I got to spend some time this week with someone I know from the Internet. In these situations, there’s a funny yet predictable thing that happens—we meet, in person, and I suddenly realize I don’t know their actual name. True, plenty of people use their real names online, but the kinds of people I tend to meet from the Internet usually use aliases.
Typically, the alias is obviously one. Even if I hadn’t known his real name, I’d figure that Josh Millard isn’t actually named “Cortex.” It’s a name, but its artificiality is clear. Occasionally you get an American McGee situation, where the real name sounds like it’s made up, but they’re rare. More likely that someone’s handle looks like a real name, if only in part—which was the case with said Internet friend. I thought I knew his real name and so carried on like I did. I was way off. There was no embarrassment in the fact, just a moment of confusion. After all, both names were him. A handle is as valid a name as any other.
Way back, when I first got on Twitter, my account actively separated my real life and my furry character. This is how it’s typically done. Most members of the community don’t want their real names connected with their alter egos, for a handful of reasons. In some cases, a real name indicates things about the person that they don’t associate with—gender, culture, etc.—while their character name is a better match in their mind.
For the majority of cases, it’s about pseudonymous separation of two lives. A chance to disassociate something they’re into, and which carries a degree of cultural skepticism and shame, from the otherwise ordinary life they lead. For people who live in highly censored or bigoted areas, names become a matter of safety. People lose jobs, lose lives for being outside the norms.
At some point, I gave enough clues on my Twitter as to my real identity, enough that I ended the separation. Most of my social media presence now has my real, legal name sitting next to a drawing of a rabbit. Two identities merged into one. I found a sense of relief when I did this; I didn’t have to keep the secret any longer. I was more ashamed to have a double life than what the life was.
People have asked if Zoe Landon is my character’s name.
Because I went to XOXO, I can connect the name Esra’a Al Shafei to an image of a real person. Her name is static, burned into my memory, but the image of her blurs with each day and each recollection. Thanks to her work and her environment, that combination, fleeting as it may be, is dangerous information. She protects it. She’s not ashamed; she’s careful.
The online trivia community LearnedLeague requires that players use handles derived from their real names. I’m LandonZ there, for example. The rationale is that it preserves a sense of honor and attaches a more significant level of shame to any act of cheating.
Recently, the community started discussing why there were so few women playing. Several theories were thrown around, some legitimate, some based on sexist assumptions. The real name policy was pointed out; with how often women are harassed online, and how often that online harassment spills over into in-person behavior, offering any information that connects an online identity with a real one can be dangerous.
The policy is yet to be changed, though the site’s owner indicated it’s not off the table.
Lisa: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
Bart: Not if you called ’em stench blossoms.
— The Simpsons
When I was with my online friend this week, along with one of his friends whom I hadn’t met before, we went to my usual pub trivia night. The team, I told them, weren’t furries, but were aware of and comfortable with the community. The two decided to abandon their aliases, the names I knew them by, and go by their real names. I didn’t prompt them to, I hadn’t thought, but the fact that they would be around ordinary people changed the context of their identities. It did come up, eventually, and they both admitted it.
“Admitted.” As though they were, or needed to be, ashamed.
As I was putting this together, a fellow furry and LearnedLeague member pinged me. Someone had connected their furry identity to their LL account. Two different names, actively kept separate, were now pointing to the same person. They were distraught.
There’s a term in the transgender community: “deadname.” It’s the name that a trans person went by when they were living as something other than their desired gender. It’s meant to emphasize how the name is no longer “alive,” how it should be buried and forgotten, the new name growing from its soil. I’m more likely to refer to mine as my “boy name” since I don’t hold much hostility towards it. I don’t wish him dead.
After getting ice cream with my friends, we started discussing our real names and our complaints with them. How someone can have three first names or a name that’s also a verb. How names beget taunts and derision, how parents can set their children up to be bullied solely through an inopportune name choice. Something that may amuse the parent can traumatize the child.
When the child is transgender, even an ordinary name can be traumatic.
I often wonder if connecting my furry persona and my real name has cost me something. I wonder if I should be ashamed of it. It’s impossible to know.
In Oregon, the petitions and paperwork to legally change your name cost a total of $117.25. It’s $5 cheaper if you don’t need a certified copy, but you’re going to need a certified copy. It also requires at least two days off work—one to file the paperwork, one to attend the hearing. Both are only accessible during weekdays. A third day is necessary for changing your name with the Social Security Administration.
For someone working a low-wage job without control over their schedule, a legal name change can be difficult to access. Name becomes a privilege.
Samir Nagheenanajar: Hmm… well, why don’t you just go by Mike instead of Michael?
Michael Bolton: No way! Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.
— Office Space
I’ve seen (but don’t believe) theories that Starbucks baristas are occasionally encouraged to spell people’s names wrong so that they share photos of the cups on Instagram or Facebook. A humorously wide error can go viral, the negative impression of the error dwarfed by the brand recognition and reminder that Starbucks exists and offers such a (sometimes flawed) personal touch.
My first name is often misspelled as Zoey. I don’t mind it.
As the three of us talked, the misspelling topic came up. I mentioned that my former surname, five letters long, had been misspelled numerous times in my life. At least once, each of those five letters had been replaced with something incorrect. Each letter, save one, provided a distinct consonant or vowel sound. To misspell the name is to fail to listen, or to fail to care.
My friend, whose name I thought I knew, asked if I would mind sharing what that surname was. I stumbled to answer, the question being an obnoxious construct of the English language where “no” is an affirmative answer—no, I don’t mind, I will share—and “yes” is the negative—yes, I do mind, I won’t share. Ultimately, I didn’t share my old name. My friends quickly respected my wishes.
Little Big Burger, a fast food restaurant in Portland, also calls out customer names when their orders are ready. If you pay cash, they ask you for your name. If you use a credit card, they don’t ask; instead, they call out the name that was on the card.
It took some time, and some phone calls, to change all of my financial accounts to my new name. The change still isn’t complete; buried within the fine print, my Chase card still calls me by my boy name. I haven’t managed to fix this. I’m looking for a different VISA provider.
I’ve seen people react negatively to Little Big Burger’s approach, forgetting that their name is attached to their card. A name is a piece of intellectual property, something that is “mine” or “yours,” something that can be endlessly given out yet, if someone shows they have it without us having given it, we feel unnerved, as though it were obtained illicitly, stolen.
We can change our names because we own them, even though we don’t control them.
I don’t share my old name because it doesn’t fit me anymore. It doesn’t describe the person I am or the life I live. But I haven’t scrubbed all of the connections between myself and my old self. I’ll often reference events from that discarded identity. I’m not ashamed of that old name; it just isn’t appropriate for me.
I still perk up when I hear my old first name called out. I’m slightly ashamed of it, the fact that I still unconsciously connect with a name I don’t want to connect with any longer. After enough time spent being identified by a name, though, it becomes a permanent part of one’s self. Just like anything else that’s deeply embedded in one’s history.
When my friends revealed their full names, I wasn’t quite able to hear them correctly. I’ve already forgotten their middle names and only recall one surname thanks to a Facebook connection. Their first names will stick with me, but whether I use that or an alias is up to them. A handle is as valid a name as any other.