“I am strong. Could I really have any other name?”
That is what I should have told Judge Chu. But I was taken aback—in all my research, I hadn’t encountered any mention that she would ask why I wanted to change my name.
But really, what could I say? I was put on the spot, and torn between my obligation to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”, and the demand on the court’s schedule that I be brief. How could I sum up a life’s journey—a story of pushes and pulls, of deciding what to be and what not to be—in such a terse statement?
I embarked on my reinvention on the fourth Thursday of August 1988, my first day of high school. I didn’t have any new clothes, or the money to afford them, and my growth spurt hadn’t accorded me any sudden athletic prowess. By all counts, high school would continue the social disaster that was middle school, but there was one thing I could change.
Mrs. Horning, my English teacher, called the roll. I was second on the list. I was always first, second, or third. There was a comfortable predictability in always being at the beginning. It was time to make everything uncomfortable.
“Clint Baker?” Mrs. Horning read.
“Here. Call me C.J.”
I waited. Nary a snicker or snide remark—shocking, given that most of my closest friends were in this class. I could pull this off. I could do it. C.J. was going to have the best freshman year ever!
The best freshman year ever lasted until the beginning of second-period geometry. Mr. Holmes read off the names. I was third. Second was Marcus, a boy two years older from my church youth group. When I reiterated to Mr. Holmes my desire to go by my initials, Marcus glanced over at me and laughed. The next day, Mr. Holmes assigned our seats alphabetically by last name, which put Marcus directly in front of me.
When I passed forward my homework headed with “C.J. Baker”, Marcus thought I wrote my “C” like an “E” and my “J” like a “d”, and thus proceeded to call me Ed. Two days later, in Sunday school, the other students asked why he was calling me Ed, and he regaled them with the tale of my failed attempt to turn into a cool kid with a cool name. Marcus persisted with Ed for two more weeks, by which point his subversion of my plan was complete, and I had given up on my initials entirely.
“Clint Baker” is hard to pronounce—too many consonants crammed together—and thus hard to hear correctly. I have been called Cliff, Clark, Glen, Clem, Clement, Clarence, Terence, Trent, Brent, and Clinch. Seriously, “Clinch”?
Senior year, I once again had Mrs. Horning, this time for poetry, and once more, I asserted my right to a cool name. Now, though, I approached the matter more obliquely. I realized I didn’t need to make any grand proclamation to the world that I was changing my name. All I needed was a nom de plume.
Thus I began signing my poetry, “Clint Jackson Baker a.k.a. Sean Adrian Jaxon”. Sean was to honor my mother, who had considered naming me after Sean Connery, had my father’s brother John not named his daughter Sean a few months prior. Adrian demonstrated my PBS-induced Anglophilia, and Jaxon was both a respelling of my middle name and an obscure reference to Huckleberry Finn, making for an appealing literary allusion. Mrs. Horning and my classmates were amenable to my pen name, especially since I didn’t insist that they call me Sean.
The following August I began studies at St. Louis Christian College. When I first reached campus (two weeks early so I could begin my work-study job on the custodial crew), I asked the residents of my dorm to call me Sean.
Sean lasted until David arrived. He, a senior who had come from my church back in Indiana, would have nothing to do with my new name, and, through his considerable influence amongst the 150-member student body, Sean disappeared before the semester even began. Yet again I found myself stuck with my birth name, still chained to a history I so desperately wished to escape.
I made one final attempt the following year, after David had graduated. I had left my campus job to bus tables down the street at Mrs. O’s Café and Pie Pantry. For the first time in my life, I was in an environment where no one knew me. I chose to go by my middle name. Whenever a classmate dropped by the restaurant and asked if I was on shift, chaos ensued, as most of my coworkers assumed either that Jackson was my first name, or that I went by Jackson everywhere. And my manager confounded my tax records for years thereafter as he made out my checks sans first name—I was too timid to instruct him otherwise. When I left that busboy job after two years, I resigned myself to the fact that I would only ever be Clint Jackson Baker, Jr.
It takes three things to change your name:
1) Resources. In most states, you are charged about $300 in court fees to change your name. In Minnesota, civil-court fees may be waived in cases of hardship. You must also have the time and stamina to track down documentation and to contact Social Security and the records office of the county in which you were born. Unemployed before the court proceedings, I had plenty of hardship and plenty of time.
2) Chutzpah. Someone is bound to give you a hard time for changing your name, and you have to have reached a point in your life where you don’t give a damn about such opinions.
3) A name. This is the most obvious, but also the most difficult to obtain.
Age: 33. Every night for two weeks solid, I came home from my customer service job at the children’s museum, went to my bedroom, switched on my computer, and researched names, playing with sound and meaning. That it meant avoiding my roommate was a bonus. He (a glum, smug man much too old for his age) was really the only dark spot in my life. I loved everything about my neighborhood—organic groceries and thrift store clothes, art house films and avant-garde plays, dive bars and hipster coffeehouses—all mere blocks away. Except for work and church, my entire world was within spitting distance of my front door.
And, for the first time since leaving evangelicalism, I had a posse of friends. We would go to each other’s houses to play obscure German board games until the beer kicked in (or soda in my case since I hate beer) and it was time to retire. Sometimes we went to the coffeehouses and discussed anything and everything. And unlike the evangelicals of my past, my new friends never once chastised me for failing to turn into a heterosexual.
In fact, I had experienced nary a trace of homophobia since my arrival in the Twin Cities just before my thirtieth birthday. I could not say the same of my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, where the mere act of walking down the sidewalk in t-shirt and jeans (a heterosexual uniform if ever there was one) elicited calls of “Faggot!” from passing cars an average of once a week.
For the first time in my life, I was home. In the Whittier neighborhood.
John Greenleaf Whittier lived from 1807 to 1892. He was as beloved for writing sappy Victorian poetry as he was reviled for advocating the abolition of slavery. He never once visited Minnesota, but the founders of Minneapolis, keen on giving their frontier city an air of sophistication, christened the streets and neighborhoods and schools with popular literary references: the Longfellow neighborhood, Emerson School, Hiawatha Avenue.
The man for whom the Whittier neighborhood was named: a pacifist who believed in the equality of all, simultaneously a florid, fluffy writer and an abolitionist badass, a man whose name I would gladly give to a son.
Yet as I lay awake upon my futon, I recognized that the chance to have a son was ebbing away. Ten whole years were lost forever, a decade spent toiling under the tutelage of underaccredited therapists to become “straight as an arrow” in the vain hope of finding a wife so that I might both prove my heterosexual credentials and become a father. I had been frozen, and thawed out only recently. In career, in relationships, in lifestyle, I was closer to twenty-three than thirty-three. I found myself unable to acclimate to the dating rituals my heterosexual peers had passed through during adolescence, and thus could not find a man who might join me in parenting. My earnings barely supported me, let alone a child. As I approached thirty-five, the watershed beyond which most agencies disallow one to adopt an infant, I saw the chance to name a child likewise slipping away. I had been planning my children’s names since I was seven, when I declared that I would have boy-and-girl twins named Alexander and Alexandria, after my mother’s fashion, who had named her twins Christopher and Christine. Even if down the road I were to adopt a teenager, the likelihood that I would name the child was virtually nil.
But Whittier was a good name, damn it, and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste.
I also wasn’t about to let an astounding coincidence go unacknowledged. When my father was born, his parents gave him the name John. His first brother came along when he was four, at which point my grandparents gave their new son the name John and changed my father’s name to Clint, which was also my great-grandfather’s name. Some believe this was a half-hearted attempt to cover up an affair, and that my grandfather and my great-uncle are actually reversed from what my family tree would indicate. This would certainly explain my father’s black-sheep status.
My mother’s name is Phyllis, which in Greek means “green leaf.”
John Greenleaf Whittier. How could I pass that up?
The surname was less forthcoming. All I knew was that, with a long, flowing first name, heavy on the first syllable, I needed a monosyllable to lend weight to the end of my full name. My first thoughts went to Shaw, but the name was problematic on two counts. My immediate association was with the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and I thought a doubly literary name too pretentious.
My second association was profoundly more embarrassing.
The depression and anxiety of living trapped in a closet had such an adverse effect on my academic performance in Bible college that I was no longer eligible for funding, so I dropped out of school and took an apartment a couple of blocks from campus—as far as I could move without a car. But a closet is a closet wherever you go. So, in short order:
I grew paranoid and agoraphobic;
I went days on end without changing my clothes or bathing, for fear of the sexual nature of my own body;
the idea that being both gay and a Christian was a contradiction unamenable to the universe looped endlessly thorough my brain;
I thought to put an end to the contradiction by leaping off the Washington/Elizabeth overpass and flattening my woes across I-270;
as every television public-service announcement I had ever seen replayed in my mind, I stopped at a payphone just before that irreversible move to call the suicide-prevention hotline, who recommended I call a friend to take me to the hospital;
and I did just that.
At the hospital, I was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder because I didn’t dare tell the medical professionals that the true source of my fear and anxiety was homophobia (both internal and external), for fear that these “secular” doctors would dissuade me from my attempts to turn into a heterosexual and thus put me on the path to hell.
My hospitalization led to my moving back to Indiana so that I might stabilize and have the support of family and friends. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled at Indiana. I fared somewhat better without the social pressure of living in a dorm, though I remained in the therapy that promised to change me into a heterosexual—or a giraffe, which I now realize was just as likely. I did well with my logic courses, in part because the assignments were shorter, but I struggled in any class for which I had to write an essay. To slog through the density of Sartre and Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein, and then to churn out sparkling analyses of these paragons of intellect, was no simple task when I was grappling with biweekly visits to my therapist, in which I was told I had homosexual attractions because my father was distant and my mother was smothering—never mind that both my siblings’ heterosexuality and my mother’s generous leash refuted this claim. This antiquated, half-baked pop psychology was insufficient to dissuade me from enjoying the quick peek I got one evening when my friend Ryan lifted his arms, and the upraised hem of his t-shirt revealed his navel. However, the therapy did succeed in plunging me into a weeklong guilt-induced depression for having enjoyed that briefest titillation.
Rolling my stone up the Sisyphean slope of heterosexuality wasn’t the only distraction from my studies. Indiana’s philosophy department, like anywhere, is tiny, and undergrads regularly rub shoulders with graduate students. One grad student in particular, a dapper, perfectly coiffed, heterosexual New Englander… Well, in my blackest thoughts, I wanted to do more than rub shoulders. I wished he were in the habit of wearing t-shirts, rather than properly tucked Oxford shirts, that I might glimpse his navel. I actually wanted to see so very much more than his navel.
But my fantasies stopped there, for I couldn’t possibly imagine having sex with him, or any man. Such thoughts were verboten, a sure path to ensuring the damnation both of myself and of all around me. I was to be the quintessence of virtue, and any moral slip might cause a casual observer to stumble on his or her own path to salvation. It was not my potential for an eternity in hell that compelled me. I wanted no one to suffer that fate.
The surname of that perfectly coiffed New Englander? Shaw.
To recall my closeted years every time I signed my name would have been the ultimate mortification.
When my parents were together, my father forbade us to attend church, although he went on occasion. He socially isolated us so as to hide the abuse. In January 1983, when I was eight, my mother escaped my father and filed for divorce. Nine months later, she won custody of us children and was awarded the house. However, my father, predicting this outcome, had ceased mortgage payments during the proceedings, thus ensuring she would not win the house regardless of the judge’s decision.
My mother (who at this point would have changed all our names to her maiden name of Cunningham had she the money) then rented a two-bedroom house for the five of us, which relocated us five miles south. Our new neighbors wheedled, begged, and cajoled us into attending their various churches, and more often than not ceased relations with us once my mother stated that we would no longer attend. She hated the pressure, believed the theology of these churches far off base, and found it hypocritical that they only cared about people who attended their congregations. Despite all this, the experience gave me my first taste of religion. There were promises of love from both God and others, promises that life would go well if you obeyed a strict moral code, promises of something good and beautiful after we die.
I say all this to explain that, on a certain level, I have to take responsibility for what came next. I was young, but I still chose my steps on my own.
Before it became an affluent megachurch, Sherwood Oaks Christian Church met in a considerably smaller building on the south side of Bloomington, Indiana, adjacent to the solidly middle-class subdivision from which it derived its name. Here I spent every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening of my adolescence learning how to live a life worthy of God.
In the parking lot, near the sidewalk, was a basketball hoop, because this was Indiana, where any flat exterior space requires a basketball hoop. Here the boys of my youth group played horse and two-on-two before our meetings. Every boy, that is, but me—I sat on the sidelines with the girls.
One Sunday evening, a boy named Brian Nash, who lived next to the church, ambled by. The basketball players invited him into the game, and he joined in. Thereafter he followed us into the building for Bible study, and from that night he became a regular member of our youth group.
His entry was much easier than mine had been. When I was in seventh grade, we had just moved (yet again) into a tiny house a mile or two from Sherwood Oaks, which stuck out to me because it was undergoing a construction project to add a larger sanctuary. Somehow, I was certain this was a good church, and so I started attending, even asking rides of the members on those days when my family didn’t attend. (They were less keen than I on accepting the social-outcast role the church assigned them).
When I joined the youth group, I was the only boy my age, but as years passed, a steady stream of boys filled the ranks. Our youth minister John had retained two key elements from his teenage identity—“hick” and “jock”—so he drew his clones into the group. I was the anomaly. Scrawny and precocious, I preferred drawing or writing poetry to shooting hoops.
I also didn’t help my cause in arguing constantly with both my peers and the adult sponsors of the group. Why, I asked, was a zygote’s life all-precious, but a criminal’s worth ending? Didn’t Jesus forgive a criminal whilst on the cross? Why were we beholden to the Republican Party when Jesus had called us not to an earthly kingdom, but a spiritual one? Why were they hell-bent on eliminating the very government programs they knew my disabled mother needed to care for my siblings and me?
I was not one of them, so they harassed me relentlessly, pulling pranks on me, calling me names. When we took a trip to the beach and they found out I was afraid of drowning, they saw fit to catch me wading knee-deep, push me from behind, and hold me under. John defended their actions. They loved me, he said, and this was how they showed their love. And I believed him.
Brian underwent no such initiation. He was baptized a few months after joining the youth group, but shortly thereafter, he disappeared from church. The doctrine in our denomination was that baptism, though necessary for salvation, was only the beginning of the Christian walk, and you could lose his salvation if you abandoned that walk. Yet no one followed up with Brian—not even I—despite most of us having gone to school with him.
This time I remained silent regarding the contradiction in doctrine. Perhaps I was wearying of the fight. Perhaps I had at last succumbed to their sadistic definition of love.
When I chose my name, I was 700 miles and 15 years from Brian Nash. Nonetheless, even though I liked his surname (it means “ash tree”, a botanical reference that speaks to my inner hippie), I could never have chosen it for myself—not as a slight to Brian, who was far gone from my life by that point anyway, but because I could never append those memories of false love to my name.
I come from hearty Appalachian stock. The Cunninghams of my mother’s side have lived in far-southern Indiana longer than there has been an Indiana, having relocated from Virginia just after the Revolutionary War as part of the fledgling American government’s push to root out the rightful inhabitants of what was then the Northwest Territory. (This fact is lost to my family’s history; I have only been able to piece it together through genealogical research and history class lessons.)
Now, if anyone wishes to argue that Indiana is not part of Appalachia, I will note that I am speaking of southern Indiana. Here, in the foothills leading to the Cumberland Plateau, both the geography and culture are closer to West Virginia than to Michigan. Bumpy, underfunded highways wind through these foothills, through tiny towns that persist solely because of the residents’ fierce ties to family. In these villages and in the hinterland beyond them, my mother’s forebears have spent the last two centuries farming the nothing dirt in this nothing backwater to raise nothing to feed their children.
The Bakers from which my father descended find their origins in the border country between Tennessee and Virginia, where they have been since before the Revolutionary War. Untying their roots required much effort on my part. I had to first weed out the persistent family myth that they—dark-skinned, dark-haired, dark-eyed—are not, in fact, part Cherokee. Then I had to stumble upon a word I had never heard uttered—“Melungeon”—and then toss out all the legends associated with that word. We Melungeons are not a lost tribe of Israel, nor are we the descendants of the mythical Phoenician sailors from whom the hereditary knot at the base of our skulls derives its name. Thanks to genetic testing, it has been determined that we are of mixed western European, southern European, and western African origin, which I at times ineptly label “Appalachian creole”.
My Melungeon ancestors ground out a mountain subsistence in much the same way as my mother’s forebears, raising hogs and tobacco out of the hardscrabble earth. When my father was ten, my grandparents determined they would leave the Cumberland Mountains for a new life. They set aside moving money, packed up the mule carts, traveled northwest, and settled wherever the moving money ran out. This tactic brought them to Paoli, Indiana, which was less rugged, allowing them to raise more hogs and tobacco than before.
I am the scion of two clans who have known little but to fight for survival. Is it any wonder I am a survivor as well? I was born, neither fair like my mother nor dark like my father, but blue and desiccated, thanks to the meager rations of coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches my father permitted my mother to eat. A week after my birth I nearly died again because a too-long frenulum kept me from suckling properly.
Right when I turned four, my family relocated north to Bloomington, Indiana, searching yet again for a better life. My father: foundering in the life of drugs and prostitutes his job as a long-haul truck driver afforded him, and, in his delusions, plotting his wife’s demise. My mother: barely escaping with her life and left permanently disabled from her husband’s abuse. My brothers and sister: young and confused and struggling to understand why the father they never actually knew was gone. I: the eldest, keeper of memories, hoping in vain that my siblings were too young to remember the darkness.
In school I sought escape from the nightmare of home, but found neither refuge nor solace, for I was Clint Baker, the boy who played with dolls. So I turned to the church for love, but its love was like chocolate to a dog, a delectable poison. Still, it so mimicked my father’s love, conditional yet capricious—can I be blamed for being so horribly mistaken? I dutifully enrolled in Bible College, where the staff discovered my misplaced diary, and therein the crush I had on a fellow student (years before the crush on the aforementioned Mr. Shaw). Thus I was given the ultimatum: if I was to remain in school, I had to enroll in therapy to convert to heterosexuality. Even after I transferred to Indiana University, I remained in the treatments so as to merit the love of God and man—when all I longed for was the love of a man. When I, wishing to no longer commit the sin of lying, dared to speak the truth that I was most definitely not turning into a heterosexual despite my best effort, I lost nearly everyone.
Then the state of Indiana slashed my funding for school and eliminated the insurance that I needed in part to treat the effects of having suffered a decade under the quacks who failed to transform me into a perfectly acceptable heterosexual. I packed my maximum four bags onto a Greyhound bound for Minneapolis, a place I knew only by reputation—the best decision, aside from abandoning the quackery, I have ever made. My worst day in Minnesota is better than my best day in Indiana because I can breathe free.
I come from strong people. I am Strong. Could I really have any other name?
By the time I chose my name, my days as a Christian were numbered. I was attending a small, struggling Lutheran church whose pastor happened to be my age and also happened to be gay. My work kept me away from morning services on alternate Sundays, and the tiny mainline congregation offered little else during the week—far removed from the thrice-weekly ritual I was accustomed to as an evangelical. I met with Pastor Jay in his office on occasion to discuss theology, philosophy, and life so as to fill in that gap. Our common ground helped me to open up, not only about my story, but also about the deep, nagging doubts I had concerning Christianity. After all, if the church—or, more accurately, some of the more conservative branches of Protestantism—had lied to me about homosexuality, how else had it deceived me? As a good Lutheran, Pastor Jay encouraged me to keep asking hard questions, a far cry from the evangelical world, where the greatest sin is to question.
Yet I could not fully escape the influence of evangelicalism. I still said “Amen” when I agreed with someone, and offered to pray when someone expressed a need. My name would bear the mark of my evangelical past, no matter how I might try to avoid it. I had always longed for a “Biblical” name, which in conservative Christendom is the mark of having been born into a good Christian family. (I knew so many Pauls in the church.) I also thought a Hebrew name would be a proper nod to my Judeophilia.
My first thought was Ezra, the prophet who oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem, but, whether the noble Ezra Jack Keats or the ignoble Ezra Pound, I again wanted to avoid a doubly literary name. (Consider it: I was almost Whittier Ezra Shaw, the most preposterous, pompous name imaginable.) I liked Nathaniel, but it was too long to go with Whittier.
Nathan. It means “gift” in Hebrew. All I have ever wanted to be.
But even as I was certain of my name—Whittier Nathan Strong, at last—I grew less certain of my spiritual identity. The questions Pastor Jay had encouraged me to ask led me not only out of Lutheranism, but out of Christianity altogether. I began attending a small Quaker meeting that rented space from the Lutheran congregation. Within Quakerism, where not all identify as Christian and some are even atheists, I was free to quit believing and start being.
At my first meeting, I introduced myself as Whittier Strong. They complimented me on the good Quaker name, and asked if I came from a Quaker family. I did not reveal the full story to them—yet.
My father’s siblings never told their spouses of the existence of their eldest brother, the possible bastard whom their parents didn’t even bother to send to college. And these aunts and uncles in name only had nothing to do with any of my immediate family once we moved out of Paoli. But when my father lay in the hospital comatose, they rallied round him. Suddenly I had a new family. I had not seen any of them since I was three.
I also had not seen my father in five years. When I began Bible college, he spirited out of nowhere with an offer of one hundred dollars every month until I graduated. I saw the money four times altogether. Now here he lay, bloated and intubated, with little chance of recovery. My newfound aunts and uncles offered their support to us as best they could. They have their own issues that keep them from getting close to anyone.
They certainly weren’t going to get close to me. My uncle John determined that my bleached-blond hair and pierced ear—benign indiscretions for a twentysomething in the late 1990s—were sufficient indicators that I was illegitimate. These were things that a real Baker simply did not do.
Three weeks after he entered the hospital, my father suffered a heart attack whilst rousing from his coma and died. His funeral, on Memorial Day weekend 1997, is the only time I have witnessed my adult brothers crying. I shed no tears. My tears would come years later in therapy—not the “ex-gay” nonsense, but real, legitimate therapy.
I have maintained no connection to my father’s relatives since the funeral sixteen years ago. I cannot abide by their insistence that all in their family obey the Baker Code. I will not attend church—certainly not as a means of accruing power and prestige in the community, and most certainly not now that I am an atheist. They require that my future spouse be younger than me, richer than me (to bring wealth into the family), and much more female than I desire. I will not attend Purdue University to study agriculture or business (or education were I a woman), and then return to the clan immediately thereafter. And, though I recognize that they crafted this code to raise themselves up from their humble Appalachian past, I cannot assent to it. I am beholden to no path but my own.
I am not a Baker.
My brothers Chris and Clinton keep in regular contact with our paternal relatives. (Yes, I was Clint and my brother Clinton—another story for another time.) In particular, they have developed an attachment to our uncle George, who at times has been the closest to a father figure they’ve ever known. They have even made a pilgrimage to our ancestral home of Kyles Ford, Tennessee. There, they met our great-uncle Paul, a man in his nineties who maintains that our ancestors were Italian and Portuguese, and who has faced derision in the community for maintaining this claim, regardless of the fact that he is correct.
I have made the pilgrimage virtually, via Google Maps. The town of Kyles Ford is little more than a crossroads squeezed between a river and a mountain. The Clinch River. Clinch Mountain.
Could my great-great-grandparents have made such a prosaic association and named their son after their home—a name that passed on to my father and to me? It’s possible; as I have dug further into the history of Kyles Ford, I have learnt that Clint was once a common name in the area. Could they have known that people would mistakenly call me “Clinch”? I wonder if they knew the name means “hill”—a little mountain.
“Why are you changing your name?” Judge Chu asked.
“Your Honor, I was named after my father, and I am not my father. I am my own man, and I should have my own name.” A beat, and then, “There are other reasons why I’m changing my name. I can tell you those if you need me to.”
Judge Chu chuckled and replied, “No, that will suffice.”
But no, it couldn’t possibly suffice. My explanation told nothing of my relationship with my father. It said nothing of why I ran into the church’s arms in search of the love he didn’t—couldn’t—give. It could not possibly tell of how I migrated from one faith tradition to the next until I reached the point that I lost faith in any god—but gained a deep, abiding faith in myself.
The explanation told nothing. No matter. The name bears everything.
Whittier Nathan Strong. Those three words are perhaps my greatest literary triumph, for never have I told such a complex story so succinctly.
Rumpus original art by Jim Gill.