People who are gender non-conforming, transgender, or nonbinary often transition to who they actually are, instead of who others label them as. One key part of that journey is changing their name. Changing their name can feel empowering and bring a lot of joy as well as helping to leave past, possibly hurtful elements of a previous life behind.
Deadnaming or referring to someone by their “birth name” or “given name” can be intentional or accidental. It’s referring to a transgender person by the name they used before they transitioned and can often be used to demean and deny a transgender person’s true expression of self. Sadly, it can happen anywhere, in school, in the workplace, and in personal relationships 1.
There’s a difference between deadnaming and misgendering with deadnaming being when someone refers to a transgender person as the name they used before they transitioned. Misgendering is referring to a transgender person by using pronouns incorrectly or using other terms linked to their birth gender 2. Both are microaggressions 3 which can be both behavioural and verbal indignities, and often described as “death by a thousand cuts”. They create a real disadvantage to the person on the receiving end who can suffer severe psychological impacts as a result 4.
It is important to note that deadnaming is not applicable to cis people because it is a specifically harmful, and also considered violent act towards people under the transgender umbrella 5. For a transgender person, being referred to or called by your deadname while you’re trying to realign your gender in a different direction can create deep dysphoria-inducing anxiety 6.
“Hearing or seeing one’s old name can induce a visceral sense of terror that no matter how much progress one makes in their transition, the person they used to be (or pretended to be) is still there.”
Sam Riedel, The Establishment6
Why does deadnaming happen?
Deadnaming can happen purposefully and accidentally. Accidental or unintentionally, someone deadnames a transgender person out of habit while they are adjusting to their new name. Also, accidental or unintentional deadnaming can occur when someone simply isn’t paying attention and makes a mistake. In both situations, the person who accidentally deadnames sincerely apologises and corrects themselves.
Purposeful deadnaming, which can be deliberate or intentional can include deadnaming someone to bully or harass them. Deadnaming can also occur purposefully because of a person’s personal beliefs; often because of a lack of knowledge and so they remain steadfast in their beliefs 1.
An example of deadnaming was a teacher in the UK who referred to a student as a girl instead of as a transgender boy because of his personal belief that he can refer to someone who was assigned female at birth as female, even if they have transitioned. The teacher was suspended following an investigation 7.
How do we ensure we don’t deadname someone?
There are many steps we can take to ensure we don’t deadname, and most importantly, avoid any emotional labour on the part of the other person:
Similar to misgendering, if you make a mistake, acknowledge it and move on. Saying that you’re struggling with their new name isn’t helpful as it’s shifting the emotional labour onto them.
For example, if you were to deadname someone, you can apologise as follows:
“Dave, so sorry, I mean Lucy.”
This way you acknowledge the error and immediately use the new name with no discussion or processing required 5.
Understanding and challenging our own unconscious biases is a key part of making sure we don’t deadname someone. For example, common stereotypes that prevail around transgender people can be as follows:
Exploring our unconscious biases is a key part of challenging ourselves and those beliefs we hold about other people. Our Unconscious Bias Workshop helps to create inclusive, psychologically safe workplaces where we can bring our true selves to work and drive a more inclusive culture.