When I was born, my parents named me Deborah Leigh. At first, the plan was for my real name, the one that people used, to be Leigh. However, I was uncooperative, even as an infant and toddler. You see, I had no hair. When I was two, I had some hair. But I definitely did not have girl’s hair; simply because it had not grown long, it looked like it had been cut into a boy’s style. My parents have told me that strangers would see me and say something along the lines of “What a cute baby! And what’s your name?” Many of you will recognize this as code for “I can’t tell if you’re a boy or a girl, so I need your parents to tell me your name. I can’t ask them, though, because I don’t know which pronoun to use!” People who ask this question in this way are hoping for, and expecting, a nicely unambiguous name: Abigail or Adam, Isabelle or Isaac. Not a name like Leigh. After all, it is Leigh (girl) or Lee (boy)?
After a while, my parents decided to take pity on these unfortunate strangers, on themselves, and on me: They started calling me Debbie. Although they did not change my legal name, they effectively changed my real name. They had this right. They were my parents, and I was too young to know or care.
I was Debbie throughout my childhood and college years. Then I moved across country for graduate school, and several factors combined to motivate me to make a change. I didn’t want to be Debbie anymore. I wanted to be Deborah. Sure, I gave metaphorical passes to those who had known me as Debbie—I always will be Debbie to my parents, my siblings, and most of my friends from my youth. I will be Debbie to those who meet me through these individuals; I don’t expect people who have heard of me only as “my daughter/sister/friend Debbie” and who never have heard me referred to as Deborah to call me Deborah. But to the majority of people in my life now, I am Deborah. Even some of those who knew me as Debbie have made the change, out of respect for my choice or out of recognition that Deborah is, in many ways, a different person than Debbie was. So I effectively changed my real name. I had this right. It’s my name.
Throughout my remembered life, however, others have tried to change my name. When I was Debbie, they called me Deb. When I became Deborah, some (who never knew me as Debbie) called me Debbie, but more continued to call me Deb.
What’s the big deal, you may ask. It’s just a shortened form of your name. The big deal is that it is not my name. It doesn’t matter that it’s a form of it, or that it’s similar. It is not my name.
I’ve lost count of how many times in television and movies, I’ve heard the following interaction, or some variation thereof: We are introduced to a character; let’s call him Mark. Later, we’re introduced to another character, someone who is a jerk, or who doesn’t like Mark for some reason—someone who wants to insult Mark, or who is supposed to be perceived as extremely arrogant, inconsiderate, and unlikeable. So what exchange does this person have with Mark over and over again? Come on, you know:
“Oh, good to meet you, Mike!”
“Oh, yeah, right, right. So, let’s get down to business, Mike, here’s what we need to do.”
“My name is Mark.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. Anyway, what I was saying, Mike, is …”
There’s a reason this type of exchange is used so much in Hollywood. The refusal to acknowledge someone’s name is a powerful indicator of one’s opinion of him- or herself related to that someone. The one who refuses to acknowledge the other’s name claims superiority, claims a position of supreme authority, by claiming the right to decide the other’s name. And because names are so central to us, when someone claims the right to name you, it feels like that person is claiming the right to define you, to tell you who you are rather than accepting that you are a person separate from who that person needs or wants you to be. It is an act of supreme arrogance.
I understand that most of those who have called me “Deb” throughout the years have not meant to offend. Maybe they’ve known other Deborahs or Debbies who preferred to be called Deb, and they simply got into that habit. Maybe they’re lazy and don’t see a need to say two or three syllables when one will suffice. I would be surprised if any of them consciously believe that they are superior to me. And they all have an excuse—I have not once called anyone on this behavior and said, “No, my name is not Deb. Call me Deborah.”
That stops today.
If you are one of those who has called me by something other than my name, please understand: I am not angry with you. I should have told you before now that I prefer to be called by my name. If you think I don’t mind, if you’ve developed a habit of calling me Deb because you think that’s acceptable to me, that’s my fault. I accept responsibility for my failure to let you know clearly what I prefer.
But from now, going forward, please call me Deborah. Going forward, if you call me Deb, I will correct you. It is not in anger; it is not because you’re not special enough or close enough to me to call me Deb. It’s simply because my name is not Deb.
My name is Deborah.