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My Name is Gay

September 18, 2016 Linda Rosenkrantz

By Gay Cioffi

As the youngest in my family of five, I am the only one who was not named for a grandparent or beloved aunt or uncle. As it happened, I was named for a fondly remembered childhood acquaintance of my mother.

While not only was breaking from that family tradition the cause of a bit of a stir, and it wasn’t a saint’s name to boot (also an expected practice) nothing prepared my parents or me for the fallout to come as I grew up with the name “Gay” in the fifties and sixties.

I remember hearing my mother’s account of the reaction she got from family members regarding her disregard for how children in the family were traditionally named. I also recall that she wavered a bit between the names Gay and Joy, but again the real controversy began in my later teens when the word “gay”, came to represent more than a synonym for happy or carefree.

Earlier in my childhood, a friend’s father frequently teased me by calling me “gay blade.” I had no idea what it meant, but from the strange smile he made when he said it, it didn’t feel good and caused me some embarrassment, (though admittedly, as a “tween” it didn’t take that much to embarrass me). Certainly by my early teens I had a better understanding of the meaning of “gay,” as a description of someone’s sexual orientation and I had begun to brace myself for the response I got when I told someone my name.

Let’s be clear, I believe that it is always rude to make fun of someone’s name, but to be insulting to others at the same time, well that really is obnoxious.

One of my earliest lessons in introducing myself was never to say, “Hi, I’m Gay”, the way someone might say, “Hi, I’m Amy”, because it inevitably was an invitation for tasteless jokes. Even without that lead-in, an introduction would often go like this, “Hi, my name is Gay” and a common response would be, “Are you?” I went through a period where I smiled calmly and said, “No, are you?” but that just invited more offensive and pathetic attempts to be funny, so eventually I just ignored the question.

In my twenties, I seriously thought about changing my name. I first experimented with variations on my middle name, which is Elaine. G. Elaine sounded distinctive and I even considered Gelaine, but nothing stuck. So even though I had had it with being the object of jokes from the minute that I met someone, I decided to give up on the idea of a new name.

To be honest, I had never received this kind of attention from women, it was always a man who could not resist saying something stupid and always as if he were the first person to ever think to make such a joke. I began to regard it as a great screening device. If someone had to go there, I felt free to distance myself from them – at hello.

Things really got interesting when I married a wonderful man whose last name was Love. (I’m not making this up). Though it was the seventies and I mostly used my maiden name, there were the inevitable times when I was referred to as “Gay Love,” a term I remember seeing scrawled on New York subway walls in those days, at every turn. It was a strange chapter in my life as a person with the name Gay. I remember losing my wallet on the campus of Tufts University where I was a graduate student in the mid-seventies. When I called Campus Security to report it and said that my name was Gay Love, the person taking the call hung up on me. When I called back, he screamed at me for making a prank call. Yes, a strange chapter.

Time passed, the marriage didn’t last (though we remain great friends) and fortunately for everyone, people started to become more enlightened about sexual orientation. I haven’t had someone make a joke about my name in years, maybe decades, (though there is the poor dude who struggles to shout out my name when my decaf skim latte is ready). As a moniker, it never caught on and is currently 795th on the list of common American names.

The struggle for gay people to be treated equally and with respect may be an ongoing one, but from my experience with my name, I have seen a shift in consciousness and sensitivity, one introduction at a time.

Gay Cioffi is an artist and educator who has worked in the field of early childhood education for the past 38 years. She is the Director of the Little Folks School in Washington, DC, where she combines her love of children and her passion for the arts. Her fine art photography is included in numerous permanent collections and has been exhibited both nationally and internationally.

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