What Is Deadnaming and Why Is It So Harmful?

Plus, exactly how to respond with grace if you accidentally deadname someone.

a trans flag overlaid with cursive writing
Photo: Alex Sandoval

The term "deadname" may sound like the name for a Grateful Dead cover band. But far from something worthy of eye-rolls, the word deadname actually refers to the name a trans, non-binary, and/or gender-expansive person used prior to changing their name, explains Jesse Kahn, L.C.S.W., C.S.T., director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC. Put simply, it's the name they no longer use.

It seems easy enough to understand. But learning exactly what a deadname is, as well as why calling someone by their deadname can be so damaging, is essential for being an ally to the trans community.

Here, a guide on deadnaming, exactly why it's an act of violence, and what to do if you accidentally deadname someone.

What Is Deadnaming?

A deadname is the name (or names) that a trans, non-binary, and/or gender-expansive person was called before adopting a more self-affirming name later in life, explains Kahn. This can include the name(s) given to this person at birth, as well as name(s) someone used previously as nicknames. Many trans, non-binary, and gender-expansive people begin to use a different, more affirming name when they come out or begin to transition, he explains. To draw on a pop cultural example, Juno star Elliot Page's announcement that he goes by Elliot when he came out as transgender.

As a refresher: Both coming out and transitioning mean different things based on who is doing the defining. Generally, "coming out" is the term used when a person first shares their gender or sexuality with someone else. And "transition" is the broad phrase used to name the social, medical, and/or legal steps someone takes toward living as their gender. (More relevant terms here: The LGBTQ+ Glossary of Words All Allies Need to Know)

Importantly, deadname is not synonymous with "real name." "Referring to someone's deadname as their 'real name' implies that the name they are going by now is somehow 'fake' or a costume of some sort," says Kahn. Someone's deadname is simply a name somebody no longer uses or feels affirmed by.

The Specific Harm of Deadnaming Somebody

"Deadnaming refers to the act of calling a trans, non-binary, or gender non-conforming person by this previous name instead of the name they currently use," explains Kahn. Whether intentional or not, deadnaming is an act of violence.

Why? "When you deadname someone, you are using a name for them they have intentionally and specifically separated themselves from," says Kahn. Moreover, a deadname is a name that someone has announced does not reflect who they are or their identity, gender, and/or experience, they explain. When you deadname someone, you are ultimately signaling that you reject who they really are, as well as invalidating their true identity.

Deadnaming someone in front of a co-worker, friend, or stranger can also inadvertently out them, revealing or hinting at information about their sex assigned at birth that this person may not want everyone — or anyone — to know. For example, if John made the decision to pass as a cisgender man every day at work (aka live stealth), and you accidentally call him "Julia" in front of his coworkers, it may raise eyebrows. Similarly, if you call your non-binary friend Ari by the name "Andrew" in front of another friend, your mistake may give your friend more information about Ari's genitals than Ari wants them to have (reasonable!).

"Deadnaming someone also suggests that you think you know someone's identity better than they do," adds Kahn — which, at best, is pompous and, at worst, is transphobic. In severe instances, outing someone via deadnaming could result in the person being subject to workplace discrimination, violence, and/or harassment.

Why Deadnaming Isn't the Same As Calling a Cisgender Person By the Wrong Name

To be very clear: Deadnaming refers specifically to the act of calling a trans person by their previous name. A cisgender person (a person whose assigned sex at birth matches their current gender) can be misnamed or called by the wrong name, but they cannot be deadnamed. "The difference between the two is that only one [calling a trans person by the wrong name] is a matter of disrespecting someone's gender identity," says Kahn.

When you call a cisgender person by a name other than the name they use for themselves — for example, their birth name when they go by a nickname or a childhood nickname they no longer use — you are being disrespectful. But you are (usually!) not invalidating their gender. Further, rarely does wrongfully naming a cisgender person cause the same distress and gender dysphoria that deadnaming a transgender person does. (Gender dysphoria is when someone experiences distress over their biological sex not matching up with their gender identity.)

As a reminder: You cannot tell if someone is cisgender or transgender simply by looking at them. So, if you're looking to avoid deadnaming someone, simply call people all across the gender spectrum by the names they tell you they would like to be called — don't over-complicate it.

What to Do If You Deadname Someone

Put simply, acknowledge the fudge, then move on gracefully. If you realize that you've unintentionally deadnamed someone, apologize the moment you realize you've done so and move on, says James Vining L.C.S.W., a psychotherapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC.

Here's what that might look like:

  • Jordan — I apologize, Jonah — is going to lead us off.
  • Jordan is going to lead us off. Oh, I'm sorry, that's not Jonah's name. Jonah is going to lead us off.
  • Jord… Jonah is going to lead us off. Sorry about that, Jonah.

These examples demonstrate that you understand that you've made a mistake and they smoothly allow the conversation to continue. "Effusively and repeatedly apologizing to someone re-centers the focus on you and theatrically detaches from the interpersonal violation that has occurred," explains Vining. Moreover, it may be embarrassing for the person you've deadnamed, who you have essentially turned into a spectacle with your own spectacle. Plus, you put this person in a position where they feel like they need to assure you that it's okay that you deadnamed them. But truthfully, it isn't okay — deadnaming is harmful even when done accidentally. (See: What People Always Get Wrong About the Trans Community, According to a Trans Sex Educator)

If you deadname someone, and they (or someone else!) inform you, the right move is to thank them. "Rationalizing your behavior is a defensive justification that will only exacerbate the situation," says Vining. Instead of rationalizing, let the person know you appreciate the correction. (FTR, this is what you should do if you misgender someone by using the wrong pronouns, too.)

Here's what that might look like:

  • Thank you for the reminder!
  • I really appreciate you taking the time to let me know.
  • Yes, thank you!

Then, make an internal vow to do better next time.

Indeed, you may genuinely feel anxious that the person you deadnamed will not forgive you — and it's possible that they won't, at least not immediately. But again, constantly apologizing will likely have the opposite effect because it makes their pain about you, says Vining. "The best thing to do is to change your behavior when you interact with them the next time," he says. As the saying goes, the best apology of all is a change in behavior.

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