Last week, A Los Angeles court signed a petition to honor 15-year-old Zaya Wade’s name and gender change, a huge step forward in the ongoing fight for trans and gender-nonconforming youth rights nationwide.
This came just days before her parents, Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union, took the stage at the NAACP image awards to honor their daughter, asking the audience, “Will we fight for some, or will we fight for all of our people?” It’s a question that definitely warrants conversation in Black spaces.
There is something revolutionary about respecting Zaya’s right to name herself. As Black people, our names are intertwined with our identities in a profound way. The names we give our children and what we call ourselves have always had significant roots in empowerment and maintaining cultural identity — which is why I have friends with names such as Queen and Malik (which means “king” in Arabic). These names are meant to tether Black people to the culture and remind them — and anyone who talks to them — that they are worthy of love and reverence when the world attempts to flatten them.
In a report by The Conversation, researchers explored how Black naming practices are directly linked to the development of our culture. “People from various parts of Africa came together to form black culture as we recognize it today,” wrote Trevon Logan, a professor at The Ohio State University. “One way of passing that culture on is through given names, since surnames were stolen during enslavement.”
Even Black children are aware that their names are unique for a reason. In elementary school, I remember someone telling me my name and the color of a sweater I wore were the same. At that point, I did not know sage was a color or a plant. In my mind, that “sage” and my name were utterly different. I told the kid what my mother told me, that Sage meant wisdom. I was only a young child but understood the crucial connection between my name, culture and sense of pride.
And when Blackness and queerness intersect, the power of a name intensifies. In many instances, trans and gender-nonconforming youth know early on that their legal names do not fit their true identities. Choosing a name that affirms that identity is crucial in their mental well-being and their ability to embrace who they are. And when we honor them by calling them by those names, we also affirm their identity. This is the foundation for building a relationship centered on respect and acceptance, eliminating shame and violence. It is, I argue, the same logic Black families use when naming babies.
We are grappling with supporting a generation that will inherit a world on fire — one that understands that change is necessary for survival. And meaningful change starts on a micro level. It’s our responsibility to support them in their practice. And that starts with saying their (actual) name.