Welcome to another installment of our “Defining” series, where we unpack various terms and identities.
“Deadnaming” is the act of referring to a person using the name they were given at birth instead of the name they have chosen for themselves. Deadnaming is hurtful, traumatic, and even dangerous for transgender people to experience, and we should always refer to people using the name they identify with.
Names are complicated. Our names are definitive pieces of who we are and how we are perceived in the world. They’re also extremely gendered in our society, which leads to problems for people who don’t fit society’s gendered expectations.
We’re not born with a gender. We come into the world as amorphous, genderless blobs, with no real way of expressing gender until we’re a lot older. It’s families, culture, and society that project gender upon us. We are not born with a gender; we are assigned one.
Naming is often a reflection of that gender assignment. If you are assigned “male” at birth, there is a long list of male names to choose from, along with a trunk of “boy” toys and “boy” clothes and a million little gendered expectations to boot. From the moment we’re born, gender is thrust upon us—whether we want it or not.
The name that we are given at birth is also aspirational. Our parents imagine a future for us, and choose a name based on who they expect us to be. As it turns out, sometimes the name you gave that genderless blob 16 years ago doesn’t quite suit the person that blob grew up to be. Often the name we were given at birth is a giant billboard pointing to that (incorrect) gender assignment. When we realize we’re not the gender we were assigned at birth, our name becomes a representation of everything that went wrong with our incorrectly-gendered lives.
As a transgender person, choosing a new name is a deeply personal and important process. When our given name is a stark reminder that we are not who we were expected to be, we are blessed with an opportunity to correct that mistake and choose a name based on who we are today.
When a person comes out as transgender, parents and families go through a transition of their own. Part of this transition as a parent is a rearranging of roles and expectations; not only is there a shift in how you perceive your child, but also a shift in how you perceive yourself. This transition takes time, introspection, empathy, and love. Respecting your child’s agency in determining their gender is a critical part of parenting a trans kid, and the expression of that respect is respecting your child’s chosen name and pronouns. Deadnaming, however, is a refusal of that agency; a denial of your child’s self-determination. It’s a way of telling your trans kid, “I know who you really are, and it’s not what you say”.
It’s not a trans person’s “real name.”
There are a lot of ways to refer to the name a trans person was given at birth—”real” is not one of them. I usually refer to it as my “dead name” or “given name.” One friend calls it her “birth name.”
Using the wrong name is harmless.
Getting deadnamed sucks. It’s jarring and uncomfortable. It violates trust. A person’s dead name can be a trigger word unearthing the gendered trauma many trans people live with. But deadnaming can also be wielded as a weapon against trans people.
Here’s a story: for most of my professional career, I have worked as a chef. It’s a hard profession for women to be in, let alone transgender women, but I’m good at what I do and I can pass for cisgender so I made a pretty good living running kitchens. When I moved to a new town I found a job at a kitchen that was a great match for my career. It was small, independent, and amenable to my management style. My first week at work I worked hard and proved myself in the kitchen to garner at least enough respect to run the place—until one day a coworker I had confided in got angry and loudly called me by my dead name in the middle of the kitchen. That’s all it takes to get the rumor mill going. I was quickly outed as transgender to the entire staff, then all of a sudden people “mistakenly” began misgendering and deadnaming me at every turn. Overnight, my new dream job had become so hostile I had to leave for my own safety. Using just one word in the wrong company, a person wielded my dead name with enough power to take away my livelihood.
Deadnaming a trans person has consequences.
It can be weaponized like in the story above but even if it’s an accident with the best of intentions, deadnaming a person in public is putting that person at risk. If you want to support and protect the trans people in your life, it is imperative that you always refer to them with the correct name and pronouns.
“I’ve always called you X, I’ll never get used to Y.”
As I was writing this piece I decided to reach out to my parents for their thoughts. I came out as transgender a little over ten years ago and it’s been maybe seven of those years since I’ve been deadnamed by one of my parents. Here’s what Mom said:
“It takes time, and it takes practice and effort. It doesn’t come easy at first, but in time it just becomes second nature, as natural as the name I called you before.”
Don’t be too hard on yourself for getting it wrong at first—it’s a transition for everyone—but don’t give up just because it feels weird at first. Apologize if you mess up and commit to doing better next time. Just give it time, effort, and practice.
Be sure to check out the rest of The Defining Series right here!
Mahdia Lynn is the founder and Executive Director of Masjid al-Rabia—a women centered, LGBTQ affirming, pluralist mosque in Chicago—where she has spearheaded unprecedented programming in support of marginalized Muslims. Mahdia’s prolific career as a community organizer has centered transgender liberation, disability justice, prison abolition, and youth suicide prevention. Her Black and Pink Crescent program provides services for hundreds of incarcerated LGBTQ Muslims across the globe. Mahdia lives in Chicago where she is a senior caregiver and works as a freelance writer, speaker and educator. You can learn more about Mahdia and her work at mahdialynn.com or on Twitter @MahdiaLynn