Written by Prism member Jewleah Johnson, who identifies as queer and transgender.
‘Deadname’ in the transgender community is a term used to describe the name that a person was given by parents/guardians. Not every transgender person has a deadname, but for some transgender folks, finding a more appropriate name for themselves is a part of their journey to presenting their true self to the world.
A sort of 'sacred' part of the social transitioning is naming yourself (or having a parent/guardian re-name you). Some folks stick with a name close to their deadname to try and make it easier for friends and family to make the switch. Some get creative and choose a name reflecting their heritage, their ‘rebirth,’ even the heroes (real and fictional) in their lives that helped them get through dark times.
A lot of thought and consideration goes into choosing a name. There’s often some guilt about letting go of a deadname, because it was somewhat of a gift from your relatives –though even gifts come with gift receipts most of the time, and that’s why there’s a process to change your legal name in the first place.
Some transgender folks legally change their names, which can cost upwards of $300, mean taking time off work to go to court and complete the process, and explaining to a judge why they want to change their name. Even Facebook makes it hard for transgender people to change their names, and often blocks them from their own accounts when they are brave enough to transition. I have seen multiple friends find the courage and strength to change their profile name, only to have a friend report the change to Facebook, and have it shut down indefinitely. The official name change process isn't accessible to a lot of folks, so many end up using their new name, and don't go through the process to change their legal name right away, or ever.
Aside from Facebook, deadnames can wind up causing many other issues for people who are trying to leave their past behind them. They can even be the portal to a hellish workplace, homelessness, unemployment, and many, many other issues to transgender folks.
Deadnames wind up in a lot of different places where they don’t have a place. In medical care they turn up on hospital wristbands, even in inpatient mental health treatment facilities –where they do a lot more harm than good. They are printed on blood samples, called out in crowded waiting rooms, printed on prescriptions, used in front of the patient constantly, and needed as signatures on some legal forms.
In school they are read out on attendance forms, used for grading, seating charts, and report cards. Peers may use them to get a rise out of others, and they may be a point of gossip with malicious intent.
At a workplace, they appear on work schedules, nametags, printed receipts, email addresses, and even ‘employee of the month’ placards. Sometimes deadnames interfere with payroll, or wind up on envelopes sent home. When applying for a job, even after a name change, they may turn up on background checks, old social security cards, or even handed over with references from old employers. It’s hard to prove employment discrimination when you were never hired in the first place, and conversations behind closed doors secured your fate. And it’s hard to go to work when you anticipate your old name being thrown at you left and right.
When applying for rental housing after a name change, potential landlords checking in with old landlords as references can find out someone identifies as transgender before the applicant can even set up an apartment showing. And though we want to say that housing discrimination is a thing of the past, and that ‘most landlords only care about getting the rent check,’ I have experience disclosing that my wife was my partner to a landlord (in person) and going from handing over the keys to the place, to a cold ‘Sorry, it’s spoken for. We will call you if anything changes. Goodbye.’ And that’s being perceived as lesbians, not transgender, which people have less understanding and exposure to.
There are so many more examples of deadnames causing issues in people’s lives, these are just a few examples. So let’s get to the meat of the issue –where you and I come in when interacting with people. When we aren’t at work, when we’re in a social setting, we may come across someone with a deadname. That’s cool, usually it doesn’t affect us at all.
We don’t need to know someone’s deadname in order to understand who they are. If we knew them previously, remembering their deadname does not help us access some sort of ‘next degree’ of friendship. A lot of people consider it to be rude or a power play to ask someone what their deadname was. If someone wants to talk about their deadname, they should be able to do so without worrying that it will cause more issues for them. However, that’s not the society we live in right now, so you and I, we have some ways we can help with that.
Here’s some tips on how:
1) Ask people their names and pronouns when you meet them. Make sure you repeat them back, and ask if you’re pronouncing them right. Ask them what nicknames are okay before choosing them. All of these are respectful things to do for ANYONE you meet, so get into the habit and people are more likely to feel respected and seen upon meeting you.
2) Don’t use people’s deadnames. Unless you are filing a restraining order and it’s their legal name, you are in need of it for other legal information, or it’s a different type of emergency, just don’t use it. It’s not pleasant.
3) If you know someone’s deadname, do not share it. Deadnames, by their nature, often ‘out’ people as transgender, and put a target on their backs. Not everyone who knows a deadname is going to keep it to themselves, and not everyone who finds out a deadname is going to be kind to the person it may hurt.
4) Shove deadnames deep, deep, down in your memory. If you heard a deadname and now it’s all you can think about, look at a picture of the person in question and say their name and pronouns (current, not past ones) out loud while looking at their face. Say a few sentences about them for practice. Use practicewithpronouns.com for some encouraging, fun help with pronouns.
5) If you hear someone using a deadname, interrupt it. ‘I think you mean [current name]?’ or even an innocent ‘What? [and give a questioning look]’ may help that person get out of a bad habit before they cause a lot of issues. I particularly like saying ‘what?’ to someone, because it makes them think about what they just said, and gives them the opportunity to correct themselves and get in the mindset to use the right name or pronouns.
6) If someone is using it to harass another person, report it. If it’s at a workplace, if it’s in school, find out the reporting process. It may be best to check in with the person being victimized first, but your corroboration of their experience is going to validate their experience if they choose to report. It may also make them feel less invisible, less alone, and give them hope for detaching from their deadname in that space.
7) Use their new name SOOOO much. It’s validating. It really is. When you come home from work, school, or any life event where you were deadnamed or gossiped about, or even plain bullied, hearing the name you choose can sound like music to your ears. You can be that music for people. You can be a ray of sunshine on a cloudy, deadname-full day. Some people say ‘I don’t really mind what name you use,’ and that’s okay too, but making an effort to use a chosen name stands out when you consider all the ways their chosen name is not being taking into account.
8) Check in with them. Social transitions can be hard. Likely this isn’t the only thing this person is dealing with, as coming out to family, friends, at work, at school, to medical professionals… well it can be exhausting. It can feel overwhelming (it IS overwhelming). Remind them to take one step at a time, that you have their back, and help them find someone to talk to if they need it (a support group, counselor, trusted adult, etc).
If you are experiencing/witnessing a situation where deadnames are causing trouble, it is probably a good idea to check in with a local resource, like Prism, to find out what can be done. A lot of people want to help make deadnames less of an issue. Ideally, one day, transgender folks won’t be treated differently because of deadnames. After all, cisgender people change their names, too, and their choices are usually respected and understood. One day, deadnames will not cause as much trouble, but until then, please be aware of the impact they may have on someone’s every day experiences.
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