I want to be like Declan.
I want to be like chocolate, melting on his tongue.
Suzanne DeWitt Hall is the author of the Where True Love Is devotional series, the Living in Hope series of books supporting the loved ones of transgender people, The Language of Bodies (Woodhall Press, 2022), and the Rumplepimpleadventures.