Which is the better rap name: “Aubrey Graham” or “Drake?”
Which name sounds like it belongs to a stylish actress and model: “Amanda Lee Rogers” or “Portia de Rossi?”
For some artists, their birth name matches their brand. Beyoncé was given her name at birth in tribute to her mother’s maiden name. If you’re at all familiar with her work, you know that family is very important to her. It’s a key part of her brand. Other artists choose a name that fits their brand. “50 Cent” sounds like the name of a hustler – someone who provides by any means – while “Curtis James Jackson III” sounds like someone you’d read about in history class.
For transgender folks like myself, the idea behind a chosen name is similar. If our given names don’t match who we really are, we choose our own. Christian Carmen Olivia Jane is the legal name I chose for myself. Four first names to fit the four very different personalities that make me who I am.
Jane is the preppy bougie white woman in me. This is the girl that wants to exist and be happy. Most people don’t see her in me because she’s the one who’s not necessarily supposed to be seen, but rather subtly felt. She’s sort of basic. She’s the one that keeps me qualified as normal to the rest of society. Jane is the Sex and the City girl who loves cosmos and rolls her eyes when people sit too close to her on the subway. Jane and Olivia are the ones who expect the car doors to be opened for them. Jane because she thinks she’s rich and opening the door for her should be common sense, and Olivia because she’s that bad.
Olivia is the “bad bitch” herself. The fixer. The get-it-done girl. The professional whose wardrobe is as enviable as her work ethic. She’s perhaps the most confident of the four girls. Kanye West taught her that confidence, because we all know nobody loves Kanye like Kanye. Beyoncé was talking about Olivia when she said, “She don’t got to give it up cause she’s professional.” She’s put together and knows how to save face. She’s the one that smiles and laughs when it feels like someone is ripping out her insides. Her presidential (sometimes fake) smile is what everyone recognizes about her. My famous “strut,” “prance,” or “runway walk” that makes everyone on the streets, in subways, in airports, and department stores stop in admiration was stolen from Olivia. Olivia is able to glide through a room so gracefully and with such confidence and power, it grants her respect. When people stop to compliment her walk or humorously ask for walking lessons, she’s always sort of taken aback because that walk was so ingrained into her identity she no longer notices it.
Carmen is the fiery flamboyant life of the party. Carmen is a bit stubborn. She’s humorous, beautiful, and sexy. She is also fairly confident (not as confident as Olivia, but close). My loud quirky uncontrolled laugh belongs to her. This is the girl who isn’t afraid to speak what’s on her mind and she’ll say pretty much anything to anyone. Much of what I wear is influenced by her and Olivia. She is the flirtatious one of the bunch and could be caught in curve hugging silhouettes that showed off her legs and hugged her butt. She dresses this way without even realizing it. Carmen is confident, perhaps delusionally confident. But, when you’ve had a life like mine, delusional confidence is the key to survival.
Christian is similar to a reincarnated real-life Carrie Bradshaw… but black, and trans, and a size 6 – not a 2. She’s a combination of Jane, Olivia, and Carmen. A little love sick, a bit stuck up, stubborn, and guarded. She’s afraid and fearless at the same. One of her theme songs is “Love Me” by Lil Wayne, because Carmen, Olivia, and Jane were everything she could ever ask for. “I don’t know what I would do without ya’ll. Imma ball til the day I fall, as long as my bitches love me.” She’s the most insecure and unsure of all of the girls. Christian is the only one that feels pain. She’s the messy, clumsy, off kilter combination of the other three girls. The most uncoordinated and hardest to define – which I guess makes her the most human.
Set to Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer,” I had this reoccurring dream: I’d wake up to the these four individual girls Christian, Carmen, Olivia and Jane, having the time of their lives driving down strip in Vegas. Las Vegas was a land of magic and wonder… A place where anything goes and secrets stayed secrets. It was the only place I’d ever fantasized about all four women together living their fullest selves – exactly who they were and wanted to be in their fullest existence. “Die for each other.” Their identities masked by the night, but thrived in the bright lights that lit the iconic skyline. These are the only moments where the imagery of each girl was clear to me. They were able to run free and be seen in the city of freedom and pleasure.
I used to wonder if I was a little mad. How could anyone who experienced what I’ve experienced at only twenty four not be a little mad or mentally unstable? It reminds me of a concept I learned in psychology back in college: Dissociative Identity Disorder. DID, as it is referred to for short, is a disorder characterized by the presence of multiple distinct personalities, two or more. The aspect of dissociation is thought to be a coping mechanism where a person literally dissociates themselves from a situation or experience far too violent traumatic or painful to assimilate with the conscious self. Being black, a woman, and transgender in today’s world is definitely violent, traumatic and painful. Is my subconscious trying to find a way to cope? Could I be a victim of this disorder?
I’d always been told that my being is the only thing I had control over. It’s maybe the reason I am so obsessed with my appearance and my personal physical transition – because when we are powerless we tend to get crazy with the things we do control. I’m sure my obsession with fashion came about through a need to distract and control and love. Through fashion, I was able to do all of those things. I fondly remember going into high-end department stores alone and trying expensive designer looks, flipping through pages of Vogue as a preteen listening to Gaga’s “Fashion” from the Confessions of Shopaholic soundtrack. It lifted my spirit. It set me free. It allowed me to escape the trauma temporarily, but none the less it was an escape. For those moments in which I allowed fashion to take over my life, I was whoever I wanted to be. Fashion was how I had control and kept balance and as I grew older I realized it was how I expressed and validated my gender. A validation I needed because the world worked to make sure it didn’t validate me.
As a senior in high school, I was obsessed with the Pussycat Dolls. Carmen loves the Pussycat Dolls, specifically their hit single “When I Grow Up” – which celebrates the glitz, glam, and excess of fame. Indulge me for a while and picture it with me; my name in lights: CHRISTIAN CARMEN OLIVIA JANE. It sounds like narcissism, but I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as almost a sort of reparations for such a traumatic and undeserving past. I lived through the hurt the pain the misfortune and this is the way for the universe to balance everything out.
One friend always made fun of me, reminded, and sometimes shamed me for referring to the relationship between me and my onlookers as a celebrity and the paparazzi. While a certain level of vanity perhaps did play into that response, it was a way I managed to cope with being objectified, gawked at, and in some cases chased down in admiration. It was a humorous reminder of those memes you see on social media “me” (always someone fabulous doing something fabulous) and “you” (always some laborer, peasant, foolish, or desperate looking person).
I used to say I am becoming the woman I always wanted to be. But I was wrong. I am becoming the person I always wanted to be – beyond my womanhood, beyond my blackness, beyond my queerness. I am growing in mind and body and, while I would never have had the courage to wish some of the lessons I have learned on myself, I am able to recognize, like Kanye, “that that don’t kill me can only make me stronger.” I don’t know what the final chapter is, because I am hoping this is not all life has to offer me.
When people asked me “How do you do it all?”, for years I didn’t know the answer – simply because I didn’t have the luxury of taking time to ponder how I managed to do it all. But, after demanding and allowing time for myself to understand and reflect on whom I am today, I know with certainty the only way I am able to do it all is with Christian, Carmen, Olivia, and Jane.