Gender, Names, and Publishing Under Initials

In a recent post on her website, Mary Robinette Kowal noted that the percentage of SFF books available for purchase at airport bookstores that were written by women and non-binary authors was alarmingly small in comparison to those written by men. Her explanation of her methodology struck me: “If I couldn’t tell and/or didn’t know, because the author used initials or a gender neutral name, I counted them as male. The reason I did this, instead of leaving them out, is because I was looking at the perception of gender rather than actual gender.” Though I don’t have a book out, I do have poems and essays published online and in print journals, and I’ve always published under my initials.

And so I asked myself, am I part of the problem?

So, first, a little history. When I began submitting poems in the early 2000s, I hesitated before typing my full first name on the top left of my poems. My impulse wasn’t to obscure my gender; in fact, the creative writing faculties at the universities I attended were pretty balanced with regard to gender. The professor who was my mentor and thesis director at my master’s program is a woman. And I never found the academic literary poetry scene to be nearly as unfriendly to non-men as the SFF scene can be (that’s not to say there wasn’t discrimination against women, only that I didn’t experience it first-hand. In fact, I know now that problematic behavior occurred, but it wasn’t on my radar at the time).

The problem wasn’t that I wanted to hide my gender. I wanted, rather, to hide my little-girl name. My first name, the one on my birth certificate, the one that has wafted around me my whole life like the scent of pink cupcakes, is a nickname. It’s a name that points to the fact that yes, she’s that ditzy blonde girl from Texas who has lots of spunk to make up for her lack of smarts but hey, hey, it’s okay, ’cause the boys all love her anyway. It’s a name that wears ribbons in its hair, cut off jean shorts, and drives a truck. It’s a name that wears too much eye makeup and is always, always sincere.

My name—or the common perception of my name—is pretty much the antithesis of who I am.

I may be from Texas, but I have about as much spunk as a dead armadillo. The last time I wore hair ribbons, I was probably eight years old. I can’t tell you the last time I wore makeup. I’m not blonde (anymore). I’ve never driven a truck. I am not my first name.

So I used my initials in order to appear more professional, especially since my poems have a southern aesthetic and often explore women’s lives. I didn’t think much at the time when I received mail addressed to “Mr. Walker.” I didn’t correct this error. But I was pretty clear in my bios about using “she” and “her.” When I began writing again a few years ago after a too long hiatus, I submitted under my initials again. The solution to my name problem worked before, so why not use it again? I wanted that sense of continuity—I wasn’t completely new to the publishing world.

That said, I wonder now if there wasn’t a better solution to the problem that I should have used when I was first starting out. The names for which my first name is a nickname for don’t have the same problem as the nickname itself. I could have used one of those. Maybe I should have worked to reclaim my name from its image. The few women I’ve met who share my name didn’t strike me as particularly girly. Or I could have used my middle name. I’d gone by my middle name briefly in college, but several people knew my first name, and they used both. If my first name alone is a pink frosted cupcake, then both together is that frosted cupcake with a good shake of sprinkles on top. So I dropped my middle name along with my accent.

Regardless of what I could have done, I don’t plan on publishing under a different name now. I’m T.D. Walker. I’m a woman. I’m not interested in hiding that fact. But that I have obscured my gender makes me part of the problem.

So I’ll keep saying it. I’m T.D. Walker. I’m a woman. And I hope that repeating that fact in bios, essays, blog posts, etc. will mean that in some small way, I can be part of the solution.