There’s this fantasy I have where everything meaningful thing I’ve accomplished and every positive thought I’ve ever had about myself are lies. All of my good qualities and experiences can be lumped up and dismissed as invalid, but everything I have ever hated about myself is fundamental to who I am as a person.
As much as I hate entertaining this fantasy, anyone I encounter can force me to confront it at any time with a single word, and if I’m having a bad day, they can make it pretty difficult for me to distinguish this from the actual truth. This is the effect of deadnaming.
To “deadname” a person is to call them by a name they have chosen to stop using. Intentional deadnaming is often practiced as a way of harassing transgender or non-binary people.
This is often a very effective way to harass us because it undermines our attempts to build up a healthy self-image by controlling how we are seen. It feeds the common anxiety of feeling like an imposter.
Additionally, it is often more effective than misgendering because a deadname is unique to the individual. While it would rarely hurt a cisgender person to the same degree as a trans person, you can misgender a cisgender person; you cannot typically deadname one.
I have a deadname and it is still printed on some of my documents. The proper etiquette is to never mention it to me or ask me about it. I only give it out for legal reasons, without exception. My girlfriend doesn’t know my deadname. She doesn’t care or need to know, and she knows better than to ask because she’s also trans. To me, being deadnamed means being forced to recall the least-pleasant periods of my life, to remember the feeling of helplessness and lack of control over who I was that I associate with the time before I left that name behind.
I like to think most of the people who deadname others on purpose simply haven’t thought it through, or don’t have the frame of reference they would need to understand what they are doing. Most of the time, at least from my experiences, when a person refuses to stop using a deadname, it’s a family member who doesn’t want to accept their concept of a close family member is wrong; they are unwilling to accept change.
Sometimes when people have the ability, they will use deadnames against people specifically to hurt them. Sometimes they will see any trans or nonbinary person as a stand-in for the entire community and want to get back at us for forcing them to learn that singular ‘they’ is a word.
Even worse, some people will only intentionally deadname people they dislike, pressuring anyone they actually like to ‘earn’ their favor or be treated poorly. I consider the latter variety worse because the approach is more manipulative and they are harder to detect. I’ve been on pretty close terms with several people like this before finding out they were shitheads.
I like who I am now. I like hearing my name and I like it when people talk about me. I didn’t always, and it so happens I started to like myself a lot more around the same time people started calling me by my current name. A bigot can’t make me any less trans, but they can make me a lot less happy. I know these sentiments are held by a lot of other people as well.
I hope I don’t need to point out that you can’t be an ally to someone while refusing to address them how they would like, but I don’t think most people understand quite how often this is used against us or how destructive it can be. I strongly suggest never to ask anyone for their deadname. To many of us in the community, perhaps even most, just saying the name is an incredibly stressful experience, and we’d rather not discuss it.
If you do see someone being deadnamed, please speak up. It’s much easier and more effective for a third party to correct someone than the person being incorrectly addressed. Just make sure when you do, you don’t repeat the name.