Trans 101: Names
(reposted from Facebook, originally posted January 27, 2017)
I’ve been asked about it a couple of times lately, so just a brief note about names. The question has come up by cisgender people writing and talking about me, wondering which pronouns and name should they use when referring to me in the past.
The short answer is: Always, in every situation, identify a transgender person using the name and pronouns they have asked you to use. When writing about Caitlyn Jenner, for instance, you can say, “Caitlyn appeared in the Village People movie Can’t Stop The Music when she was 30 years old, playing an uptight lawyer who learns to loosen up.”
It is acceptable, if necessary, to identify a trans person in writing if you feel that your audience needs to know a person’s deadname in order to understand what you’re saying. In my case, for instance, it may not be common knowledge that I am transgender, so an article about me might say something like, “The book was written by Dave Justus and Lilah Sturges (credited as Matthew Sturges).” It’s rare that this will come up, though.
You may have noticed the word “deadname” in the previous paragraph. You probably gleaned its meaning from context — a transgender person’s birth name — and may have thought that it seems like a pretty aggressive term. Why “deadname”? What’s so bad about the name that your sweet mama gave you?
For trans people, it is frequently the case that their previous name represents a life and a persona and an entire way of being in the world that caused them immense emotional pain. The name is the literal SYMBOL of that existence. Many trans people want to think of that existence as dead and buried. That persona is “dead” to them. Hence “deadname.”
It’s not always used mistakenly or by default, either. Sometimes unaccepting friends, family, and co-workers will intentionally deadname trans people as an aggressive form of non-acceptance.
You might ask, “But why is it such a big deal? What’s in a name?” Names are powerful, and symbols are powerful. Just hearing or seeing our old names can trigger gender dysphoria, that feeling of discomfort that is one of the unfortunate hallmarks of the transgender experience. Seeing my old name still popping up everywhere from Netflix to the appointment reminder from my dentist is a little slap in the face every single time, a reminder of a lifetime of emotional pain.
I stop short of calling my old name my deadname though. For me, personally, that name has some positive associations, and it’s also printed on a LOT of books, which I’m proud of. So while it’s not dead to me, it’s kind of like an ex-lover with whom I had an extremely volatile but passionate relationship. and every time I see it, it brings back painful memories of all that tumult and uncertainty.
All anyone wants is just to be accepted for who they are. For most people, that goes without saying. Who you are is who you always were. But trans people don’t have that luxury; it can take us a long time to understand and come to terms with who we are. All we ask is that you believe us when we tell you.