Earlier this week, Elliot Page posted a statement on Twitter introducing himself as transgender. In the same sentence, he told us his name and preferred pronouns (he/they). And yet, within minutes, many across both social media and traditional news outlets broke and discussed the news using his deadname and former pronouns.
Despite trans individuals becoming more visible in media and entertainment over the past several years, the reaction to Page’s announcement was a reminder that collectively, we have a lot more work to do. While some of the reactions were downright hateful (and not worth dignifying with discussion here), others appeared to be well-intentioned but misguided attempts at conversation about trans identities and communities.
Also, a lot of people learned of the term and concept of “deadnaming” for the first time this week. While that is only one of the many nuanced aspects of this discourse, it’s one that needs to be more widely understood. Here’s what deadnaming means, why it’s harmful, and how to be sensitive, supportive, and respectful when discussing and speaking with trans people.
What is deadnaming?
Before we get into definitions, this is a good time to mention the work of the Trans Journalists Association (TJA), which not only supports trans journalists in their workplaces and careers, but also provides guidance to the media on how to ensure coverage of trans communities is accurate and sensitive. But even if you aren’t a journalist, their resources—in particular, their Style Guide—offer clear, straightforward information on language and terminology. The glossary, as well as the rest of the document, was written by trans journalists, a fact that happens to coincide with lesson number one: Listen to trans people.
OK, back to deadnaming. Here’s part of the TJA’s definition:
A trans person’s given or former name that they no longer use, also often referred to as a “given name” or “legal name.” … While deadname is usually a noun, it’s also used as a verb to refer to the act of using the wrong name for a trans person.
The TJA informs journalists and other members of the media that “there’s never a reason to publish someone’s deadname in a story” [ephasis ours]—something that happened repeatedly this week in relation to Page.
Why is deadnaming harmful?
Deadnaming is far more than simply calling a person by the wrong name. It can also have a significant impact on a trans individual’s well-being. “We choose names that are correct for us. And often, our legal name, deadname, former name isn’t appropriate for trans people,” Oliver-Ash Kleine, a journalist and founding member of the TJA tells Lifehacker. “It takes away our autonomy. It takes away our right to self-determination, and often undermines our gender, and our identity. It’s really unaffirming, and it can be quite distressing.”
Unsurprisingly, deadnaming can have a significant impact on a trans individual’s mental health—and using their chosen name can have the opposite effect. For example, a widely cited 2018 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that using a transgender person’s current name is associated with a lower risk of depression and suicidal ideation.
This is something that Jack Turban, MD, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, has seen in his own research, which focuses on the mental health of transgender youth. “For many transgender and gender-diverse people—particularly the kids I’ve worked with—using this name from the past can bring up painful emotions and memories of needing to conceal their true selves,” he tells Lifehacker.
Additionally, Turban says that when someone uses the wrong name or pronouns when speaking with a trans person, it may remind them of people in the past who didn’t accept them for being transgender—like kids who bullied them in school, or maybe even a parent who kicked them out of the house. “They may assume that this person using the wrong name or pronouns is going to similarly reject or attack them,” he explains. “Using a person’s [chosen] name and pronouns is a simple sign of respect and a way to communicate that you accept a person for who they are.”
All of this data and expert opinion aside, it it also should be unnecessary for us to spell out why you shouldn’t deadname someone. You should use a person’s chosen name because it is the name they have chosen—it the very least you can do to show them respect. If it helps, think of it this way: If a friend gets married and changes their last name, you wouldn’t stubbornly insist on using the one you’re more familiar with.
How to be supportive and respectful when talking to or about a trans person
At this point it should go without saying that you shouldn’t call someone by their deadname. But there’s more to it than that. Here are a few ways to be supportive and respectful in all of your conversations.
Call someone by their name
When talking to or about a trans person, call them by their current name. If you don’t know what their preferred name is, ask them.
Have a conversation (when appropriate)
If someone close to you comes out as trans and you are unsure about their name and/or pronouns, Kleine suggests talking to them about it, in addition to asking how you can support them. “It’s a conversation that you can have with your friends to make sure that you’re using whatever pronouns feel best for them,” they explain.
In situations where someone tells you that they use multiple pronouns—for example, “he/they”—and you don’t understand what that actually means or how to use them correctly, again, Kleine says that the best way to figure it out is to ask the person. “If it’s someone that you care about and that you’re close to, a lot of times we’re quite open to that conversation, because we really appreciate that you’re thinking about that and want to be respectful of us,” they explain. Also, keep in mind that this may be an ongoing conversation, because, as Kleine points out, someone’s pronouns may change over time.
If you mess up, correct yourself and move on
Often in situations like these, our automatic response is to get extremely apologetic, but Kleine advises against that. “Don’t keep saying, ‘oh, I’m so sorry.’ Try not to let your emotions about this be the responsibility of the trans person. Just correct yourself and move on,” they explain. “That’s really the best thing you can do, and just commit to getting it right.”
Practice (on your own time)
If you find that you’re having a difficult time remembering to use a trans person’s name or pronouns, Kleine suggests putting the time and effort into changing that. “Sometimes that means practicing when they’re not around, just getting comfortable with new pronouns to make sure that you can get it right when you are around this person that you care about,” they said. What would this look like? Perhaps just repeating the name while thinking of the person’s face, and saying it aloud alongside their preferred pronouns.