I was born “Simon Hsiao Tam” on March 31, 1981…at least according to my parents. Growing up, I had a couple of different middle names. My paper trail through the public school system will sometimes list it as “Hong,” like my father’s, and sometimes “Hsiao,” from my mother’s side of the family. I didn’t really know which to choose, I just knew that no matter what, it began with an “H,” so that my initials of “SHT” would either be a badass proclamation or a target for ridicule.
But this wasn’t exactly the case: my birth certificate revealed that both my birthday and my name was wrong…at least according to the state. I was actually born “Simon Shiao Tam” on March 30, 1981. So no long the “SHT,” but “SST,” something that sounded like a large, antiquated cargo barge.
There was a lot going on at the time, I could see how mistakes could be made. On the day I was really born, President Ronald Reagan, along with several staff members were shot in broad daylight. On the 31st, Chicago’s Mayor Jane Byrne and her husband moved into the Cabrini–Green public housing project for several months in order to demonstrate their commitment to low income communities. But the reality is that this wasn’t the first time the government screwed up names in my family. As different relatives entered the U.S and dealt with different officials, our family name was interpreted and recorded differently. That’s why my father, his parents, his grandparents, and his siblings all have different last names: Tam, Tom, Tong, Tan.
Identity matters. When simple mistakes due to ignorance are passed off as our fault for not having easier to pronounce names, these can create difficulties later on for families trying to communicate, share resources, or navigate a system that was inherently designed for insiders. Identity is inherently tied with dignity: being able to define oneself on our own terms, as part of a larger community that you belong to as opposed to being defined by someone else and placed into a community that you are not.
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but would life would be continuously defined by this struggle for identity. Whether it was being able to inherent my actual family name or fully use the name of my band, I would soon learn that personal expression in the form of identity is a human right. It seems absurd, but this is what lead me to the Supreme Court of the United States: because of the steadfast belief that some names are worth fighting for.