Dead Naming – The Power Behind A Name

Dead naming is the moment you call someone who is trans or non-binary (or who has changed their names, in some cases) by the name they had assigned to them, often at birth. It is one of the worst ways of misgendering someone, especially when it is done intentionally.

deadnaming

I never used to think this would be an issue, I figured my main issue would always be pronouns, it made sense. Don’t get me wrong, getting pronouns wrong – especially intentionally – is awful, but when you get someone’s name wrong, that’s something else.

I mean, we all make mistakes, we all slip up and call people by other’s names, but when you then go and call them a name they used to be known by – being aware that they have changed their name – it can just make the floor sink from beneath them.

Now I have been on testosterone for nearly three and a half years, I don’t get misgendered as female a lot and my dead name was quite a feminine one. Therefore, if someone calls me by my dead name I am very confused, as are those around me. However, on occasion it has been known to happen intentionally. I am not talking from family members, but from other people who knew me before.

This can be in very overt or covert ways. For example, someone may say things like “you’ll always be ‘deadname’ to me,” which is horrid, or they may just mess up and say something like “’deadname’, sorry, Kai,” which feels nearly as bad but is easier to cope with (in my personal experience). However, it is said though, it still hurts. Being called by my dead name is an experience I loathe, especially in public spaces. It makes people look at me funny, especially if a big deal is made of it. This was a lot worse though before I passed as much.

I mentioned yesterday that I am in a privileged position to be read as male a lot of the time, which means that if someone calls me my obviously feminine dead name, most people just think it is a slip of the tongue and they called me someone else’s name. But when someone does it to a person who is earlier in transition, or who doesn’t ‘pass’ (intentionally or not), it is often soul crushing.

When I had a more androgynous appearance, I had a lot of people do a double take, especially when I spoke. My name now is an androgynous name, so a lot of people would try to ‘catch me out’ and work out ‘what I was’. The moment my dead name was mentioned, it would switch the ‘female’ switch in their brains and I’d also become she, and her, etcetera. It was not a pleasant experience in the slightest.

A lot of people don’t have the privilege of being read as the gender they are – I am never read as non-binary and that is an effect of the binary society we live in – and while I am mostly comfortable 75% of the time to be read as male, a lot of people don’t have that ability or wish.

The fact is that dead naming doesn’t affect me as much as other’s. A lot of the time the issue is worst for trans feminine people and trans women, particularly those assigned male at birth. It can be hard enough to be validated in such a cisnormative society, when you are out in public and someone messes up a pronoun you can generally skip past it, it affects the person themselves but a lot of people don’t think twice about it, but when you hear someone’s dead name it puts associations into a lot of people’s minds. This is especially true if you dead name someone with a very masculine or feminine name.

What I am trying to say here is that names are powerful, they give a lot of validity to people, please don’t ignore that. If you do mess up, and nobody is perfect, please also bear in mind the way you then correct yourself. Do correct yourself if possible, but please, please, don’t make a big deal of it. There is nothing worse than being misgendered in public, for the person to then correct themselves and make themselves the victim, go over the top, and say how much of a bad person they are. Just stop. Don’t make a drama. Apologise, correct yourself, move on. If they want to talk about it more, then fine, but don’t make a big deal of it when one doesn’t need to be made. Don’t be that person.

D

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14 comments

  1. I too hadn’t heard the term – so thank you as well for the education. I think one’s name is linked to identity in a personal way, so I follow how hurtful this could be.

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  2. I’ve also never heard of dead-naming before. Thank you for explaining the term so thoroughly to me.

    Names are very powerful and I think people should respect the other person by calling them the name that they have asked to be called. This also goes for pronouns.

    I play roller derby and WFTDA announcers are conscious of what each player uses as their pronoun.
    One of my favorite WFTDA players discussing this with the announcer during this video (hopefully, it links to the correct video): https://youtu.be/QiB9LWTdZx4

    They are amazing to watch. If you look through the playlist at watch the games with Ohio, you will know what I’m talking about.

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    • I will take a look at the video soon. I have been involved in Roller Derby before, I don’t play thanks to my god awful joints, but I have been on the organising body for Europe’s first entirely gender neutral team (no requirement of identifying a certain way to play). I think it is really important that this is respected.

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  3. I have a trans friend who I have only ever known by her current name. BUT…she’s not fully transitioned yet and when I have had occasion to send something via snail mail (which has happened a couple of times) I need to address it to what will eventually become the dead name and it always feels so wrong to me. I write out the name and think ‘but this isn’t friendsname…’ so I imagine that having someone deadname you on purpose is horrible.

    Great post, think I will pass along to my friend.

    MsDarkstar

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    • Thank you for your comment. I can completely understand that, I have had the same situation. Some times it just isn’t safe for us to use our true names or announce our true selves. I am sure your friend appreciates your thought process though, I know I would.

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  4. It must be awful having this happen to you. I guess I can understand it at first – like your friends and family are so used to calling you your old name it might just slip out. To do this to someone intentionally just to belittle them is appalling. It says far more about the person doing it than it ever could about someone else.
    Debbie

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  5. Yeah I experience a lot of this.
    I’ve had people who have asked me my birth name and I used to say as I was too anxious to say I wouldn’t say and someone replied ‘oh such a lovely name what a shame it’s not your name anymore’ that hurt, not the fact she thought my birth name was a nice name, but the fact she decided it was a shame I wasn’t still called it and it implied my name now is not good enough.

    Although I have to admit I hate the term dead name, I know it is getting used more and more now by trans people but it makes me shudder. Maybe it has a bit to do with the fact I loved my birth name and had a hard time not being called that anymore. But I also feel that it implies that me prior transition is dead and forgotten and that feels very uncomfortable to me.

    This isn’t a dig at you as I see it every where by trans people now so I know most trans people do use the term dead name and obviously people can use their own expression but I do feel a sense of anger and hurt that it is becoming the general phase.

    Sorry that went on a bit of a tangent.
    It’s important to make people aware of the stuff in this blog post though. People don’t realise that a name has meaning and can hurt if called the wrong name.

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    • Thank you for this Oliver, I really find it interesting to hear your view on it. I personally also prefer the term birth name, but for the sake of the challenge I chose to use this term. I do like my birth name, but it definitely wasn’t me. I don’t have anything against the term dead name, but I can completely understand your reasoning.

      Thank you though for your thoughts, and it is reassuring in a way to hear that I am not the only one who does like the term birth name.

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