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A Boy Named Chelsea

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This guest blog by a guy named Chelsea lets us in on his gender-bender life experiences.

There’s nothing that unusual about being named after a place, except when that place name becomes one of the more popular names for girls during the 1990’s and you are a boy. That’s what happened to me. My name is Chelsea and I am a guy.

I was named after the area in London, England, for sentimental reasons.  My family was about to leave the country just after I was born and weren’t sure if they would ever return. While other names like Bradley, Gary and Kieran were considered, Chelsea, a section of London for which my mother had a particular fondness, won the day. She knew it was a girl’s name, since that was what it was listed under in her book of names, but Chelsea was rarely used back then, particularly in England, and didn’t rank in the top 100 names for girls in the year I was born. She didn’t tell my father about it being listed as a girl’s name though and instead sold it to him on the basis of a link to the famous football/soccer club which seemed masculine enough.

People often ask me what it was like growing up with a girl’s name, but I didn’t even know that I had one until I was seven, so the impact until then was minimal. We were living in France, where Chelsea was even less heard of, and to everyone there I was just a guy with an unusual and hard to pronounce name, as they stumbled over whether it should be a hard or soft “ch” sound and whether the –sea at the end was like the ocean or “see-ah.” Most people called me Chels or Shels, which was a nickname that generally stuck. As for finding out about my having a girl’s name, that happened on a school trip where an American teacher there, but not from our school, assigned me to an all-girl’s group. At that age, this was a rude awakening and led to a fair amount of teasing after the trip too.

We did return back to England when I was ten. Chelsea Clinton was now in the news and the name had reached Number 38 on the UK girls’ list. While it was now impossible to deny that I had a girl’s name, I would still try. I moved from a mixed junior school to an all-boys junior high during this period, but not before my mother had to sort out a mix-up whereby the local education authority had enrolled me into an all-girls school.  But despite this, I still had never met a female Chelsea, so having this so-called girl’s name still seemed somewhat abstract.

That changed when I moved to the US halfway through middle school.  By this time the name had peaked in popularity in the States and was now starting to decline again, but for the first time I met female Chelseas and they met me: one in my year at middle school, three or four in high school, plus a lot of the guys had younger sisters with that name. As you might imagine, the teasing and jokes reared up again and in many ways the middle school years were the worst for me.  Around that time kids are establishing their sexual identity and attacking the sexual identity of a guy with a girl’s name is an easy target. I couldn’t even argue that I had a unisex name. Being called a girl, a sissy, or being asked if I was gay or whether my parents had wanted a girl was not uncommon, but I shouldn’t give the impression that this was an ongoing every day thing either. In fact, there were lots of periods where no one seemed to think twice about my name, so I think it’s how you react to these kinds of taunts that determines whether they continue or not.

One negative aspect however is that I believe it does box you in in some ways. For example, I was very conscious of not doing things that could be seen as girlish for fear that this would fan the flames– e.g. like many teens I wanted to experiment with my look and began to grow my hair longer, until I realized that long hair and a girl’s name just wasn’t a combination that was going to work.

People always ask me whether my name caused a lot of confusion, and there are just too many stories to tell here. The short answer is yes, such as being assigned a girl’s gym locker, having letters addressed to Miss…, etc, which continues to this day.  I have learned to show my photo ID when paying for anything with a credit card before people assume I’ve stolen my wife’s or my girlfriend’s card and I am used to repeating my name and spelling it on the phone as well.

Did I ever consider changing my name, or going by my middle name? Yes, especially in the middle school years.  But I learned that thinking you can hide your first name doesn’t work, and gives the impression you are ashamed of it, which only makes the teasing worse. My mother would never let me change my name, and instead she taught me to stand behind it and be who I am.  Even though we argued about it, in the end I came to understand her reasons for choosing the name and that made it feel even more part of me.

Would I give my child a unisex, or even cross-gender name?  I wouldn’t dismissively rule it out if there was a sentimental or namesake-honoring reason behind it, but I would discuss with the baby’s mother the ups and downs of such a choice. After all, I was named Chelsea before it became highly popular for girls and if Chelsea had not seen a popularity bubble in the 1990’s,  then most people would still imagine that I just had an unusual name, and not so much a girl’s name. Parents with boys whose names are now crossing over to the girls are finding this true too, so it can be hard to predict where a name’s image will fall in the future and perhaps the deeper question is why is it considered more okay for a girl to have a boy’s name, but not the other way around?

Are there any upsides to having a girl’s name? The uniqueness of it is definitely something that can be considered positive if you are willing to embrace it. I think also that some of the experiences I’ve had because of my name may have in part led to me being a different, perhaps better, person than I might have been otherwise.

There’s no doubt that my interest in names stems from having an unusual name, and one interesting (and reassuring) fact that I’ve discovered in the last few years is that Chelsea was a middle name of the captain of England’s famous World Cup winning team in 1966, Bobby Moore.

Chelsea lives in Pennsylvania, is currently working in the area of computer software sales, has a fascination with names and in particular names that cross gender, and is also a Scrabble nut.

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