The truth around deadnaming and why we don’t do it
By Ed Ghost, Staff Writer
Hi, my name’s Ed and if I were introducing myself to you in person, you may be a little taken aback by someone who looks like me (see that photo? Yeah, that’s me!) giving you that as my name. Perhaps you misheard me? “Is it Anne? Deb? Steph?” Nope! It’s Ed.
Surely it must be short for something? What’s my “real” name? Do I go by something else—something that “suits” how I look better? The questions as to why that’s my name come rolling in almost immediately after I’ve introduced myself. Almost every single time.
It’s a very rare relief when someone I’ve just met takes it in stride, and continues whatever it is we were talking about before the name exchange. Usually, they suddenly get the urge to demand that I somehow owe them “proof” that I’m not lying about what I want to be called.
Here’s the kicker—it really is my name. But I shouldn’t have to pull out my ID in order to be believed. Even if it wasn’t my real name, or never used to be, it doesn’t matter. I have politely told you what I would like to be called. Honestly, I very rarely see this kind of behaviour directed towards people that fit the cisgender binary narrative.
If you are a girl named Jennifer and you introduce yourself as Jenn, no one bats an eye. If your initials are C and J? That’s cool, C.J.!
I legitimately know a guy who was called “Boner” in high school. He’s still called it to this day and not one person has questioned it, because he doesn’t mind, and it’s funny.
Not everyone is born into the name they feel best fits them, and part of life is to explore who you are and who you want to be.
Deadnaming is defined as “the usage either intentionally or unintentionally of a transgender or non-binary person’s name before they transitioned or otherwise have come out as something other than what they were assigned at birth”, according to Healthline. Jade Peek, director of community care at the gender inclusive centre Kind Space, explains it as “referencing, highlighting, focusing on or acknowledging a name that someone has clearly disregarded.” This could be a birth or given name that the person was given by their parents or family.
Oftentimes, when one is transitioning or on a journey of gender self-discovery, it’s common for people to adopt or try out different names than the one they grew up with. This can be done for a number of reasons. It can be to further remove themselves from the trauma of being forced to grow up as someone they don’t feel they are, or as a way to further affirm their current identity. For whatever reason, the decision to change a name is a part of the process that is often met with the most pushback, at least initially, from friends and family.
I get it, you’ve had an idea of someone all your life and then suddenly everything is changing. There is a grieving process to be done when you’re told that the person you thought they were no longer exists or never existed in the way you had understood.
Because things are changing, you feel a sense of loss. That’s ok, it’s valid to have those feelings. Change is hard, but if you actually care about the person who trusted you enough to disclose their metamorphosis, you should respect it. Do everything in your power to support their change. Support can be shown in many ways, such as simply calling them by the name they have asked you to.
Slipping up is normal. But the more it happens, the more damaging and stressful it can be for people.
What are some examples of deadnaming?
From family members, it could be any of the following:
“Oh, well you’ll always be my little *deadname*.”,
“I grew up with you as *deadname* so this is hard for me.”
“This is Sarah, but she used to be/formerly known as *deadname*.”
Recently a popular actor, Elliott Page, has come out as trans/non binary. As a result, the media has been deadnaming him a lot; something that is unnecessary. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for him to have his transition be under a public microscope with his deadname staring back at him in every news story. It’s even more aggravating to think that when writing an article it’s not hard to be mindful of the subject at hand.
Why is deadnaming so harmful?
I’m so glad you asked.
It’s just a name. Didn’t Shakespeare say that “a rose by any name would smell just as sweet”? – a line that suggests that a name is merely a way of distinguishing one thing from another, but doesn’t actually have an inherent value in itself.
Thinking that you get to call someone whatever you want, despite them correcting you, is not only weird and narcissist (you can’t even handle someone having a name that you otherwise may not approve of? You must be fun at parties), but potentially dangerous to the other person.
Deadnaming someone can put them in the terrifying position of having to explain to others around them that may not know that they are trans or nonbinary. This can open up the floodgates of gross and unnecessary questions about their body or worse, it can lead to violence or harassment. Also, never, ever out a trans person without their direct consent.
Invalidating someone, even by not simply accepting their name, could also lead to some awful mental health issues for them. Trans and nonbinary folk have a very high rate of suicide and self harm. Not feeling accepted by the ones closest to them can be a factor that contributes to that.
Even the smallest amount of validation, like remembering their pronouns or saying their name, might mean the world to them, and get them through some dark days. A 2018 study published by the Journal of Adolescent Health found that using a trans person’s name directly aids in less suicidal ideation and depression.
How do you talk to someone about their name?
Find an appropriate time and place. This means not in public or where other people are around. Don’t blindside the person with the conversation. Maybe send them a text and ask if they’re comfortable with this conversation happening—and remember, no one owes you an explanation about themselves.
If they say no, that’s their right and it should be respected. The purpose of the conversation should only have the end game of you gaining a better understanding of what they want to be called. It should let you find ways to remember their name or perhaps correct other people who are having trouble with the name transition.
What happens if you mess up?
Correct yourself and move on. By apologizing too much or making it a big deal, you could be putting added stress on the person as they have to continuously comfort you every time you may say something hurtful and damaging for them to hear.
If someone comes to you with a name you haven’t heard before, my suggestion is to immediately change their contact info in your phone to the new name. If their pronouns are different, maybe make yourself a little note. If the new name is constantly there when you’re interacting with them, (and let’s face it, text is definitely most people’s preferred method of communication these days) it’ll be easier to remember.
Also, don’t be shocked by the person’s frustration if the deadnaming is constant on your part—how would you feel if someone close to you just forgot your name and kept using the wrong one? You’d probably be concerned about your value to them—if they can’t even remember your name.
There’s a lot more information about deadnaming than what’s in this article., iIf you’re curious about it or have close friends or family that are transitioning or are considering adopting a new name, I invite you to seek that information out on your own. You’ll be better armed with information that’ll not only help you be a better friend or ally, but also be more informative and supportive to those who may be struggling on either side.