How My Name Change Changed My Life
I never felt connected to the rural town that I grew up in. Everything that I was there connected back to one singular point: I was male. Yet even at the age of eight, I knew that I was female, and every night for years I would gaze at the ceiling from my bed with a faint smile on my face, imagining the next day when I would reawaken as a cisgirl.
My feet only touched the ground during my years of denial where I would toss aside my transness as kid stuff. Even then, I was still not part of my reality. I was lying to myself, trying to stave off the inevitable. Because of this, I could not connect to people in high school.
Growing up alone, I found solace in my art. I would make YouTube videos where I would play all the parts, and write short story after short story. Looking back now, I can plainly see that most of those stories were wish fulfillment fantasies. Like the boy who wanted nothing more than to leave his small hometown and change the world. Or the teenage girl who had been through so much pain that she picked up a cape and cowl and called herself a superhero.
That teenage girl’s name was Katrina Gawain, and I have been writing her since I was thirteen. She’s a vigilante with unparalleled will and courage. While she may not possess any super powers, she carries a heavy heart that grants unconditional love to everyone whose path she crosses, and wields an unfaltering belief that people are good.
As I grew older with her, we changed together. A few short years after I realized she was gay, I came out as trans. While she was protecting the innocent only to punch out early so she could finish her chemistry homework, I led my own double life, scheduling time where it would be safe for me to present as female and evade the detection of anyone I knew.
Many writers identify their characters as their own offspring, but for me, Katrina Gawain was the sister I never had. She was the force that would inspire me in my darkest moments and remind me that I mattered, that I could feel love. Adopting her name was something of a no-brainer to me, but I was scared of what people would think if they knew I wanted to name myself after my own character.
When I did eventually tell one of my closest friends about Katrina, he felt embarrassed for me. His voice lowered into a mutter and his eyes flicked about, desperately searching for anything else to look at.
When he held me, his grip was hollow, his voice drifting away into the white noise of transition. My coming out journey was far from over; old fears quickly resurfaced and took hold of me.
To many people’s surprise, my official coming out on November 24th, 2015 was not paired with a new name; I continued to identify with the one that was given to me at birth. Many conversations I had following my new beginning would somehow launch into a pitch on how I should feminize my dead name. Even people I didn’t know at all would get upset about this topic; one time when I went wig shopping, one of the stylists refused to call me by my desired name and instead came up with different ‘female’ names to call me.
I wanted to interpret these actions as love. I wanted these suggested female names to be a sign that people wanted the best for me. But that was never the case; the only people who pushed me to a choose a new name were cis. My rejection of the gender binary, my choice to go by my male name, rocked their world. They needed me to match their definition of female so that their discomfort could be put at ease.
Yet when I voiced my own feelings on what my name should be, I was treated as an embarrassment.
I felt shame like no other, so it was on April 21, 2016 that I marched into the office of my new job as Receptionist, that I introduced myself by the feminized version of my given name.
The second it rolled off my supervisor’s tongue, I knew I had made a mistake. I felt no connection to anything she asked of me. Even at her kindest, the second that evil name was dropped, I would immediately disassociate.
One week into the job, I tried to take back the name I gave, telling people to just call me by my former male name. People would nod and reassure me they would, but then the next day would turn around and continue to call me by that female name I never identified with.
Out of the hundreds of people I worked with, only a handful would call me by what I asked them to, and unfortunately, those people, whether it was intentional or not, would treat me like they would any other guy in the office. Their voices would become firm and rugged, guts jutting outward, fingers unironically looping through their belt loops, their over-the-top masculinity daring to impress.
It was either that I be treated like a man because of the name I was attempting to settle on, or that I be treated as the woman I never was because of an identity pushed onto me.
When I left that job a year later, I realized that I had completely compromised my own feelings and let other people guide my transition for me.
So on March 28, 2017, I silenced the demanding cis-voices whirring around me. I held my hand out to a petrified transgirl from years ago, a girl in hiding that was born to a rural town that would eventually vote for Donald Trump. I listened to what she wanted and remembered why I began this journey into femininity.
I looked into the mirror, into my own eyes, and said my name.
Just thinking about that moment gives me goosebumps.
The first time I introduced myself as Katrina was while volunteering at an event run by the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Surrounded by trans, non-binary, and queer people, all of us united to run a food festival, I felt unconditional love and a friendship that I hadn’t realized I had been longing for.
On October 13th, 2017, a smiling judge nodded to me as I stood tall before a courtroom bustling with activity, and stamped the paperwork that legally recognized me not only as a woman, but as Katrina Jagelski.
Before I was Katrina, my voice was a slurred mumble, my feelings sealed within. The toxic masculinity that I was socialized into lingered, despite the hours of work I put into passing every day. I never felt like one of the girls because my desperation and insecurity had propelled me away from the femininity that my eight-year-old self dreamed of every night.
Like that old outdated ID card from Massachusetts, the past has been left behind.
I have stopped caring about the expectations put upon me. I don’t worry about passing; I present the way that I want to see myself every day. I don’t say sorry out of habit, and I look people in the eye now. I am in touch with my feelings; creating art and telling my stories doesn’t scare me anymore.
Those people that urged me to be named something that would make my skin crawl? They were stuck in the past; they wanted me to be that scrappy guy who could be their emotional pincushion, the man who could play the fool so they could be bigger. They didn’t want him to go away; but people change. We evolve and grow.
My name is Katrina Jagelski. I am an artist and I have stopped making wishes every year that I could be happier; I shut up, got my hands dirty, and manufactured my own future. I let go of the toxic people who held me back, and I found love in the people that truly cared about me. I am the woman I dreamed of becoming, and I have so many more adventures ahead of me.
It’s scary to commit to the fantasies that float through our minds, but we are worth so much more than what the world gives us sometimes.
Remember, it’s the things that terrify us the most that we absolutely must do.
Katrina Jagelski is a trans writer, filmmaker, and activist. Lately, she's been getting a lot of mileage writing about her high school bully so shhh, don’t tell him. You can find more from her at her short story and poetry blog.