I’ve come to the conclusion that no matter how many Twitter followers I nab, how many degrees I earn, or even how many times I file my taxes, when it comes to my name and the stigma that has been chewed and mashed into its dark underbelly, I still feel as if I have never left kindergarten. A perfect example of this would be in bars where the exact same rules used to traverse kindergarten have to be observed: socialize without peeing yourself, don’t bite your peers, and above all else, be aware of your name.
I honestly abhor meeting people in bars. You would think that with beer and arcade games which feature the hunting and poaching of digital deer, one could escape their childhood trauma. But no. I once had a guy recieve my name, stagger backward as if bowled over by a northeastern wind, and then grimace as if the pattern of vowel and consonant sounds in it had somehow liquefied his internal organs.
This coming from a gentleman whose middle name (and I’m not making this up) was Adolf.
Yes. Even in these small, dark havens, I find myself having to constantly restate my strangeness. I’m forced to talk over the crowd, over the light rock pouring in from the bar’s speakers, just to properly stage my name in a way that even a partially inebriated bipedal creature can understand.
“Hi. I’m Alcy.”
“Olzee. Hi Olzee. I’m Tim.”
Half of the time I’m shaking their hand thinking, Fuck you, Tim, and your perfectly pronounceable name. I can even hear it over “Freebird.”
Witnessing other people flash their names around with such ease reminds me of my struggles making friends in those early days. I firmly believe that one of the first bits of lasting social trauma Life gifts us is the first time you become your name. And before you say something smart, this does not refer to the moment you are born. The moment that you come spilling out of your host and go from “creature who holds a timeshare in that larger creature’s belly” to future Green Party member is not the moment you become your name; it’s the moment you’re given your name.
The real moment you become your name is typically in school where you become both highly aware and ashamed of your name. This is the path through which all of us must tread in order to survive the gauntlet we call the education system. Nicknames, teasing, awful times when your name pops up in a text the class is reading (“Hey, Elizabeth. Says here you got your head chopped off. Ha ha!”) all while you sift through the tenets of building an identity as a child.
School taught me that I had found myself stuck with a name that invariably prompted the go-to joke of “But Alcy’s a girl’s name.” This would follow me throughout my educational career. The teasing I understood. Even as a child, I carried with me an understanding that, just like cafeteria chicken nuggets that tasted as if they were baked inside a crusty sock, kids making fun of each other’s names were just par for the course: a necessary hurdle to slam face-first into when you’re growing up. The misgendering didn’t necessarily bother me. I never really had a grasp on what masculine meant.
For me, the real conflict arose from the adults: those who spent their time delineating the pinks from the blues, the G.I. Joes from the Malibu Barbies. Kids don’t mean much when they blurt stuff at you. Adults, on the other hand, always come prepackaged with opinions. I could see it on their faces. Just as they were cruising down that attendance call—Franklin, Harris, Hernandez, Hernandez (I’m from the Bronx, what did you expect?) and then they would slam against my name like waves on a rocky shoreline. Their eyebrows would swish and sway. Their eyes would dart around and stare at the letters like they were trying to decipher crop circles. Then they would look up at the class and squint as if trying to spot the young lady named Alcy on the roster. Sometimes I would just cut them off at the pass by throwing my hand in the air to avoid the butchering, but I wasn’t always that lucky.
I vividly recall walking into kindergarten one day and seeing that we had a new teacher. At five years old, I was so sick and tired of having to introduce people to the mighty topography posed by the four letters in my first name that as soon as the new teacher turned her head, I dashed underneath the sink typically reserved for washing the art class paint brushes. I sat there in the dark, munching on the hoarded Raisin Bran I had snuck in with me. It was just me, my fiber intake, the dull mustiness of the pipes, and absolutely no one saying the line “Al-see you later!” (a hilarious play on Alcy Leyva) for the -illionth time since my inception.
As I got older, it came to a point that pronouncing the name wrong just wasn’t enough. So alien was my name’s construction, so deep was their resentment of the English language, adults would automatically think it was a typo and—on the fly—change my name altogether. Like Of course this name can’t be real. A monkey defecated on a keyboard to generate this misspelling. And so came my many name permutations.
This last one became my stage name, that is, it became the name I used when I was attempting to act like a normal human being with perfect strangers that didn’t know any better. I liked Alex. It was a safe name with a dubious gender assignment, but still believable. Alex remained well within the realm of possibility and you can crank “Freebird” up on its three-minute solo and still understand the name fully.
Lucky for me, I ended up going to an all-boys high school as a teenager, which meant that all of us went by our last name. Leyva proved much easier to phonetically beat into submission for most people, which in turn provided me a welcome buffer from being mislabeled. This also allowed for my name to become pretty damn special when my close friends and family members used it.
Being a writer named “Alcy Leyva” has also had its drawbacks. There are times that I can tell that editors and employers are slightly put-off by my name. I’ve received responses to queries and even job interview requests sporting the opening line: Dear Ms. Leyva… Which of course sits me at the center of a conundrum. How do I tell these people that I’m not a woman? How much is it affecting my acceptance/rejection rate on my work? Most of the time, I just let it slide because I know that my name is so unique and unheard of that erring about my gender can be an honest mistake.
Even if society feminizes it by default, I’ve grown to enjoy the nuances of my name. I was named after my father, Alcibiades Leyva, one of the most loving men that I’ve ever known. I’ve managed to trace the name Alcy back to Greek mythology. I also share the apellido Leyva with a few poets, musicians, baseball players, and Olympians. I’ve come to be so proud of this tongue-cactus of a name in fact that, one year ago, I even named my son Alci-Rene. If you’re wondering why—after everything I’ve just said, after all of the trauma I’ve managed to lay out here—why I gave my son not just one but two names people are already labeling as female, then just know that I feel it builds character. The name is unique and memorable. Even while it prickles my skin to hear people tongue-twist themselves into oblivion trying to pronounce it over the phone, or when a waiter hands my wife my debit card after paying the check, I also still enjoy telling bill collectors “She’s not here” when they call. While irksome, its being confused for a woman’s name is nothing to be ashamed of.
So, no. Alcy isn’t going to be used to name a popular muscle car or the offspring of some celebrity who would rather name their kid something practical like “Toast” or “Sparkling Bidet.” I’m fine with that. Now that I have ensured that the legacy my father passed on to me will live on in the next generation, I can be prepared.
My son starts kindergarten in four years.
I’m sure he’ll thank me … someday.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series called Name Tags, about issues related to names and naming. You can find the original Call for Submissions here.