What Is Deadnaming and Why Is It Harmful?
Everything you need to know about deadnaming and why you shouldn't do it
On December 1, Oscar-nominated actor Elliot Page announced that they are transgender. In a beautiful post to their social media accounts, the Canadian actor known for their star turns in Juno and The Umbrella Academy opened up to fans, writing: “Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life.” Page went on thank those in the trans community who came before them, sharing their joy but also fear over reactions to their news. “My joy is real but it is also fragile. The truth is, despite feeling profoundly happy right now and knowing how much privilege I carry, I am also scared,” the actor wrote. “To be clear, I am not trying to dampen a moment that is joyous and one that I celebrate, but I want to address the full picture. The statistics are staggering. The discrimination towards trans people is rife, insidious and cruel, resulting in horrific consequences. In 2020 alone it has been reported that at least 40 transgender people have been murdered, the majority of which were Black and Latinx women.”
View this post on Instagram
Page concluded their post by calling out lawmakers who have denied and criminalized trans healthcare, before vowing that their work with and for the trans community is far from over. “To all the trans people who deal with harassment, self-loathing, abuse and the threat of violence every day: I see you, I love you and I will do everything I can to change this world for the better,” they wrote.
It was a powerful statement and an even more powerful moment for both the actor and the LGBTQ community. And it was, obviously, also a newsworthy one. Within minutes of Page’s post appearing on Instagram, news outlets across the world began reporting on their announcement; and while many (thankfully) used the actor’s real name, Elliot, a few outlets and people on social media continued to refer to the actor by their former name (also known as their deadname), and that’s not OK. Here’s why.
What exactly *is* deadnaming?
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, “deadnaming” refers to the use—either intentional or unintentional—of a transgender person’s name from before they transitioned. According to Healthline, deadnaming can also be referred to as using an individual’s “birth name” or “given name.”
“[Often] a trans individual drops a former name that doesn’t represent the ethos of who they are,” explains Jade Peek, director of advocacy and community care at Kind Space, an organization that offers programs and support to LGBTQ members in the Ottawa region. “Deadnaming is referencing, highlighting, focusing on or acknowledging a name that someone has clearly disregarded.”
Deadnaming can happen in many different ways and in many different instances, whether it’s someone referring to a trans person by their birth name in an in-person conversation, or even when individuals are confronted by their former name on outdated government documents like driver’s licenses and birth certificates, or bank accounts.
In some instances, as in Elliot Page’s case, the issue is complicated by the fact that they were in the public eye prior to their transition and became well known by their previous name. Following their transition, people may be tempted to refer to them by their former name in order to identify them in context of their previous work. But, as many have pointed out online, even saying “the actor formerly known as…” is a form of deadnaming, and there are other ways of identifying a person, such as referencing the titles of their former work, rather than using their deadname.
“There’s varying degrees of deadnaming, and there’s varying degrees of the effect of deadnaming, depending on the trans individual and their outlook,” Peek says. But regardless of how it is experienced, any instance of deadnaming has the same effect: It invalidates a trans person’s identity and their experience, and it can be incredibly triggering.
Why is deadnaming so harmful?
While some may feel inclined to write it off as just a slip of the tongue, the truth is that deadnaming a trans person—intentionally or not—can be incredibly harmful for many reasons, including its toll on an individual’s mental health and the fact that it completely discredits the work and challenges they’ve already faced to come out as their authentic selves. “The harm caused from [continuing to use a name someone has discarded] is that it already took that individual lots of courage, work and energy in order to navigate their social experiences, their professional experiences, all different avenues of their life, in order to make it safe enough so that they can come out,” Peek says. “And so when we deadname, we completely destroy the systems and mechanisms that those individuals who have come out have built in order to create an infrastructure of safety.”
For Jacq Hixson-Vulpe, senior consultant, special projects at The 519 in Toronto, using a deadname or incorrect pronoun isn’t only transphobic, but a form of violence. “It insists that trans people aren’t who we say we are. It is a way of policing trans communities and reminding us that we don’t even get the space to self-determine our own identities,” they say. “It is not just neutral information about a name that someone used to go by, it is a way of enacting violence on trans people and our identities.”
To their point, deadnaming an individual has the potential to out someone, which can ultimately lead to harassment, violence and even death. In both Canada and the United States, the number of hate crimes against transgender people increased in 2019. And this violence affects all trans people, including celebrities. On November 30, Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox took to Instagram to share that she and a friend had been physically attacked while walking in a park in Los Angeles.
View this post on Instagram
This is a serious concern that Peek knows all too well. She says that, because of these fears, when she came out nine years ago she initially only did so to a certain, trusted group of people. “And then I only [really] came out when I started post-secondary education, because I didn’t know anyone at my university and institution,” she says. “If someone had deadnamed me while I was in school, that would have completely created a safety issue for me and opened up a can of worms that I was not willing to go through.”
don't get dragged for deadnaming today, sweeties https://t.co/pQdGQIcslh
— Craig Bro Dude (@CraigSJ) December 1, 2020
And no one should discount the mental toll of having your identity constantly questioned and demeaned. “People should not be questioned and should not be prodded for being who they are,” Peek continues. “We should celebrate and normalize people’s chosen names as those dead names are no longer part of who they are.
“The dead name is dead,” she says matter of factly, “and there’s a reason why.”
Does deadnaming negatively affect all trans people?
How someone is affected by the use of their deadname isn’t a blanket reaction, because (and it should go without saying) every trans person, their experiences and their social dynamics are unique. Importantly, we should let the individual dictate how they want their new and old names to be used, and by whom. “Some individuals may choose to allow their deadname to be used by family members or people that have been in their lives [and] that they may want to [facilitate] an easier transition with,” Peek explains.
These decisions about how and when, if ever, to allow the use of a deadname is dependant on a lot of factors, Peek explains. “The difference is in terms of [someone’s] patience and in terms of someone’s lived experience and where they’re at,” she says. “It also depends on the way in which names are viewed in gender, how that person views their gender, their former name or their relationship to it. ” There’s multiplicity and fluidity of gender identity with the trans community, so it follows that there are many different ways to approach names as they relate to gender. Again, this is a personal thing and should be respected as such.
While this may seem confusing to some, it doesn’t need to be, because the solution is quite easy: Unless you’re explicitly told otherwise by the person whose name you’re using: “ss a rule, deadnaming shouldn’t be a practice that anyone participates in,” Peek says.
What should you do if you accidentally deadname someone?
So what happens if you do find yourself having accidentally called someone by the wrong name? First of all: Take ownership and apologize. And then, importantly, don’t make it all about you. While how you respond largely depends on your relationship with the person, Hixon-Vulpe says the best practice is: “to correct yourself quickly, apologize and move on. Stopping and taking too much time apologizing at length and explaining yourself is often more about the you and how you feel, and not about the person who has been deadnamed. If you are corrected, say thank you, make the correction and move on.” In short: Don’t make it more painful for the person you’ve offended by dwelling on it and refocusing it on you.
And also, give yourself a little grace. Peek says that most people will understand that getting used to a new name takes a bit of time. The main thing to consider is intentionality and whether or not you’re messing up on purpose, even if it’s subconscious. “You may have known somebody for a long time, [so] you need to be patient with yourself,” Peek says—but, you also need to be patient with the fact that your friend, family member or acquaintance might get frustrated at you for messing up—and that’s totally within their right.
“Even if the intention is not to be harmful and you messed up, the impact of that may actually ruin that person’s day, or may make that person feel really anxious,” Peek says. Remember that it might not have even been the first time they were deadnamed that day—a frustrating and upsetting experience for sure. “If the person is upset, recognize that that’s probably a very natural response and don’t take it personally.”
And also acknowledge that not every trans person will have—and has to have—the same level of patience. “I was patient with my parents for five years,” Peek says. “I gave them five years and now they’re really good at it, but I decided to make that for them and give them the space, but not everybody has that time or is in a place in their lives where they can be that patient.”
And, ultimately, Hixson-Vulpe says the most important thing is to learn from your mistake and do better: ”Be intentional and practice. The best apology is changed behaviour.”
How do I talk to my family and friends about deadnaming?
When it comes to talking about deadnaming and its effects with your friends and family—whether it’s about your own name, or just in general—there’s one big tip: “[Be] a pain in the bum,” Peek advises about engaging with and correcting people who are deadnaming someone. Especially if they’re doing so repeatedly. “It’s one thing to be causing unintentional harm, but once someone recognizes they’re making a mistake, then after the third or fourth time [and if they’re] starting to get defensive, it might be very well that they’re transphobic,” Peek says. “And so you, as an individual need to be able to recognize that. If they’re arguing about the way in which trans people wish to be respected or treated or have their name, then that person is sending up some red flags.” By correcting people—both in public and in private—you’re helping to normalize that person’s name and pronouns.
Pro tip: when referring to someone who transitioned, and you aren't sure if the listener knows their new name, you can avoid deadnaming them by providing additional context instead.
e.g. "Elliot Page, the actor from Juno and Inception, came out and I'm happy for them!"
— Kelly Ellis (@justkelly_ok) December 1, 2020
Everything else aside, deadnaming is simply embarrassing. Why would anyone want to call someone by an incorrect name? We should be willing to learn and accept trans people’s real names the way we would anyone else we’ve just met, something Peek emphasizes. “We’re willing to meet people for the first time and learn people’s names for the first time in settings like meetings. Or when some people get married and their name gets changed. Just practice and get to know that person, because they’re being intimate with you, they’re telling you who they really are. And that’s a beautiful thing.”