My Name Was Stephen
Being a someone of trans history, I wasn’t born with the name Autumn. I was born Northridge, California in the late 1950’s, and my parents gave me the name of Stephen Mark Sandeen. These days I have a complicated relationship with that name: I like the name as a name, but the name just doesn’t fit me now.
My parents were very spiritual people who very much embraced their Christian faith. My parents named me Stephen of Acts 6 and 7 — the Christian faith’s first recorded martyr — and after the Apostle Mark. (Mark is traditionally credited with writing the second Gospel of the New Testament).
I know, having talked to my Mom about my name, that I my parents gave a lot of thought in picking out my birth name.
I surrendered use of Stephen Mark Sandeen in 2003 because that name no longer fits me. I had finally embraced in my early forties what I first knew about my sex and gender in my early teens, yet then rejected what what I in large part because of what I was taught in my church to believe about transsexual people. I didn’t understand what the Bible had to say about variant sex and gender in Isaiah 56:3-5 and Matthew 19:12; I didn’t understand the message of 1 Samuel 16:7b:
God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.
Stephen is a masculine name; in my early forties I knew I needed a new name that reflected that my spirit — the spirit that is the Biblical heart — that wasn’t masculine.
Since the late 1990’s when I realized I may transition after leaving the Navy, I thought of what I’d name myself should I transition. Originally I was considering Monica. The Santa Monica Pier was one of my favorite hang-outs as a teen — a beach fairly near to the San Fernando Valley where I was raised — so I was going to name myself after my pleasant memories of that beach. But then came the Monica of the hit television show Friends, and the suddenly the name Monica lost its appeal to me.
Then I considered Heather, a name of a violet flower. It was a name that represented colorful spring blooming to me, but then came the fashion trend color of “gray heather” — I didn’t want to name myself after anything associated with the color gray.
I finally settled on Autumn as the name that reflected the spirit that was in my heart. Like Heather, the name represents color to me — Autumn represents the colors of that season’s changing leaves. And Autumn being seen as the third season after spring and summer…well, I was transitioning in my mid-life, and the entering of life’s third season seemed to fit: I was at the beginning of my life’s Autumn season.
There is a third aspect to the name though that holds spiritual meaning to me: autumn is the season where one reaps what one sows:
Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…
So in July of 2003 I surrendered the name Stephen — taking on the colors of Autumn.
There are significant values I have that go into how I approach life, and one is encapsulated in the parable of the Good Samaritan as found in Luke 10:25-37.
When I think about that parable, I consider how many of my trans community siblings are outcast and downtrodden, and how Christ ministered to the outcast and downtrodden.
John 15:13 tells us “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” The Biblical Stephen laid down his life in death for his beliefs and his friends; I in turn try to follow his example in laying down my life — in life — for my friends. I don’t always succeed in that effort of serving my peers, but I see the value in making a sustained effort towards that end.
So in one sense, I take the name of Stephen with me in how I approach community activism. And it’s not because Stephen is a masculine name or representative to me of a masculine way to approach life, but instead because the name speaks to me of what it is to be an active force for good rooted in love for one’s community. It’s an spiritual embodiment of thought regarding what life’s most urgent question for me is: What am I doing for others?
And again, I don’t always succeed in being an active force for good, and I don’t always serve others as well as I would like to. But, I make an effort to do what I believe are the right things for what I hope are the right reasons to achieve ordinary equality for my peers and me. And, of course, as well as for the next generations of community that will come after my generation of trans community activists.
There was no coffin to nail for a death of someone named Stephen Sandeen; giving up that male name didn’t mean Stephen died. I’ve taken the best of this person who lived under that name, that person who is really still just me, and now she lives under the name of Autumn.
Stephen and Autumn are both names that have meaning to me, but as seasons change my life has changed. Yes, my name was Stephen, and even though I take that name with me in how I approach life, it isn’t my name now.
So just call me Autumn — that’s my real name. It’s a name that reflects who I am now; it’s the name that fits me best.