By Katelyn Burns
Names can carry with them many connotations and emotions. Names can make you proud or fill your heart with memories of loved ones. Names can also bring pain, a reminder of an abusive parent, for example. In western society, we’re typically given three names at birth and for the vast majority of people, we’ll keep the first two names for life. But for transgender people, our relationship to our birth names are complicated and serve as reminders of difficult times. For myself, the middle name given to me at birth, Burns, has one simple association. Baseball.
You could say that baseball runs in my blood. I never met the man but my great grandfather’s life has cast a long shadow over my whole life. George “Tioga” Burns was a right-handed line drive hitter and major league first baseman who had stints with the Tigers, Indians, Red Sox, Yankees, and Athletics, a World Series champion twice over, and 1926 AL MVP (when he hit a then league record 64 doubles). Probably the highlight of his career was driving in the only run in a 1-0 game six win in the 1920 World Series for the Cleveland Indians. I knew all his accomplishments as a player, but to me he was just “Poppop”, my grandmother’s father, who passed away a few years before I was born. Despite his early death, I’ve somehow developed a deep spiritual connection of sorts with my middle namesake that’s withstood continuous change in my own life.
Growing up, I loved baseball more than anything else on the planet, and I tore up tee ball in my small town league in rural New England. I wasn’t blessed with tremendous athleticism, but instead substituted a love of sport and hard work to produce results on the field. Other kids might have modelled themselves after their favorite players, in my neck of the woods that usually meant a Yankee or a Red Sox player, but for me, I often pictured myself back in the 1920’s playing with the giants of the game like my “Poppop” did.
I remember sitting with my grandmother, “Mima”, completely enraptured with her stories about sitting on Babe Ruth’s lap as a child. She used to tell me that her dad was Lou Gehrig’s backup for about a half season in the midst of his 2,130 consecutive games played streak. That must have been rough. He once completed an unassisted triple play as a first baseman, though I have trouble imagining how he managed to pull that off. My mom tells me that he always said that in the moment he had a sense of history, so he “just ran like hell.”
But baseball wasn’t the only thing going on with me as a child. I also knew early on that there was something deeply wrong with my birth assigned gender. It’s hard to describe how I knew from such a young age, but I did. I’d often find myself up late at night, sobbing to my Catholic god to take the pain away and make me wake up the next day as the girl I should have been born as. Playing out on whatever field or court I found myself on as a child was truly one of the only places I often found refuge from my crushing gender dysphoria.
On the baseball field, there weren’t boys and girls, there were just athletes. At its core, baseball is about the pitcher, the batter, and the ball. Baseballs have no gender.
Despite having never met Poppop, I often imagined that he checked in on me from time to time. I wonder what he would have thought of my scoop or my stretch playing first. In the depths of my anxiety over my gender exploration being discovered, I wonder if he was watching the first time I slipped on that forbidden dress. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just enjoy my simple boy’s life of little league baseball. And then puberty struck.
Wearing dresses is not something that normal little boys, good boys, were supposed to do. I have no illusions what a man who was born in 1893 would have probably thought over his great grandson secretly wearing girls clothes when no one else around. Even as a child the guilt ate at me. Sometimes I felt like I was betraying the man I was named after. I used to daydream of changing my last name to Burns and disappearing into some far off life as the girl I knew myself to be in a place where they’d never heard of baseball before.
Once my body began to change, it was like my innocence was lost. I endured the double trauma of losing my grandmother, Poppop’s daughter, at age twelve, the same year my puberty began in earnest. The full reality that my body would grow into that of a man’s was a bitter pill to swallow, and I developed a certain gloominess. Having lost my most direct family connection with my family’s greatest athlete, not even baseball, once my great refuge from my gender rift, could soothe over the betrayal that came with my puberty. I drifted away from the game, quitting the sport entirely rather than try out for the local Babe Ruth team.
Twenty years later, and once again names were on my mind. I was finally ready to take the leap into the womanhood I always dreamed of. Would I go with my childhood dream and replace my birth surname with Poppop’s? The answer it turns out, was… sort of.
With two children of my own now, breaking that family connection is something I could never dream of. I desired a more traditionally feminine middle name, so it was finally time for Burns to go. My parents gave me a new middle name with its own family connection, but what of Poppop’s surname? As you can see from my byline, my choice of pen name was an easy one.
Every time I publish something now, I honor both the legacy and that fleeting connection I felt as a terrified little girl to a family legend. Poppop, learning about your life got me through so many difficult times in my life. I hope you’re proud of me when you look down on me now, I’m running like hell.
Katelyn Burns has written for the Washington Post, Vice and Playboy, among others. Follow her on Twitter @Transcribe.