cavar, sarah, & the they we are

Several patches of sweetgrass, in the center of which stands a sign labeled "Hierochloe odorata."

So, my name. I haven’t changed it. I’ve kind of just… moved it around and attempted, maybe in vain, to reprioritize things. Perhaps that’s enough of a change to warrant the label “name change,” but I’m so self-conscious, both about becoming someone I thought I wouldn’t be, and (relatedly) about becoming a cliché.*

Though I dislike the passive voice, I’ll say that I have “been asked” before why I haven’t changed my name yet. Yet, as if the mythic name-change is this necessary element of trans teleology, a step without which I’d surely plummet back toward cisness, never again to grasp the trappings of true trans. That’s certainly how it seemed when, shortly after my top surgery, a nurse asked if I’d decided on a new name (yet). Yet.

All this in the wake of the consultation question: so, honey, is that your preferred name? 

Yes, I said. It’s my name.

During the initial consult, they misgendered me both as a “he” and as a “she.” Though I appreciated the variety, it was clear that deep-seated cissexism belied their performance of niceness, done through the language of “love” and “honey,” genres of misgendering all their own.

And now this, the yet, an axe hanging over my head, the implication that, transness aside, someday I’d be normal. I tell this story often because it changed the way I thought about being trans-among-others. I realized that, even in receiving “gender-affirming” care, cisnormative predictive impulses still remove my autonomy. The trans I choose to cultivate is one of radical choice, from body composition to social affiliation. It is not a trans to which I was, by some accident of birth, condemned, but a framework I’ve since taken up to live a satisfying and intellectually rigorous life. Trans is the way I think, move, and connect with others. The imposition of transnormative narratives that seek to essentialize and regulate true-transness erase the very goals my gender works toward.

It’s this, I realize now, that I resent: the cisnormative predictive impulse that removes my autonomy.

Aside from others’ questions and assumptions, I had and have no particular issues with my name. I mean, it was the second-most popular girls’ name in 1998, behind only “Emily.” My undergraduate institution, populated overwhelmingly by people born between 1996-2000, held a predictable surfeit of Sarahs. As a kid, I found my name boring, but never doubted it was mine, only playing around with new names like “Melody” or “Clover” for fun. I poured over baby name books, but made lists of what I’d name my future children, not what I’d rename myself.

My baby name obsession faded by the time I was a teenager, while my appreciation for my own name grew. My parents, I learned, had worked hard to select a name that would serve me well in a social milieu plagued by name discrimination. They bully-proofed the words “Sarah Lynn Cavar” in all possible initialisms, combinations, and shortened forms. I realized that “Sarah” was more than just a word they’d selected for the girl they thought I was: it grew and shifted to embody all that I and every other Sarah could be.

In high school, I gathered two new names. My Chinese teacher named me 曹晴, a name I continue to use in Chinese-speaking settings today. Teachers and some students, both in seriousness and in jest, began calling me “Cavar,” too. In college, I became “Sarah Cavar” amid an unwieldy number of other Sarahs, but was still just Sarah on my own. As my life has changed, the name has travelled with me, albeit in modified forms. It’s gone from a site of predictable girlhood to a surprise, a site of critique, and a conversation-starter between myself and people of all genders and backgrounds. It’s twenty-one years of who I am.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about severance, and not just Ling Ma’s eerily-prophetic pandemic novel of the same name. In terms of COVID, I’ve been thinking about our severance from a still-recent past. In January I made recreational runs to Target, coffee in one hand while the other flicked through book pages, sticker packets, and clearance racks. I didn’t Lysol-wipe my cup before consuming and tried on clothes without a second thought. I thoughtlessly held the handles of my shopping basket in the same hand that touched my face.

I’ve been on one trip to Target since March. I attempted to look at the dollar section as I used to, but the whole event felt poisoned. I entered only aisles with few or no people in them. January Sarah seems another person entirely. The social conditions under which January Sarah lived their life are now alien. January Sarah bewilders me. January Sarah did things I wouldn’t hesitate to condemn today. There is a distance between pre-COVID Sarah and post-COVID Sarah that I don’t think I’ll ever fully cross. There’s a detachment between me and the person who dreamed of WWOOFing this summer, of getting another tattoo. That’s a distance I don’t think either of us will cross. Sometimes I want to sever that person from my archive of self; for a moment, forgetting feels better than all this grief.

A parallel (though not pandemic-initiated) desire for severance drives many trans name-changes. For Mario Martino, a trans man whose autobiography I examined in my thesis and in this essay, a name change signified the “emergence” of a new person. “Now, it was Mario,” he said, abandoning the erroneously-named woman fruitlessly demanded of him. By changing his name, Martino marked his former self as false and inherently-sick (dysphoric). Thus, in pursuit of cure, Martino needed to excise all evidence of his false-identity. Identifying the connection between this false-person and the man he was (to become)** as inherently “sick” (dysphoric), he condemned his past along with the identifying markers that made it so.

Genders and personal names have a lot in common. Both appear at first glance to refer to individuals, but in fact refer to the complex social relationships out of which we extract an imagined “individual self.” I am told that Sarah is me, but Sarah is the me my parents marked, the one people in my life re-mark. Without these processes, the self I am wouldn’t be. Gender works the same way: I became a girl when the gender-language of girlhood attached me to the world I lived in. Indeed, I was: I willingly used (and, as all gendered subjects, was used by) this language as an avenue of personal, legal, and medical communication. Likewise, “Sarah” became the way I made myself known to those around me, and the way those people, in turn, hailed me. I become myself in that moment, one that is not only intersubjective but also laden with cultural and historical context.

Transmedical essentialism (and, by extension, the cisheteropatriarchal medico-legal system that enables it) has a vested interest in obfuscating the relationality and cultural-contingency of gender. It rejects “wrong” names in favor of “right” ones without critically interrogating what, exactly, made those names wrong and why the specific changes Martino made could “fix” them. What is it about Mario that carries him from “F” to “M”? Are these changes mutually-constitutive, or did the name change itself herald the crossing? These are questions a severance-model precludes us from asking, simply throwing one’s lived experience into the dustbin, just as “history” we believe uncivilized or archaic turns to “myth”. 

Part of sexgender essentialism is replacing the complex radically-relational nature of identity with a hyper-simplistic view, one in which a person is only “man” if they slough off every crumb of “girl” they’ve ever known.

I fully accept that no alternative to full severance was available to Martino as he wrote. Conditions at the time required him to vocally and unambiguously reject all the trappings of womanhood as evidence that he deserved access to biomedical intervention. A man who acknowledged a multi-gender history was not a legible man at all. For many trans people, this is still the case, and the carriage of names and pronouns and pasts and complex feelings calls their-our authenticity into question. Part of sexgender essentialism is replacing the complex radically-relational nature of identity with a hypersimplistic view, one in which a person is only “man” if they slough off every crumb of “girl” they’ve ever known, in this case, sever the tie between Mario and the dysphoric stranger he once was.

The tired model trans-severance I just described, I should note, is only necessary if we believe that:

  1. there exists a “true” identity inside each of us that need only be diagnostically-excavated
  2. that this “true” identity necessarily precludes the existence of conflicting identificatory information
  3. that the presence of such conflicting information renders one’s chosen identity inherently-untrue, and
  4. that, in any case, any hope of identificatory veracity rests on our ability to distance ourselves from the “false past” as much as humanly possible.

I believe none of these things, so I carve anew.

Here I return to my own name (finally!). I’m Sarah inasmuch as Sarah will always be a part of me. I’m unwilling and unable to sever the girl from myself. As a girl, I could become anything, including a gender entirely-new. There is a continuity between she and me that it would be irresponsible for me to ignore, especially given that, under different social conditions, she could have ended up as a different gender than I am now. When I’m Sarah, I bring her into conversation, I open space for her in my trans. My life is the result of her life, and that name connects us across spacetime.

At the same time, our relationship is personal. It’s aggressive; it’s dually-wounded. The people who’ve known Sarah for a long time have known a constellation of selves, none untrue but many unindicative of who I am now. The people with whom I feel best about using this name are those who I know See me, allow me to coexist in internal contradiction. Sarah is circular when they use it. It’s an infinite space. A whole one.

But I’m Cavar, too! Cavar is my professional-social relationship to myself. If and when people cite me, which I certainly hope they do, I’ll be Cavar. Cavar is gender-ambiguous in ways that, around relative-strangers and acquaintances, makes me feel seen in the ways that I need to be seen. As I said before, names have relational power, they conjure and constitute us as persons among others. It isn’t a question of “correct” or “incorrect,” but instead of both respect and self-reflection. Each of us must decide, to the extent that we can, the frameworks through which we’re known, because these frameworks discursively and materially impact the persons we become. Disrespect of this signifies a disrespect of our subjectivities –– deadnaming and misgendering are more than triggers of dysphoric “symptoms,” they are acts of epistemic violence. They claim to know the languages of us in ways we are ineligible to know ourselves.

Each of us must decide, to the extent that we can, the frameworks through which we’re known, because these frameworks discursively and materially impact the persons we become. Disrespect of this signifies a disrespect of our subjectivities –– deadnaming and misgendering are more than triggers of dysphoric “symptoms,” they are acts of epistemic violence.

It’s with all of these weighty implications on my mind that I’ve decided to use “Cavar” in unfamiliar situations, unless I am specifically using my full name. To put it simply, you may call me “Cavar” when you would formerly have said “Sarah,” but I will (at least for now) continue publishing as “Sarah Cavar.” It seems apt, anyway, considering how much of me I put onto the page! Cavar Sarah, Cavar [Sarah], Cavar, and other creative combinations are welcome and encouraged. Names are about relationships, meaning we get to be in this together!

I’ll close by citing the work that deeply informs not only this post but the way I now live my life. Several months ago, I first listened to “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which easily ranks among the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. In it, Kimmerer (though perhaps she’d prefer to be called Robin, or something else entirely?) discusses the ways that names foretell and enact (non-)intimacies, comparing the names used to scientifically classify flora to their Potawatomi names. In an interview, which I excerpt below, she discusses the trans-formative power of names, their capacity to verb us to each other [italics mine]:

Q. One of the other things that really appealed to me, and again that I keep dipping back to certain parts of the book, is the importance of naming. […] You say in the book, “When we call a place by its name, it is transformed from wilderness to homeland.” I thought that was a really powerful thought. Also, just talk about that and also about the names—I guess the animacy, right, the “grammar of animacy,” you call it.

A. Oh, I’d love to. Yes. Naming has so much deep meaning beyond just the words that we stick onto something, right, because naming is a way, I think, that we form relationship. Very active learning somebody’s name. If you have a neighbor whose name that you’ve chosen not to learn, right, that’s a sign of disrespect or, “I don’t expect to be engaged with you. I don’t need to know your name because we have no relationship.”

But when you learn someone’s name, it’s an invitation. It’s an invitation to know one another, and to help each other, to celebrate together, to have a real exchange[.]

This (k)new name, for me, is not a tie-cut but an invitation. If I am a house, Sarah means you’re sitting inside, in a way Cavar does not fully grasp. At the same time, Cavar is an invitation, too, to view me as a writer and scholar. My names let me parse the relationships and experiences that make me who “I” am; relational and experiential integration is crucial to my trans politic.

I, like all others, have the power to exist contradictorily and simultaneously in many languages at once. I long avoided introducing new names for fear of mischaracterizing the Sarahs I’ve been and their impact on me now. Today, though, I’m a lineage of Cavars and Sarahs collapsed into a body that needs more than one name. I am pleased to have the language to introduce all of myself.

* It’s important to note here that I don’t consider trans name changes in and of themselves to be clichéd –– they’re very common for reasons that should be obvious. I’m referring to peoples’ expectations that I, along with others, would eventually “cave” and change my name to something, they say, more gender neutral, in spite of my ideological choice not to do so.

** Paradoxically, transmedicalists assert that true-trans subjects have always been this way and that true-transness relies on a differential medical diagnosis alone. Schrödinger’s trans, etc.

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