“Deadnaming” is when a transgender or non-binary person is referred to by their previous name, which often was their birth name. There are many reasons why this is considered offensive, and there are many ways to sidestep and avoid doing this at all.
So what should cisgender people do?
Healthline suggested that most simple, straight-forward guideline would be to call someone the name they want to be called. Someone like Caitlin Jenner or musician Laura Jane Grace were introduced to the world way before they transitioned, but that’s not the name they go by anymore.
How have situations like that been handled?
In 2015, German Lopez wrote a piece for Vox about common mistakes people make when discussing transgender people such as Jenner and actress Laverne Cox:
When referring to a trans person, it’s important to avoid their “deadname” — the name they went by before transitioning — as much as possible. In general, the deadname only serves as a reminder of how society previously misgendered someone and denied their gender identity.
There are exceptions to this. For example, with Jenner’s transition, it was difficult to avoid bringing up Jenner’s previous name… since it’s what Americans knew her as before — and the name she explicitly said she wanted to be referred to even after she came out on [Diane] Sawyer’s show. So if news outlets completely avoided Jenner’s deadname, it’s entirely possible that a lot of readers would have been left genuinely confused.
The issue instead more commonly arises when someone deadnames a person who has already been out. For instance, Laverne Cox, star of “Orange Is the New Black,” has always been known as Laverne Cox in the public view. Trying to dig up a deadname for her and publishing it could be taken as an attempt to undermine Cox’s identity.
What guidelines do you have for people who aren’t well-known and famous like Cox and Jenner? What if you don’t know a person’s former name?
Then you don’t need to know it. Think of how you might treat someone whom you met after they were married. You may or may not know what name they had before they were married, and chances are, you didn’t care to ask. You probably learned that by them telling you, but you probably didn’t make it a point to ask, “What name did you use before you used this name?”
What if you’re reporting on a person who has died?
This is where deadnaming is likely to happen. The practice of referring to someone by their previous name has especially been a problem when transgender people have been killed. In August of 2018, an investigation by ProPublica found that some 65 different law enforcement agencies have investigated murders of transgender people since 2015, and in 74 of 85 cases, victims were identified by names or genders they had abandoned in their daily lives.
Why don’t police and reporters use the proper names and genders?
It depends. As GLAAD points out, “Reporters telling the stories of transgender victims of violent crimes will often be given incorrect or incomplete information from police, from witnesses, or even from family and friends of the victim.” And in some cases, the family or friends won’t refer to their loved one using their preferred pronouns or gender.
It sounds difficult for a transgender person to be recognized by the right pronouns once they have died.
That’s right. Cox, whose role on “Orange is The New Black” made her the first transgender woman of color on mainstream TV, came to Boston in October 2018 to talk about a Massachusetts ballot question about transgender protections. From a Boston Globe article:
Weary of being viewed as a man as she was transitioning to female, she made copies of notes with the statements, “My name is Laverne Cox and I should not be referred to by any other names,” and “My preferred pronouns are she and her and I should not be referred to by any other pronouns.”
“My plan was to have a copy in each of my pockets and then to have them placed around my apartment because I was planning to kill myself,” she said. “I wanted to make sure I would not be dead-named in my death, that the disrespect and disregard for my identity that I was experiencing on a daily basis would not happen when I was dead.”
- Don’t avoid using pronouns, because that implies you’re uncomfortable with that person’s gender
- Don’t put the person’s chosen names in quotes like a nickname
- Don’t use the phrasing “preferred name” or “preferred pronouns”
- Don’t mention body parts, genitalia, or any history of surgery
- Don’t overemphasize the fact that the victim was transgender
Additionally, the NLGJA (The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association) has its own reporting resources. And journalists have written first person essays, like this one by Christine Grimaldi, to explain their own missteps that other journalists covering LGBTQ+ issues can take to heart. And as a Teen Vogue article explained, “But whether it’s a mistake or it’s on purpose, the result is the same. Misgendering someone after they die is disrespectful and painful. That’s why we as a whole need to do better.”
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