"Call Me Caitlyn": Naming a New Self
How central are our names to our identities? The cover of the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair magazine offers a clue. The athlete and reality tv personality formerly known as Bruce Jenner introduces her new female identity to the world with three simple words, "Call Me Caitlyn."
A name change can represent a profound turning point for a transgender person. Choosing that name is every bit as complicated as choosing a baby name, but the considerations can be different. Many people look for names that echo the sound of their old names. That can help create continuity for others, and for themselves; we're all deeply conditioned to respond to our own names. Some in transition opt for an androgynous name to facilitate a gradual shift or non-binary identification. Others prefer a strongly gendered name to leave no doubt about their new identity. As with baby names, each name sends rich messages.
The message sent by Caitlyn is on most levels disarmingly ordinary. It's not a flashy celebrity name, but a girl-next-door name. Cheerful, popular, and mainstream, Caitlyn is one of the most well-liked names of its generation. That's not so surprising for a transgender name choice. An "ordinary" name is a natural approach if you want to fit in, rather than stand out. The kicker is the generation part.
Bruce Jenner was born in 1949, at the popularity peak of the name Bruce. The name Caitlyn peaked in 1998, making the typical Caitlyn a 17-year-old high school junior. The name didn't even show up for the first time until decades after Jenner was born. To put it simply, you will not meet anyone else of her age named Caitlyn.
For some background, Caitlyn is one of many variations on the Irish Gaelic name Caitlín. The Irish name is pronounced koit-HLEEN or kotch-LEEN, and its anglicized version is the old favorite Kathleen. But some English-speaking parents who saw Caitlín written down pronounced it as if it were English, and ended up with "KAYT-lin." That led to new spellings like Katelynn. Together, the many spellings became a big part of baby name style from the 1980s-2000s, and inspired similar names like Kaylin.
What would a comparable name from Jenner's own generation look like? As it happens, the #1 best statistical match for the historical popularity of Bruce is...Kathleen.
Try taking a look at the Vanity Fair photos and picturing the woman you see as a Kathleen. The people I've asked all say that the name seems like a natural fit. It's possible, in fact, that the outside world would have had an easier time adjusting to the generationally typical name Kathleen Jenner. But Caitlyn Jenner is how she saw herself.
The gender transition process is sometimes described as making your outer self match your inner self. The name Caitlyn would seem to match an inner self much younger than Jenner's years. If she's chasing youth, of course, she's hardly alone. How many 60-something Hollywood celebrities eagerly embrace aging? More broadly, it's unrealistic to expect anyone to use 1949 fashion sense to choose a 2015 name. We name ourselves as we dress ourselves, based on the style of the here and now.
If anything, the name Caitlyn suggests a generational limbo, a frozen point in time. It isn't native to Caitlyn Jenner's generation, but neither is it quite of this fashion moment. Jenner has said that she first took steps to become a woman back in the 1980s. I wouldn't be surprised if she considered the name Caitlyn back then, when it was a fresh new hit, and has been living with it privately ever since. If so, it's a both a fitting and poignant choice: the seven-letter embodiment of a decades-long dream to be fresh and new, and to be the girl who Bruce never got to be.