I can only control how I perceive myself, and I have learned that creating multiple names and alter egos can be very therapeutic.
By Kenny Me
“Hi, my name is…”
While a simple sentence, I struggle with this introduction, because whatever name I utter defines who I will be to the other person moving forward. As a nonbinary person, this can be both mentally taxing and socially dysphoric.
Social dysphoria pertains to disorientation caused by the social mapping of gender assumptions onto someone. For example, I am read as a woman because I was assigned female at birth. While I do not experience gender dysphoria when I menstruate (because I do not see menstruation as a gendered experience), the projection of womanhood onto me because I menstruate is what causes disorientation for me. Social dysphoria is rooted in the understanding of gender as a social construct and is often exacerbated by gendered language, spaces, and biological essentialism.
Most of my social dysphoria stems from my dead name, which is both gendered as “female” and extremely white. Growing up in the white suburbs, I could name all the Asian kids at my school on one hand. Over the years, I developed a fear of obscurity, and internalizing my “otherness” deeply impacted my sense of self, to the point where I believed my face was unrecognizable and insignificant. I have never related to my birth name, even before I was able to articulate my gender identity, because of forced assimilation. I kept the beginning letter of my dead name and started going by K four years ago. K operated mostly as a placeholder while I searched for the “perfect” new name; only this year did I begin exploring Kenny as a new name.
I continue to struggle with being “trans enough,” because my access to being affirmed as a trans and nonbinary person fluctuates with my gender presentation. When I presented as femme with long hair and makeup, people did not see or validate me as nonbinary, and conflated my femmeness with womanhood. This led me to believe I had passing privilege (the privilege of passing as cisgender). However, I came to learn that passing privilege is not a material reality, because gender is subjective. Passing is predicated on the eye of the beholder — of the perception of those who hold social and systemic power.
I considered transitioning earlier this year, but when I learned top surgery was inaccessible for me, I attempted to make peace with a haircut instead – you know, that andro/fuckboy/soft butch one that makes everyone think twice about their sexuality. With a pair of clippers, I jumped from being “femme” to being “masc.” It was astounding to witness immediately being read as trans and queer, simply because of the assumptions associated with my gender presentation. This made me realize I had misinterpreted my social dysphoria as body dysphoria. I did not actually want to transition; I simply wanted to be affirmed in my own gender (or lack thereof).
Operating as a perceived transmasculine person soon became disorienting as well. To me, my hair reflects nothing, and yet, I found that it held the power to dictate my visibility. People stopped questioning my queerness, and I felt more visibly “gay.” I became more exposed to the D-slur, even though I don’t identify as such. People assumed I had a (cis) girlfriend, when I have only ever dated nonbinary people and trans men. My gender still felt misrepresented. Out of a continued dissatisfaction of how people were reading me, I shaved my head, in hopes of achieving that “true neutral” look I so desperately wanted people to see.
Coping with Alter Egos
At this point, I know mainstream society will never truly see me. I can wear a full face of makeup and be addressed “sir” without the other person batting an eye. I can only control how I perceive myself, and I have learned that creating multiple names and alter egos can be very therapeutic.
Jade: Chaotic Evil
Jade emerged from a night out wearing a silk dress, robe, and purse. Stepping out, I realized that Kenny could not match the aesthetic or energy. Jade is sleek, reserved, and sexy. They bask in the femme top aura people used to project on me because of my presentation and Aries directness. Everyone wants to get with Jade, but they’re only accepting applications from glucose guardians. At most, Jade will step on your neck with knee-high boots and then blow you a pink-lipped kiss while strolling away.
Tommy: Lawful Good
On days where I feel an uncanny resemblance to my brother, I refer to myself as Tommy. Tommy channels a masculine energy associated with earthy browns, forest greens, and navy blues. Even though they mean well, Tommy has a short temper – goodhearted, but immature. Tommy’s masculinity is also very specific to one that attracts cis gay men. Catch Tommy bouncing around in a backward hat, hoodie, overalls, and squeaky-clean Air Forces.
Kenny: True Neutral
Even now, my chosen name doesn’t roll off my own tongue smoothly. People claim to “mishear,” because they don’t expect me to have a traditionally “male” name. Some people even assume I am a cisgender man before meeting me. Kenny keeps you guessing with intermittent drops of femme, masc, and everything between and beyond. With or without cat eyes, Kenny always draws up a tomboyish look you can’t quite place – crop top, oversized button-down, and fishnet tights; baggy t-shirt and leather skirt; heavy glitter and comfy flannel; silver chain and camo pants; suit, veil, and heels.
Embracing Kenny as my new name is my fourth cycle of “coming out” (first as queer, then nonbinary, then as K). There is no magical end where my social dysphoria is conclusively cured, but Tommy, Jade, and Kenny remind me that my fluidity does not make me confused about my gender. My alter egos allow me to creatively express myself through corporeal representations of my different energies and aesthetics. Jade makes me feel less incongruent with my past self, and they teach me how to embrace nonbinary femininity. Tommy encourages me to explore and reinvent what masculinity means to me. Kenny combats ugly feelings I have towards my body.
Names hold the power of ownership. For me, namelessness provoked a liminal space where I felt like I was grasping fists of air. Now, I have three names, and who says I can’t have more?
Kenny (IG: @feizhuliu__) is a gender bender, writer, model, classically trained pianist, and community organizer based in Washington, DC. Their framework of change is rooted in harm reduction, cultural organizing, and collective care. Kenny works to destroy all cistems with P0STB1NARY, a Black and NBPOC-led arts collective, platform, and network showcasing gender expansive talent.