Respecting Lower Case Stylisation

I’ve stylised my name the same way for over half my life: In lowercase.

It’s not unprecedented. Plenty of people past and present, including notable personalities, either prefer to lowercase their names (bell hooks) or use both cases interchangeably (e e cummings/E.E. Cummings). It’s a stylistic choice, but it’s also a matter of personal expression, though in English, proper nouns (including names) are typically capitalised; thus Earth but not earth, for example. Yet, with names it becomes more complicated. Names are not just identifiers of an individual, differentiating ‘person’ from ‘Jane Doe,’ but identity markers; ‘what’s in a name,’ Romeo asks, putting voice to a question that humans have been struggling with for centuries, from the moment we separated ourselves from the group, became individuals, I, instead of a collective.

Some of us have names thrust upon us, to crib Shakespeare again, while others of us choose, or take, or demand, our own. Some are reduced to nicknames by the people around us, while others prefer to take up their own nicknames, to change the way their names are used. Many, like me, use their names differently in different spaces, depending on who is present, and the context; thus, I answer to many forms of my name, not just one, though I am oddly thrown when a name is used out of context.

I write under my initials, and I lowercase them. I’ve used lowercase initials — s.e. smith — to name myself for a very long time. I can see that I signed my first driver’s license that way, that I spelled out my name that way on high school papers. While I can’t track down documents where I wrote down my name from middle school, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to find it stylised that way then, too. For me, my public name, the name written down, has always been lowercased. Oddly, when I write out my full name, I usually capitalise it, though I’m honestly not that fussy; like e e cummings, I am not always consistent.

But it’s important to me that the name that has become my public face be stylised correctly, and I cringe every time I see it capitalised. Usually, it’s an honest, genuine mistake; it can be very difficult to tell whether a lower case name is a personal style choice, that of a publication’s style guide, or any number of things, so when people encounter a name in lower case (as, for example, on a book cover), they may err on the side of what they perceive as caution and use upper case. Note, for example, the difference between emily m. danforth’s name on her website and on the cover of The Miseducation of Cameron Post in contrast with her Wikipedia article, which stylises it in upper case (despite the fact that the site clearly supports lowercase spellings). The fact that it’s lowercased in two out of those three places strongly suggests she prefers it that way — but I can’t be positive without asking her.

People make honest mistakes. I don’t mind. I reach out to correct them when I notice, politely, asking them, if possible, to fix the problem. (Sometimes, as with bylines on The Daily Dot, the CMS just doesn’t support a lowercased name, and I have to deal with it, though it’s irritating.) But I get most irritated when I reach out and get rudely refused, and even more angry when I encounter a major news publication that tells me it won’t stylise my name in the way I prefer.

I understand why many publications do not use gender neutral pronouns. It irritates me, but I would argue that they are slowly learning. More and more are coming ’round to the notion that it’s all right to use them, that readers can handle the emotional stress, with a note about individual preference. I hope that someday, it’s not necessary. However, the refusal to honour stylisation of names is about a pretty basic denial of identity. Gender neutral pronouns require a fundamental rethinking of how editors view gender. Stylisation of names requires reflecting the fact that consistent capitalised proper nouns are actually a relatively late addition to English and some people don’t fancy them. It’s petty and somewhat cruel, especially when it’s exposed as differential treatment, because most publications that won’t stylise my name correctly will stylise other names correctly.

I don’t begrudge bell hooks. I really don’t. But the Washington Post stylises her name correctly, while the copyediting department insists that mine must be rendered with capital letters. That’s a clear case of inequal treatment, and inconsistent policies. If a publication fervently believes that its preferred house style supercedes how people identify and wish to be known, it should at least apply that attitude consistently: If S.E. Smith must be capitalised, so too must Bell Hooks and Emily M. Danforth. There’s no excuse for treating subjects of articles differentially on the basis of size of public profile.

I respect the way people prefer to have their names stylised and spelled. I respect the pronouns people prefer. I have fought copyediting departments over preferred identities and terminologies when I am referencing and profiling people. Because it’s important to me that I respect fundamental components of people’s identities, and a name is one of the most personal, important, meaningful things at all — perhaps especially so when someone has reclaimed a name, has made it something to be proud of instead of an object of shame and misery.

So maybe some people think that people who stylise their names in lowercase are being special snowflakes, or twee, or precious, or ridiculous. I’m okay with that assumption: It’s wrong, and offensive, but I’m not going to invest energy in trying to change the minds of people who clearly have a set opinion. Would it kill those people, however, to respect me? After all, I can freely offer respect for people doing things I think are ridiculous (when those things cause no harm). I don’t, as I am often wont to say, have to get it to respect it. So you prefer to stylise your name in uppercase, and you don’t get why other people don’t. That’s cool — but what’s it to you that I feel differently?

Image: Rastlos, Olli, Flickr.