Outside my high school in Indiana in the late ’90s, a kid asked me if I was a lesbian. I was 15 and had a haircut my mom called “pixie.” My theatre friends called it “butch,” and, on this particular afternoon, I was dressed like a boy.
“I’m not a lesbian,” I answered. “I like boys.” I paused, found my courage, and added, “too.” He asked if I was bisexual, and I said, “I don’t like labels.”
I met my friend Caleb in the theatre department of his high school before he changed his name to Caleb. We didn’t become close friends until years later, after he’d started testosterone. When he changed his name, I asked him if “Caleb” meant anything.
“Not really,” he said, “but it feels more right than Carrie.”
I picked “Jade” because it means jade. If I’d picked something like “Dylan” or “Lennon,” that would have been a statement. Elvis Costello did this, and it worked for him, but that’s because he does what he does. I do what I do — and wanted a name that was what it was.
“Sylvan” means what it means. “Jade” and “Sylvan” are both English words for real things. Jade, a rock and a color; Sylvan, something in/of the forest. One noun and one adjective, or maybe two adjectives. In the phone book (when there were phone books), it would read “Sylvan, Jade” and would mean “a rock in/of the forest.” In normal American order, individual to family, my name was “a green forest.” Nothing more or less romantic than that.
But then there’s jade: talismans, idols, exotic half-nude beauties in veils, ancient China. There’s sylvan: wood elves, saddhus, girls in fairy-tale rape parables. When I tell people my name or hear it spoken, it still feels heavy and clunky, associations flying everywhere. If I could have chosen a name that meant nothing — without the connotations of “Nothing” — I would have.
In French, “jade” means jade. In the English-speaking United States, the name Jade is uncommon enough to intrigue, but not so uncommon that it takes strangers more than a couple of repetitions to hear it when meeting a Jade. In France it’s one of the names they print on souvenir key chains of pink Eiffel Towers. When I learned how to pronounce it in French (soft “j,” flat “a,” afterthought of “e” diphthong after hard “d”), I needed to say it only once before people nodded and replied, “Enchanté(e), Jade.”
I liked the word “queer” because it meant “unique” and started with a “q” (what word starts with “q”?) and felt lighter than “bisexual.” It didn’t have the word “sexual” in it, for one thing. It didn’t carry a hundred sexy sociopathic film villains in the spaces between its syllables.
When I told my mom I called myself queer, she said in her generation, “queer” was like saying “fag.” I explained reclamation and she nodded and said, “That’s nice. I just won’t say it.”
When I told my mom I called myself Jade and that the government now called me Jade, she was quiet, like I’d rejected a much-pondered Christmas present. It took her a while, but she calls me Jade to my face now. To my dad or my grandma she calls me Jen(ny/i) still, but this is for them and not for her. She writes “Jade” on my Christmas presents. She gives me jade necklaces and earrings.
When I was young and called myself Jenny, it didn’t feel right. I picked Jade not because it felt right, but because it meant what it meant. When I call myself Jade or someone else calls me Jade, it still doesn’t feel right.
When I was with Thade, I called myself Jeni and I mostly referred to myself as queer or bi. When we started dating, I had slept with two men and three women. Sometimes when we’d go out, he would dress up like a woman, shaved legs and all, and I would dress up like a man, bound chest and all. Sometimes when I was with Thade, I would sleep with women. Sometimes he was OK with this, and sometimes he pretended he was. I had never had what I would label a “relationship” with a woman. Sometimes during and after the period I was with Thade, I called myself straight just because I’d only had “relationships” with men. When I called myself straight and had sex with women, I felt like a bad person.
When I was with Will, I called myself Jade and I mostly referred to myself as straight. Will was tall and played baseball, and when we met he pursued me like I’d read about guys doing in my friends’ issues of Cosmo at slumber parties. He even grilled me a steak. When we went out he always wore the suit jacket and I always wore the little black dress. I never slept with women while we were dating. For a long time after we broke up, I had sex with both men and women, but it was a while before I called myself queer again. When I did begin calling myself queer again, I’d had more penises against my bare skin than vaginas. When I called myself queer and had had more penises than vaginas against my skin, I felt like a bad person.
When I’ve had to write about myself and call myself “she” or “her,” it doesn’t feel right — in my head I hear a genderless voice, somewhere between and/or outside of “she” and “he” and “her” and “him.”
Caleb and I are 30 now. He’s going bald, and I have a Bob Dylan haircut that’s a statement.
I used to tell him I would transition one day, since I didn’t know how to be an unpathetic older woman and it was much easier to envision being a cool older guy. Caleb yelled at me for this. He said it was much more important for me to stay female and reclaim “she” and “her,” to show people the different ways “she” and “her” can be. I said, that’s easy for him to say.
This essay is an excerpt from Jade Sylvan’s forthcoming book, Kissing Oscar Wilde, from Write Bloody Press.