A Boyd in the Hand

Posted by – October 17, 2005

People ask me why I chose “Helen Boyd” for my pen name, and just tonight on the boards Andrea wondered if there was some connection to it being more “WASPy” than my given name, but no.

I chose it for being queerer, actually.

Helen’s my middle name, and there’s nothing exciting in that except that I was named Helen for my grandmother, and the name “Helen” (and its variants, Eleanor and the like) fill in a lot of my family tree. (My cousin, who did our geneology, likes to joke that there are only two pages in the Polish naming book.) I’m proud to bear it, as my grandmother was one of my role models growing up.

But Boyd is a little more complicated.

I certainly didn’t choose it to sound WASPy, as I’ve always regretted I didn’t get one of the more ethnic names – like Frollo or Topolski – I might have had (if we lived in a matriarchy).

It’s not Brooklynese for “bird,” as Mariette Pathy Allen once mused, either.

The thing is, I’d already been using ‘bettysgrrl’ with “Helen,” so I was turning up in people’s address books as “Helen B.” So I needed a last name that started with B, and it was the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay who loaned it to me.

In 1919, before she became a famous and popular poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote some early magazine pieces under the name Nancy Boyd. She was infamously bisexual, and some of the love poems she wrote were – gasp! – written to women. Thus, the pen name, borrowed from the phrase “nancy boy” which is slang for a sissy, a momma’s boy, an effeminate male. Millay, who signed her name Vincent (never Edna), was “Nancy Boy’d.”

I’ve always thought it was funny, and genderbent, and a nice bit of queer literary history, as in: a woman poet writing lesbian poems to girls straight out of Vassar uses a genderslur about feminine boys as her pen name, and in choosing my pen name in order to write a book about my feminine husband, I thought it was only appropriate to borrow Millay’s pansexual, genderqueer joke, since I admire her both as a woman and as a poet.

Recently it’s become even more lovely that I chose Boyd since Neil Gaiman – who is a favorite writer of mine, and one who coincidentally has written more than one cool, sympathetic story about a tranny – just published his new novel Anansi Boys, which is again another pun on “nancy boy” but this time borrowing from the Jamaican stories of Anansi the Spider.

An ironic coincidence is that after I chose the name, it turned out to be the actual name of one of my Jewish friend’s grandmothers – ie, someone who would have been the last person I’d have asked if he had a relative named “Boyd.” Go figure.

(Well, I think it all makes perfect sense.)

And for those of you who are wondering, and who have asked: please keep calling me Helen. I actually prefer it to my given name.

1 Comment on A Boyd in the Hand

  1. Winter says:

    Oh how lovely. I didn’t realise Millay was bisexual because I hadn’t read any of her biography, but I’m very pleased to hear it.

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