Basilisk Beckham was scrolling through Instagram earlier this month when they came upon something that piqued their curiosity: a competition for the “World’s Most Transgender Name.”
The 29-year-old nonbinary person from Denver thought about their name — “Basil” for short — which they began using three years ago after joking around with friends about names derived from household objects.
The competition felt oddly affirming to Beckham, who has not yet legally changed their name because of the lengthy administrative process involved and their concern over being disowned by their family.
Beckham, along with 2,500 other people around the world, threw their hat into the ring.
“It’s just nice to feel like we have space to make joy for each other and have fun with our experiences, which I don’t think a lot of us get to have,” Beckham told HuffPost.
The competition is the brainchild of Jamie Lauren Keiles, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and the person behind @sexchange.tbt, an Instagram account dedicated to trans historical archives.
Keiles first started the account to post about trans history as he did research for his forthcoming book on nonbinary identity. He noticed the plethora of memes and other content poking fun at the range of “trans names” and wanted to create a fun competition to see whom the trans internet might crown number one.
He tried to group the deluge of names that competitors submitted by theme and genre.
“We had sort of zany Thomas Pynchon kinds of names, then you have people naming themselves animals, and then you have a category that’s sort of like Victorian orphan names,” Keiles said.
Names like Chariot Birthday Wish, Castle, Kit and Fox made it to the second round. There were also transmasculine names that Keiles said are more “trans classics” like Aiden and Kaden or Eli and Oliver, which were in big circulation in the 2000s.
Keiles initially thought the contest, which involves a sports-like bracket system and six rounds of voting, would get a few hundred responses. He was shocked by how quickly the competition spread among trans Instagram users.
“I’m always trying to think about what are the things that are both fun but accurate and that kind of galvanize the community and make people less depressed,” he said.
We had sort of zany Thomas Pynchon kinds of names, then you have people naming themselves animals, and then you have a category that’s sort of like Victorian orphan names.
Keiles said that the creative process of naming oneself has been a rich part of trans culture throughout history, and something that exists outside of broader cisgender society and politics.
Keiles only asks that applicants enter the name that they use in their real lives — the contest is open to people who both have and haven’t changed their names legally.
The process of changing one’s name and gender marker on official documents can be burdensome and expensive, and some states have made it even more difficult this year.
Kansas’ Republican-controlled legislature overrode the governor’s veto of a bill dubbed “the women’s bill of rights,” which not only bars trans women from women’s spaces like bathrooms but also makes it nearly impossible to change one’s gender marker on a driver’s license.
A number of states have also passed laws that require school staff to notify parents if a student asks to use a different name or set of pronouns and that allow teachers to misgender and deadname students.
And this year alone, at least 20 states have enacted laws restricting or banning gender-affirming care for minors. Meanwhile, there has been an uptick in violence against the queer and trans community.
Keiles sees the trans names competition — in all of its ridiculous glory, including a $100 prize, a commemorative trophy and a black-tie awards ceremony scheduled to take place over Instagram Live once the winner is announced on Sept. 1 — as a low-stakes, silly but creative outlet for trans people amid the ongoing anti-trans climate.
“I thought it’d be funny to have a most transgender name contest because it’s obviously ludicrous, this idea that one name could represent what trans is,” Keiles said.
“Obviously, it’s the time for serious political efforts, but you can’t survive constantly doing that without also just having culture that’s fun,” he said. “I think it’s really important for our sanity for people to have silly ideas and execute them.”
Keiles pointed to the trans “doll invasion” of Fire Island, wherein dozens of trans beachgoers held a celebration and fundraiser at the historically gay, male-dominated vacation destination, or the second annual Twinks vs. Dolls Olympics, a day of facetious field events, as other exercises in trans joy he has seen this summer.
Beckham — who is eager to see who makes it to the finals, even after being defeated in the second round by someone named Finn — agreed with Keiles’ assessment about the community needing a chance to experience “childlike joy.”
“I think a lot of us get robbed of that feeling of getting to live our childhoods authentically,” they said. “I’m getting to experience that joy of play and experimentation and curiosity that a lot of kids who are cisgender get to have.”