What is this?
For many — though not all — people who are transgender, undergoing a name change can be an affirming step in the transition process. It can help a person who’s transgender and the people in their lives begin to see them as the gender they know themselves to be. It can also alleviate discomfort that may be associated with one’s old name.
Unfortunately, many people may struggle to adhere to a trans person’s new, affirmed name. In some situations, other people may refuse to acknowledge the change altogether. And in situations that involve government-issued identification, having a legal name that doesn’t align with one’s affirmed name can cause staff and personnel to inadvertently refer to a trans person by the wrong name.
This is what’s referred to as deadnaming.
Deadnaming occurs when someone, intentionally or not, refers to a person who’s transgender by the name they used before they transitioned. You may also hear it described as referring to someone by their “birth name” or their “given name.”
This can occur anywhere in a trans person’s life, from personal relationships to the classroom or workplace.
When you refer to a person who is transgender by their non-affirmed name, it can feel invalidating. It can cause them to feel like you don’t respect their identity, you don’t support their transition, or that you don’t wish to put forth the effort to make this necessary change.
If you do so in front of a friend who doesn’t already know that trans person, it can effectively “out” them, or signal to your friend that they’re transgender. This may or may not be something that they want other people to know.
Not only can being outed cause stress, it can also subject that person to harassment and discrimination.
People who are transgender experience discrimination across the board, particularly if they’re known, believed, or discovered to be transgender. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s 2015 U.S. Trans Survey found that 46 percent of transgender people surveyed had been verbally harassed — and 9 percent had been physically assaulted — just for being transgender.
Due to discrimination in both housing and employment, 30 percent reported having experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Another 30 percent reported having been discriminated against in the workplace or with prospective employers.
Completing a legal name change can help people who are transgender avoid everyday deadnaming when presenting their IDs, whether it’s at the hospital, at school, or at your neighborhood bar. However, attaining a legal name change can be time-consuming, expensive, and subject trans people to further discrimination.
And — even when the process is complete — records of a person’s dead name can still exist in records and databases.
Take Dylan’s experience, for example. He made an emergency visit to the hospital where he was born. When he arrived, the staff matched his social security number to his birth records. Despite his legal name change, they addressed him with confusion.
According to the 2015 U.S. Trans Survey, only 11 percent of people surveyed had their affirmed name on all of their government-issued IDs. Of the survey’s respondents, 35 percent reported that they were unable to pursue a legal name change because of how expensive it is. And of those who had legally changed their names, 34 percent reported that they had spent over $250 to do so.
With legal name changes being expensive, inaccessible, and not completely effective at eliminating deadnaming, it’s important for institutions to put their own practices into place to support trans people.
So, what can institutions such as schools and hospitals do to prevent deadnaming?
The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association recommends:
- Institutions can develop a process to update their records with a trans person’s affirmed name without requiring a legal name change. This process should update records seamlessly across all of the institution’s databases to prevent confusion and potential deadnaming.
- If a legal name is required for forms or paperwork, create a separate space for people to put the name that they use in their everyday lives.
- Hire a trans-led organization to provide sensitivity trainings to staff and personnel.
Deadnaming is a common practice in the media, whether in print, online, or on screen. It can happen to people who have undergone transition in the public eye, like musician Laura Jane Grace. It can also happen to people who have experienced newsworthy harassment and discrimination, including fatal violence.
The National Coalition for Anti-Violence Projects reports a startling 29 percent increase in anti-LGBTQIA homicides from 2016 to 2017. About 75 percent of the lives taken in 2017 were those of transgender people of color.
In nearly all cases, at least one media outlet had initially referred to the victim using their dead name. Sometimes, the outlet used both their dead name and their affirmed name. Examples include the cases of Mesha Caldwell, Jojo Stryker, and Ciara McElveen.
The AP Style Guide now recommends that reporters, “Use the name by which [the] transgender person now lives” unless using their dead name is relevant to the story, while Reuters recommends that reporters, “Always use a transgender person’s chosen name.”
Although many trans people would prefer to not have their dead name used at all, and while the use of “chosen” to describe a trans person’s name isn’t ideal, these style guides set a precedent among media professionals to respect transgender people’s affirmed names.
What else can media outlets do to prevent deadnaming?
Common recommendations include:
- If you have access to the person you’re reporting on, ask them. If you have access to first-hand accounts such as interviews or articles, follow the way they refer to themselves.
- If the person isn’t available to speak for themselves, reach out to the people who are closest to them to ask their name and pronouns. Remember that family members may not always be supportive, and therefore may not be the best resource.
- GLAAD’s helpful Media Reference Guide encourages reporters to use the active voice when discussing a trans person’s name. For example, write “the person’s name is X” as opposed to “the person goes by X” or “the person prefers to be called X.”
- If you’ve used the wrong name, issue a retraction and update your records wherever possible.
Thankfully, unlearning deadnaming as a behavior is fairly simple. It’s also a great way to show support for the trans people in your life and in your community.
- Ask the trans person in your life their name or what they’d like to be called, just as you might ask someone their nickname.
- Use that name for them in all situations. It will help you get used to it, and signal to the people around you how to correctly refer to your friend.
- Never ask a trans person to reveal their dead name to you.
- Know that it’s okay to mess up. We all make mistakes, and as you learn your friend’s new name, it’s likely you’ll get it wrong sometimes. The best thing you can do if you use the wrong name for them is to correct yourself and quickly move on.
You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, including being referred to by your affirmed name.
If you’re going into a situation where your dead name might come up, ask a supportive friend to come with you. If someone deadnames you, your friend can talk to that person and advocate for you, if desired.
You can also get help changing your government-issued IDs, if you wish to do so. There are a number of organizations that offer free or low cost assistance with ID changes.
Some great resources for this include:
- National Center for Transgender Equality’s ID Change Resource
- Transgender Law Center’s Identity Documents Resource
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project’s How to Change Your IDs
Whether you’re a medical professional, reporter, teacher, friend, or family member, moving past deadnaming is an important and easy way to show support for the trans people in your life and in your community. Doing so will set a powerful example for the people around you and create a safe and welcoming environment for the trans people in your life.
KC Clements is a queer, nonbinary writer based in Brooklyn, NY. Their work deals with queer and trans identity, sex and sexuality, health and wellness from a body positive standpoint, and much more. You can keep up with them by visiting their website, or finding them on Instagram and Twitter.