y name is Praise Josephine. There are billions of people in the world, but I feel secure in saying I am the only man with that name on my birth certificate. Sure, my legal name is actually a Hebrew name written out in English letters (Tehila Yosefa), but it translates to “Praise Josephine.”
I was born on the first day of July, at home in my mother and father’s bed, with one rickety air conditioner in the whole house and a long-haired midwife who gently unwrapped the cord that had been feeding me life to let my father cut it.
Pictures that remain dusty even after you wipe them off have filled me in on the details, like a friend who recaps the play-by-play of a really good night that you were too drunk to remember, because you were there but you weren’t really there, you know?
My father was wearing scandalously skimpy white shorts, potentially terry cloth, that I would quickly identify as the perfect location for my first poop. My sisters were five and seven at the time, sitting with their shirts off because it was really hot. They were eating chocolate ice cream and it was all over their cheeks. A couple feet away from them, my mother, who looked like a Rembrandt painting of Janis Joplin, opened up her body and allowed my (surprisingly purple) head to start entering this realm. Yes, there is a picture of my head emerging from my mother’s vagina, smack dab in the middle of the photo album. I like that this is called “crowning,” kind of like acknowledging that each of us has these precious gems — the royalty of blood itself — before the world starts stripping that kind of wealth away and swaddling us in all the suffocating stuff.
My mother had long brown hair that was already going gray, and big, sad eyes. Her face looked so calm. I probably look more stressed baking a banana bread than she did delivering a whole damn baby. My sisters’ faces looked like their eyeballs might pop out from witnessing this gross, gooey miracle.
Then I was alive. I was here. I breathed air. I was incredibly wrinkly.
One of my sisters followed the midwife around asking, “Can I see the placenta just one more time? Pleaseee?” My parents would later plant my placenta under a rose bush. This is not a Jewish ritual, but my mother is also a wood nymph, so it might be a nymph ritual. When we moved to Cincinnati three years later, my parents would uproot the rose bush and bring it with us. It is still blooming.
When I was born, they looked at my body and determined I was healthy: baruch hashem, thank God. From the minute we exist, there is paperwork. The midwife had to fill out the birth certificate. She made up a time for my birth, since no one was paying close attention to the minute I slipped out. Every time I ask my mom why she doesn’t know my exact birth time, she just says, “I was busy.” This detail will eternally bother all my zodiac freak friends who cannot properly complete my chart.
The midwife looked at my form and my folds and decided I was a girl. Society’s first test: She gave me an F. I’m not mad at anyone. The midwife didn’t know, my parents didn’t know, that the pockets of our bodies can hold much more. Sometimes they are hiding these special, monumental things that we might not find for years, sometimes whole lifetimes.
My mother and father were excited to learn my spirit — they knew nothing of it yet — but they still had to give me a name, for the paperwork. Tehila, from the root of the word Hallelujah, meaning PRAISE! (a subtle, chill name; like, Mother, what do you expect from my life?! Father, what do you want from me?!) Yosefa, the feminine of Yosef, or Joseph, in honor of my great-great-great grandfather.
Thirty years after this sticky morning, that, like all mornings, undoubtedly welcomed many lives and let go of many others, I am finally living my life as a man, albeit a man named Praise Josephine. I have not legally changed my name since I gender transitioned. The process and paperwork for that procedure is confusing and intimidating. My initial research into it involved a judge, an affidavit, a lot of fees, and publishing my new name in a newspaper. I do not like courtrooms; I have a pre-emptive attitude about the idea of a judge getting to decide if I can choose my own name; I do not have a lot of extra funds or time right now; I don’t know what an affidavit is. I have been avoidant. Plus, my nickname, T, is neutral and has always been my name.
I have always been T to people who really know me, but I would introduce myself as Tehila. I remember, as a younger person, I would always note the first time a new person in my life called me T; to me, it was them telling me how they felt about me. If it was someone I liked and wanted to be close to, it would make me feel good, kind of like the verbal, platonic version of a first kiss. If it was someone I felt was assuming intimacy too quickly, when they called me T I would give them a slight side-eye. You don’t know me like that.
Now I introduce myself just as T to everybody. I start with the nickname. This does not mean that everyone is automatically my BFF. But since I transitioned, it has become clear to me how little people seem to invest in understanding boundaries.
I recently met a new person who told me her name was Tiger. When I told her my name was T, she replied, “Oh..just T?”
“What does that stand for?”
“It is just T, that is my name.”
“Right but what is your full name? T is your government name?”
Excuse me, am I filling out a W4?! I thought to myself. Because unless you are about to pay me, I don’t understand this line of questioning. You just told me your name is Tiger and I did not bat one eyelash.
People want more. They want more than a letter. One letter can’t be a name. They want more. What do they want? Do they want to really know me? My “government name” is a story…do they want me to tell them my whole story?
It doesn’t usually feel that way.
Most of the time, it feels like they are bothered by what they think is missing, or by the fact that I don’t want to tell them. Like when you don’t know someone that well but still feel left out when they don’t invite you to their party. It often feels like they view the rest of my name as a limb that was amputated. These are people who say to someone with a prosthetic: “I just can’t help myself, I need to know. How did you lose it? What happened?”
But actually, you can help yourself, and you need to. Because all too often, if you don’t, it becomes the person on the other end of the question who ends up “helping you” understand.
If I tell people what T stands for, it is more than me telling them the rest of the letters in my name. It is me telling them that I have scars that reach across my chest like they are trying to hold hands, and I still have a womb stubbornly sitting inside my body. It is telling them that I pee sitting down and I fuck really creatively. That I took some parts of my body off to become more whole and that some parts of my body live in my sock drawer so I can choose when to put them on.
To tell them my whole name is to tell them that, on prom night, I stayed home staring at the sparkly silver dress I had forced myself to buy and felt alone in that way that feels like you are not even there with you, within yourself. It is to tell them how many times I locked the bathroom door as a child to draw in a beard with a brown marker and call myself “Gabriel” in the mirror, but never louder than a whisper.
To tell them my whole name is to tell the story of when I was eight and my father introduced me to one of his congregants and I accidentally said, “Hi I’m Tehila, the rabbi’s son.” Those other letters hold how hot my face was in that moment, how everyone else laughed but I almost vomited.
When people ask for more than T, they are asking for more than the rest of the letters. To give it to them would be to tell them that my parents believe in a God of love, that my parents taught me praise is what we do with each of our days. It would be to tell them I had to find many midwives and cut the cord again and again, and in many ways, I had to deliver myself.
I think it is fair, when I am just meeting someone, to not want to tell them all that. So I tell them, “It is just T. That is my name.” And when they finally just accept it…Praise Josephine.
T. Wise is a writer, comedian, and lyricist. Follow him @thatlittleboyblue and visit thatboyblue.com for upcoming shows.
Photos courtesy of T. Wise.