The question of ‘what’s deadnaming?’ has come up a few times lately so I thought I’d dedicate a post to it, because it’s a relatively recent (I think?) neologism and it’s worth a bit of exploration. First, though: I did not invent this term. Second: I do not know who did. The first incidence appears to date to 2010, according to Google (I’m not linking because it’s a deactivated, cached Tumblr blog and I respect the privacy of whoever chose to deactivate it, though obviously it’s perfectly accessible via search). It’s likely older, as neologisms tend to start out in spoken speech and communities that aren’t necessarily publicly accessible before spilling in to the public commons. If you have a pre-2010 instance or actually have information about who created it, please email me! So there’s a little background.
The thumbnail definition of deadnaming is this: Using a trans person’s birth name instead of that person’s actual name.
I’ve seen people suggest that deadnaming refers generally to any use of a birth name when someone is now using a different name, for any reason, but the term very clearly originated in the trans community (consistent and repeated use norms through 2010-2014, when the term blew up, substantiate this) and for this reason, I am dubious about people attempting to reclaim it for other situations. (e.g. using a musician’s birth name.)
Part of that is because of the very nature of the term. A deadname is something shucked, left behind, representing a person and past that are now dead. That’s an experience that a lot of people claim when they change their names, but for trans people, it carries a particularly loaded and complex relationship to the past. We are actively moving past and through incredibly damaging, horrifying, and terrible periods in our lives. A name is an incredibly powerful instrument, one reason names hold such status in myth and folklore, and for many of us, our names were blunt instruments for years or decades, particularly in the case of those with highly gendered names. In this context, a name isn’t just a name, but sometimes a tool of active abuse.
People choose a variety of approaches to selecting new names as they transition — I answered the phone one day with my name and it felt natural, like the name I’d had all along. Others choose old family names, the names their parents said they would have chosen if they were born at the opposite end of the binary spectrum, names that just feel right, somehow. It’s an incredibly empowering moment, especially when you fill out the documentation to change it and suddenly your ID no longer makes you cringe. It sounds ridiculous to say that a government identification can be validating, but when you are trans, it can be — which is one example of why we need a very specific and trans-exclusive term to refer to the experience of being deadnamed. Because this is an experience unique to trans identities.
The immediate effect of being deadnamed, of course, is often being outed. For people who are out, that’s one thing, but deadnaming is often done in a calculated and malicious way to expose people. It’s also designed to dehumanise. By using the wrong name, people signal that a person’s entire identity isn’t valid. Deadnaming signals the worth of a trans individual in the eyes of the people around them — as, for example, in the case of Caitlyn Jenner, who is repeatedly deadnamed as well as being misgendered in the media. Her name is Caitlyn. She has asked people to call her Caitlyn. The end. (Government ID, why validating for trans people in many ways, shouldn’t be used as a weapon to support the practice of deadnaming — if someone’s drivers’ license has a different name and gender than the person you know, and you happen to stumble upon this information or be trusted with it, keep that to yourself.)
Sometimes deadnaming is accidental — living in a small town for most of my life means that many people knew me before I began transitioning, and most recognise me. That means that some people call me by the wrong name because they aren’t aware that my name changed (even after all these years) or because it’s reflexive (after all these years). I don’t get upset when my third grade teacher calls me by the wrong name in the produce section because she’s obviously not malicious about it, she just genuinely doesn’t know, or she’s been told and has forgotten, or slips up. And yes, we can tell when you’re being malicious or not, just like we can read the intent behind pronoun slips, so don’t even bother trying, buddy.
To deadname is to say that someone is not a human being. To deadname is to exercise extreme power and control over a trans person. To deadname is to dangle a constant sense of threat, to make someone feel extremely unsafe. It’s also something that many people around a trans person not only shouldn’t, but don’t want to hear. I don’t know the deadnames of most of my trans friends. I would feel extremely uncomfortable knowing them, because of the way names define people. For the same reason that I hate it when the media posts images of trans people pre-transition in ‘human interest’ stories, I don’t want to know what they were called before, in a time when they were enduring painful dysphoria and oppression. The experience is relevant to who they are now, but details, like names, are intimate and not for the public to share. It’s not relevant or necessary for me to know that Bob was Mary — he’s Bob. He’s always been Bob. For a while, people called him by the wrong name.