What Is Deadnaming and Why Is It So Harmful?
"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 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 in NYC. Put simply, it's the name they no longer use.
It seems easy enough. But understanding 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 LGBTQ+ community.
Here, a guide on deadnaming, exactly why it's an act of violence, and what to do if you accidentally deadname someone. Read on below to become a better ally tomorrow and beyond.
What Is Deadnaming?
A deadname is the name(s) a trans, non-binary, and gender expansive person was called before adopting a more-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 announced that they'd be going by Elliot when he came out as transgender earlier this year. (More relevant terms here: The LGBTQ+ Glossary of Words All Allies Need to Know)
(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 towards living as their gender.)
Important: 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. (Also read: A Guide to Personal Pronouns — and Why You Shouldn't Call Them 'Preferred')
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.
"When you deadname someone you are using a name for them they have intentionally and specifically separated themselves from," they say. Moreover, a deadname is a name that someone has announced does not reflect who they are, their identity, gender and/or experience, they say. When you deadname someone, you are ultimately signaling that you reject who they really are, as well as invalidating their true identity.
"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. (Related: Demi Lovato Opens Up About Getting Misgendered Since Changing Their Pronouns)
Deadnaming someone in front of a co-worker, friend, or strange can also inadvertently 'out' them, revealing or hinting at information about their sex assigned at birth that this person may not want 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, 'Andrew' in front of your friend, your mistake may give your friend more information about Ari's genitals than Ari wants them to have (reasonable!).
In severe instances, this outing someone via deadnaming could result in the person being subject to work place discrimination, violence, and/or harassment. (Related: The Problematic Truth About Transgender Healthcare Discrimination)
Deadnaming Is NOT 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, that's a person who's 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. (Related: What Does Cisgender Mean, Exactly?)
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, Fam.
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., 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," says 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's not 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!) informs you, the right move is to thank them. "Rationalizing your behavior is a defensive justification that will only exacerbate the situation," he says. 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, or 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.