Something like this happens to all of us at some point in our transition:
“You have to give us more time. It’s very hard for us to adjust to this.” This from my mother-in-law, after over a year of me being in transition. When she deadnames or misgenders me, it is often while playing with my daughter. After one extended visit, my daughter started to use the wrong name and pronouns at home. On another visit, I ended up isolating in my room, breaking out into hives, because a place that was supposed to be safe, instead became a minefield of identity-erasure, dysphoria, and trauma.
“I apologize for not updating that document before circulating it to the entire faculty.” This from one of my colleagues, after accidentally deadnaming me to my entire academic department. I know they mean to be supportive, but their support often feels conditional. They remember that I’m a trans woman named Theresa when I’m there to remind them about it, but they haven’t made any effort to adjust their work practices to reflect this, even after 15 months of me asking them to correct their records of me.
“I’m so so sorry, Tess. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It just slips out sometimes.” This from my mother, who has been so supportive and loving during my transition that I get misty as I write about it. She only slips when telling stories about my girlhood, and I know that she feels mortified when this happens. She’s managed to update her present understanding of me, but the past is so much harder for her. But even though I don’t doubt her love for me, I can’t control my reaction when it happens.
“And then my father looked at me and said, incredulously ‘Are you seriously crying because I called you “he”?’ and I knew he didn’t mean to, but it still hurt.” This from one of my girlfriends. One of the lucky ones. Her parents love and support her, they have accepted her transition and spent the last few years coming to understand that they have a daughter instead of a son. Even the most loving parents can still slip. And even when we know they don’t mean it, we still cry.
“I’m sorry Dr. Tanenbaum. We can’t change your deadname in citing papers, because we need to protect the rights of those authors too.” This from the staff of my primary scholarly community, where I am cited hundreds of times under an obsolete name, disclosing my previous identity to everyone who encounters me, and endangering my safety and livelihood in the process. I’ve written extensively about the importance of eliminating deadnaming in academic publishing, but never in a way that really communicates the deep hurt that I feel whenever a student cites a paper in my deadname, or a new Google Scholar alert pops up to remind me that people are still referencing me as Him….that past self who I don’t recognize anymore.
I hate that I’m so vulnerable to those words. I hate that my vulnerability comes between me and my family, that it threatens my daughter’s relationship with her grandparents and prevents me from having conversations with my mother about my childhood. I hate feeling unsafe in my workplace, despite the knowledge that my colleagues and students are all essentially supportive of me. I hate watching the other trans people in my life going through this too.
“Can’t you just…I don’t know, choose to not be bothered by this? Wouldn’t that be easier?” This from my wife, who can’t stand to see me suffer, and wants to find a way to make it all better. She knows, better than most, how dark my reaction to being deadnamed or misgendered can get. I don’t often share how much this hurts when people slip. I wait until I’m alone (or, lately, off of Zoom) before breaking down. But she knows what it looks like when I suddenly freeze, or stop talking, or leave the room without an explanation. She’s had to piece me back together enough times to know that if I had a choice I’d definitely choose to just be okay.
Even when it’s unintentional, being deadnamed and misgendered hurts in ways that I don’t think most cis people can fully understand. And I’m not, for the moment, discussing the kinds of intentional misgendering and deadnaming that trans people are subjected to by TERFS, transphobes, and ignorant or malicious people in the media as acts of deliberate violence and erasure. I’m talking about what happens when the people who we should feel safe with cause us harm without intent or cruelty. I don’t often discuss my own emotional experience of being misnamed or misgendered, because it’s taken me a long time to understand my own reaction to it.
Like a lot of people I didn’t understand how a name could cause harm. Before I transitioned the idea of a name triggering capital-T-Trauma felt histrionic to me, an exaggeration. Surely, the trans folks complaining about being deadnamed or misgendered were overreacting to a simple, innocent, mistake. They’re just words, after all. How can they possibly be so harmful?
But we don’t get to choose our trauma.
The first person most of us have to teach to stop deadnaming and misgendering us is ourselves. Accepting that you are trans often means facing a lot of internal doubts before you ever give voice to your feelings externally. For many of us, coming to terms with our gender involves hours of therapy, contemplation and self-doubt. I had an immense amount of internalized transphobia I had to work through before I could accept that I was trans; a process that took me almost 40 years. In those early days of transition, something as simple as being called by my correct name or pronouns was a lifeline. The new names we choose for ourselves are one of the first outward signifiers of our identity that we have, and they take on a deep significance as they become invested with all the hopes and fears we have for our transition.
Early into my transition I wrote about my hesitation to even use the term “deadname” to refer to my previous name. It felt needlessly cruel to the people I loved, and who loved me, to declare that my previous identity was dead. But much has changed since then. The further into my transition I got, the more I disassociated from the shell that I’d been forced to wear for 40 years. That process of disassociation was painful, and involuntary, but it was the result of something beautiful and wonderful.
I was finally getting to see myself in a positive light. And I was finally being seen for myself. I was discovering how it felt to be a whole, present, person. To be someone who felt worthy of love, and able to love others. I discovered within myself a person who had been hiding in the darkness for my whole life.
There’s a moment in the opening credits of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt where the door to the underground bunker where she has been imprisoned since she was a young girl is cracked open, a hand reaches down, and she emerges, blinking, into the sunlight of the world for the first time in years. This is what it feels like to finally face the world as yourself, after years of repression and hiding. The sun is blinding, but the newfound freedom is indescribable.
Before transition, I had no basis for comparison. I assumed that my experience of being disconnected was just what life was like for everyone. I was invisible. The person people saw and knew was a protective barrier I’d created to keep my more vulnerable self safe. Hiding behind that mask, I was able to convince myself that the safety of the performance was worth the price of not being seen. It took being brought to life by transition for me to understand how much I’d been missing. I had been in so much pain before I came out, but that pain was invisible to me. Just part of the background noise. A cacophony that I never realized was drowning out everything else.
It took transition silencing that pain for me to be able to hear. It took setting aside the armor to realize it had been a prison. It took transition to start to heal.
But there’s a price I pay for that healing.
Things that remind me of that past life that I had to endure bring those decades of being unseen — even by myself — crashing down on me. I turn invisible again. The prison of my old identity is one that I still carry with me. And if it used to make me feel safe before, now it reminds me of how terrible it was in the darkness.
Most of the time I can forget about this particular bit of baggage. I no longer feel like that miserable person I used to be. I feel like me. But when someone speaks that name, or uses the wrong pronouns for me, I’m pulled back into that prison.
When it happens, I have a physical reaction.
A reaction that that is beyond my control.
My vision narrows, vignettes, and I can’t perceive anything in my periphery.
My skin becomes clammy.
My heart pounds.
My throat closes up.
My ears ring.
I can’t talk, or think, or even cry at first.
I need to get out. To hide. To find a safe place and remind myself that I’m free — I’m not that person, was never really that person.
I use the word “Trauma” to describe the experience of being deadnamed or misgendered because it is a precise and accurate term to describe what happens to me when people “slip”.
It is harmful to me, even if there is no harmful intent.
I don’t like that this happens to me.
I hate that I struggle in faculty meetings because one of my colleagues has the same name that I used to have. It’s not his fault, but whenever someone calls him by name my heart seizes up. I hate that when a student takes the initiative to do some extra research in my classes there is a good chance that they are going to find, and cite, my necronym. I am compromised as a teacher if I’m trying to process personal trauma.
I struggle to feel comfortable and safe around colleagues and family members who don’t even realize that they have work to do to keep me safe. Like my transness is a burden that I must carry alone — an inconvenience to the people around me. And this is a problem, because it shouldn’t be inconvenient to extend this level of care to the trans people in their lives. I just want to feel like I can go through my daily life without the very real possibility of being retraumatized because someone in my life doesn’t realize how deeply these words can hurt me.
So what are you to do, if you are a cis person who is struggling to stop deadnaming or misgendering the trans people in your life? I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that you truly want to do better — that you aren’t intentionally subjecting your trans colleagues, friends, and family to recurring traumatic episodes, making them feel unsafe, unseen, and uncomfortable.
The first step is to move towards active affirmation of their identity, rather than passive acceptance. Many don’t realize that they need to do this. Saying “I’ll keep trying” doesn’t make a difference if you don’t understand what trying really looks like. I think part of what happens with cis people is that they don’t realize that reprogramming deep social patterns isn’t something that can happen by accident. You don’t eventually get this right unless you treat getting this right as an intentional project.
And that will require you to expend real effort.
Here’s one way to approach this if you keep “slipping”: set aside time every day, when you wake up, to meditate deeply on the pronouns, name, and gender of your trans family for at least 5 minutes, until these are automatic for you. It might take a few weeks. It might feel like work for you. It’s a small amount of work to do to be able to support the trans people in your life, and to show them that you accept, love, and value them.
Something else you can do: if you have any records that contain the deadname of any trans person, you can audit them. If the records are inessential, delete them. If you have a critical need to keep them, or if you just feel sentimental about them, then correct the name.. Do the same for their pronouns. This includes old social media posts, correspondence, files, websites, and metadata related to that person. This will take time. It’s a small amount of work, when compared to what your trans friends and family are going through to change their records.
I understand that this can be painful for you too. I see how much it hurts my mother to grapple with how much pain I was in before I transitioned. No parent wants to dwell on their child’s sufferings. I can’t spare her the pain of of knowing that her daughter spent 40 years hiding herself from the world. But I can help her to understand how to keep that trauma from recurring.
A gender transition isn’t something that only a trans person undergoes — it’s a process for all of the lives touched by that person. The people closest to the center of a transition have much more work to do, and much more power to harm than the people in the periphery. But those people can also do much more to heal the trauma of their trans friends, colleagues, and family.
My mom has put in the work. It shows. It’s not easy, and nobody has more work to do to reprogram their memories of me than she does, but she is doing it. My colleagues issued corrected documents recently, and have started a process of auditing their records. My girlfriend’s parents sent her a beautiful letter about their efforts to correct themselves. And slowly but surely, the publishing community is starting to correct their approach to deadnames. Every day, the prison of my previous identity recedes further into forgetting. I’ve had less than two years living without the mask, but my new self is already stronger, braver, and freer than my old husk ever was.