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For a man with a woman's name, one letter has spelled trouble

A dad's literary inspiration consigns a son to repeat for a lifetime: 'That's Kim with a K, not Jim, not Tim.' But there are some advantages.

August 29, 2013|By Kim Christensen

I knew my first name was trouble when Sister Edmunda wagged a bony finger in my face and accused me of fleeing limbo with a fake ID.

"Kim? That's not a saint's name," she said, her voice oozing disdain. "How did you ever get baptized with a name like that?"

Beats the hell out of me, Sister. I'm in the first grade, remember?

What I was too young to know was that my mom's cousin, a priest, had sneaked me into the fold under the saintly cover of my middle name, Martin. No matter. That would be the least of my worries.

"Kim? That's a girl's name," the other kids at school would mock, a charge that sounded far more egregious than being called a pagan. Worse still, these tykes' brothers and sisters, moms and dads, aunts and uncles and cousins all seemed to question my name's masculinity. My own brother made fun of me. His name is Dick.

I should note that this was not a matter of delicate sensibilities. As the second of five kids in a middle-class, Midwestern family, I knew the value of a thick hide. And I've harbored no ill will toward my parents for my distinctive moniker, which my dad plucked from the title of Rudyard Kipling's novel about an orphaned Irish lad's adventures in 19th century India.

Eventually I came to love the name, even if it did cause me grief along the way.

I remember one particularly mortifying encounter, when I was about 9, shy by nature, and spending a Friday night at a new pal's house. His whole family was at the dinner table when the father started digging in:

"Oh, man, your parents must have really hated you," he said, chortling over his fish sticks as my face blushed red-hot.

Then there were the countless others who suddenly seemed to lose their hearing when we met.

"Jim?"

No, Kim.

"Tim?"

No, Kim, with a K.

"Ken?"

No! It's Kim. K-i-m. Kim. KIM!

"You don't have to shout."

At first it all kind of hurt my feelings. Then it just became annoying.

It didn't help that I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, the kind of place that chewed up the weak and the slow-footed. A place where taunts required responses. A place where that kind of thing didn't always end well.

The few male Kims I've met were, like me, born before the mid-1950s. That's when Kim Novak first graced the silver screen and GIs returning from the Korean War began naming their daughters Kim, all but erasing it from the list of boys' names.

For good or ill, the best-known Kim ever may be Kardashian. But some male Kims also have been famous — or nearly so — among them Kim Henkel, the guy who co-wrote the screenplay for the original "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

At least one was infamous: the British spy/double agent/Soviet defector Kim Philby. If your given name was Harold Adrian Russell Philby, you might go by Kim too. He's also said to have taken it from Kipling's book, as did a lot of Kims' dads, according to guysnamedkim.com.

Many who have posted testimonials on the website tell nearly identical stories of people's puzzled and sometimes insulting reactions. Even so, it seems that Kims are a pretty resilient, good-humored lot and tend to laugh it off.

Though most said they've grown to like the name, some never adapt. A few cower behind initials or middle names, or simply wish they'd been dubbed something else.

Others recount childhood horror stories. Well, sort of: "Most upsetting moment at 8 years old — they put a girl on my bowling trophy! I never bowled again." (To which I say, count your blessings, dude.)

Some even extol the benefits of being a Kim, like getting grouped with the girls at church camp.

"I never said anything until we were sent to our cabins to hit the sack. It always created chaos," one camper wrote. "Did this for years! What a racket."

While working for a paper in Ohio years ago, I wrote to ask a convicted, cold-blooded killer for an interview and got a swift and pleasant reply: "I know a nice young lady like yourself will write a good story about me, so come on down."

You can imagine his horror when I showed up at the prison, a balding guy with glasses. But he was far from alone in mistaking me for a woman.

Most of my mail is addressed to "Ms." And a few years ago, the thief who somehow got hold of a new box of my personal checks also ginned up a woman's driver's license in my name — and used it to cash dozens of them all over Southern California.

I can't tell you how many waiters have insisted on returning my credit card to my wife even though I was the one who had handed it to them moments earlier. I've even had startled phone callers try to talk me out of my name.

"This can't be you," they'll say. "You're supposed to be a woman."

The name does have its advantages, not least of which is blowing off telemarketers with, "Sorry, she's not home." It's also come in handy for my job. More than once, I've received e-mailed story tips from women: "I'm writing you because I'm just not comfortable sharing this with a man."

Fact is, being a man trapped in a woman's name is not so bad. It has made my skin a little thicker and my reflexes a little quicker. And it could have been a lot worse.

If my dad had liked Kipling's "The Jungle Book," dining out would be a nightmare.

"Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, your table is ready."

kim.christensen@latimes.com

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