Deadnaming and Reclaiming

For trans people, names can be a source of joy… and pain

Pax Ahimsa Gethen: My real, chosen, and legal name.

Twice a year, when Daylight Savings Time begins and ends, I putter around changing all the clocks in the house that don’t update themselves automatically. One of these is the caller ID display on my landline phone. It does update to the current time once someone calls, but I’m impatient for that to happen, as we get few calls to our landline other than spammers and scammers. So I call my home number from my cell phone to hasten the process.

This year, I noticed something strange and alarming: My deadname — the name I was given at birth and went by before my gender transition — came up on the caller ID display. As I’d gotten a legal change of name and gender five years ago, I was sure I had updated it with my cell phone carrier long before, and would have noticed my (increasingly bothersome) deadname come up during previous Daylight Savings change rituals.

Fortunately, my cell phone service provider offers excellent customer service. I opened up a web chat and explained the situation. It was a Sunday evening, but they responded very quickly, and were friendly and helpful as always. Excerpts from a redacted transcript of our chat follow:

(09:09:05 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: The caller ID on my cell phone is displaying my previous name, which I changed legally several years ago. Please reset to show my current name or just remove the ID completely.
(09:09:16 PM) *** Denise W joined the chat ***
(09:09:22 PM) Denise W: Hi Pax
(09:10:19 PM) Denise W: Is this on [cell phone number]?
(09:10:22 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Yes
(09:10:52 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: I called my home number today to reset the time for DST, and saw my previous name on the display
(09:11:18 PM) Denise W: okay I’ll do my best .

[…]

09:13:07 PM) Denise W: You’re on GSM so we can only change it to Wireless Caller. Is that okay?
(09:13:12 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Sure.
(09:14:47 PM) Denise W: okay 1 moment. I’ll get this going.
(09:14:52 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Thanks

[…]

(09:15:31 PM) Denise W: Can you give me the number that receives your call showing the wrong name please?
(09:15:42 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: [home number]
(09:15:57 PM) Denise W: thank you
(09:16:32 PM) Denise W: And what is the name that shows up?
(09:16:37 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: [deadname]
(09:16:53 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Well actually [deadname - last first] is what is displayed

[…]

(09:18:30 PM) Denise W: okay thank you. I have it requested to update the caller ID. It can take up to 72 hours to update it.
(09:18:36 PM) Denise W: Sometimes much quicker
(09:18:43 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: Thanks, much appreciated.
(09:19:12 PM) Denise W: You’re very welcome.
(09:19:17 PM) Denise W: Enjoy your Sunday!
(09:19:24 PM) Pax Ahimsa Gethen: You too, thanks!
(09:19:30 PM) Denise W: Thank you. :)

I included the above transcript to highlight that it is entirely possible to have a respectful, professional interaction with a customer without using any gendered terms. As I’ve explained in previous blog entries, I am agender and prefer not to be addressed as “Sir” or “Mister”, even though those terms are preferably to me to “Ma’am” and “Miss” as I’ve chosen to transition to male for legal and medical purposes. I realize that most employees who use these titles and honorifics are simply following orders to do so, but I remember and seek out services and establishments that have staff who avoid gendered terms when speaking with me.

Although I was happy that my case was promptly and respectfully addressed, even typing my deadname into a private web chat was difficult for me. I’ve grown increasingly distressed by seeing that name the further I am into my transition. Though I’m not stealth (so cannot be “outed”), trans-antagonistic bullies who know of my dysphoria sometimes rub it in my face, as my deadname is easily findable on the Internet; I posted under it quite frequently.

One person stalked me with my deadname for months, on Wikipedia, my personal blog, and elsewhere. These attacks — which escalated to graphic sexual references and suggestions that I be put into an internment camp and kill myself — were mentioned in a recent New York Times article about the harassment marginalized people face on Wikipedia.

While I have significant dysphoria over my deadname, it’s important to note that not all trans people feel this way. Some trans folks, such as Eli Erlick, choose not to change their birth-assigned names even if they don’t appear to match their transitioned gender. For some, having a non-traditional name for their gender is a powerful reclaiming and statement against unnecessary binary thinking.

However, it is always best to presume that a trans person who has changed their name does not want their deadname revealed or spoken about, even in the past tense. This especially applies to journalists writing about us. One of the queer choruses I sing in was recently featured in a front page article in a local newspaper, but the very first paragraph included the deadname and dead pronouns of one of our transgender singers. Though I guessed — and later confirmed — that he was personally OK with this language, it made me reluctant to share the piece with anyone. Drawing undue attention to a deadname, especially at the very beginning of an article about trans people, reinforces negative stereotypes and is harmful to our community.

Choosing one’s own name is one of the most powerful and affirming actions a trans person can make. Hearing that chosen name used reliably and respectfully is vital to our well-being. Cisgender people who routinely change their names for reasons of marriage, for example, might not understand what the big deal is if someone finds out the names we were assigned at birth. Or they might argue that it is in the public interest to know this information, even if we were not notable before our transitions.

Trans people don’t exist to satisfy the curiosity of cis people. Our identities are precious, and our histories are often painful to recall, and we should be entitled to reveal as little or as much about them as we wish. Honor our names, and respect our efforts to live as our authentic selves.