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Emily VanDerWerff

Apr 06 2018

5 min read


So I have the most compartmentalized brain in the history of humankind, due to a bunch of factors you almost certainly wouldn't care about, readers who are mostly (though not exclusively!) me. This is one of the reasons I spent a lot of time believing I wasn't trans, and why I'm still sort of half convinced I'm going to get about a month into this and be, like, "Well, womanhood was fun, but I think I'll go back to the male privilege. Thanks, folks."

The point is that I hide stuff from myself really, really well. This has been a help in some ways, because while I'm at work or something, a portion of my brain, without me really knowing, is solving problems in a story I'm trying to write in my free time, and when I get off work, that portion of my brain hands it off, and we go to town. So the second I said to my therapist, "I want to explore if I'm trans," a part of my brain that had been diligently working away for my entire life stepped in to say, "You are, and here are some documents we've been preparing. Good luck."

And the most important thing was that my name was Emily. No, not was. I get to use "is" now. Sparingly.

As near as I can tell, this is a decision I made when I was 7 or thereabouts, when I was obsessed with Patricia Reilly Giff's Polk Street School books. They were sweetly charming short chapter books for young readers, designed to transition them from picture books to weightier material, and it's because of them that I know a surprising amount about James K. Polk. They had two protagonists, which they alternated between. The first was a boy named Matthew, also known as Beast, who had been held back and was bigger and taller than the other students and embarrassed about that fact. Beast was just fine. I didn't mind him, but I certainly didn't connect with him, as someone who thought she was one of the smarter kids in her class and all that. (I am using female pronouns, but it's still kind of a struggle, so apologies to myself if I slip up.)

But the other protagonist, funny and winning and smart, her name was Emily, and I immediately both fell in love with her and wanted to be her, which is a pattern I've repeated throughout my life since.

I vividly remember that Book Emily had a pink party dress she was obsessed with, and my kid brain was also, like, whoa, wouldn't it be cool to have a pink party dress? When I expressed this idea to my best friend at recess, he was just sort of, like, "Cool!" but I could tell he had no idea where to put it. I didn't really either, and I think even then I knew if I expressed that idea to my parents, they would not be too happy about it.

But the name Emily stuck. I evidently hung onto it all these years, and now a handful of trusted friends and advisors call me that, from time to time, and it always feels like an atom bomb going off, and my vision goes a little fuzzy. There's a power to it that makes me want to hide under a chair, and I presume, as I get more used to it, that will lessen. But right now, it's almost too much. I have to refer to Emily as another person still, even though I know she's not.

THE OTHER THING, though, is that 7-year-old me was an idiot, because while Emily is a perfectly pretty name, there are roughly 500 Emilys on every city block in the United States. I get that 7-year-olds aren't that bright, but I really couldn't have chosen something more unusual? For a couple of days after my realization, I tried to make a few other names stick, but no dice. I'm Emily. Always have been. I'm stuck with it now.

I am a vaguely public person. I'm not, like, Barack Obama or anything, but I'm known enough that if I come out to the world at large, it will have to involve some degree of, like, publicity management. And because of that, I have to trundle along with my old name, one I never much liked but one that has been very good to me, for at least a little while longer. But it increasingly feels like a fossil. I don't hate it. I don't have the visceral reaction to it that some trans people do (yet, at least), but it does feel like it's become trapped in amber, attached to someone I'm moving away from. I'm trying to celebrate and mourn him, at least a little bit, because he was a good guy. But he lives in past tense now, and a little more with every day.


I am a transwoman or whatever. This is mostly a journal to myself, but you can read it if you want, because I feel like radical honesty is sometimes the best policy, and if I ever come out more widely, I can just, like, point my family to these mad ramblings. I'm obviously not named Emily Sandalwood, because lol, whose last name is Sandalwood? Anyway, you can respond to this, and I will look at your reply and nod sagely and probably never write back, or you can follow me on Twitter, where I am extremely funny. tinyletter

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