Deadnaming is the act of referring to a transgender or nonbinary person by their birth, given, or former name without their consent. Deadnaming can be harmful, and it can contribute to mental health conditions and violence.
Some people may struggle or refuse to acknowledge a person’s new affirmed name. Additionally, several barriers can prevent people from legally changing their name, gender, or both.
The act of deadnaming, whether intentional or not, can have a detrimental effect. Therefore, it is important to respect a person’s chosen name and pronouns even if these do not match their official ID.
In this article, we discuss what deadnaming is and why it is harmful. We also provide resources to help a person legally change their name and help others understand the impact of deadnaming.
Deadnaming refers to calling a person by their birth or given name after they have changed it. For example, if a person who is transgender changes their name, anyone who calls them by their birth name is deadnaming them.
Deadnaming is harmful because refusing to use a person’s chosen name or pronouns is a form of transphobia, or cissexism. Cissexism can contribute to mental health conditions, such as depression and suicidality. It can also lead to physical and verbal assault and abuse.
Deadnaming can be particularly harmful because using the name that parents or caregivers gave a person at birth may “out” a person as transgender.
When other people know that a person is transgender, that person is more at risk of physical and sexual assault. Research suggests that 33–53% of people who are transgender in the United States experience physical assault. In 2013, 72% of the 18 anti-LGBT or HIV-related homicide victims in the U.S. were transgender women.
Deadnaming people can lead to adverse consequences, contributing toward an environment in which people who are transgender may feel unsafe and at risk of violence.
People who are transgender may need to change their name and gender on their government ID.
Various barriers can prevent some people from doing this. For example, to change their name, a person often needs to obtain a legal name change from a court.
In addition, healthcare professionals need to provide documentation of gender transition for a person to change their gender on government ID.
Some people who are transgender may not be able to change their name and gender on their government ID. The costs may be prohibitively high, or they might not require or want any gender transition. These individuals are at risk of experiencing deadnaming whenever they need to produce their ID.
A 2015 survey of transgender people found that:
- only 11% of respondents had their preferred name and gender on all IDs and records
- 49% did not have any ID or records with their preferred name, and 67% had no ID or records with their preferred gender
- one-third of respondents had completed a legal name change
- 34% of people who had a legal name change reported that they spent more than $250
- 35% of people who wanted to have a legal name change did not because it was too expensive
- only 9% of respondents who wanted to change their gender on their birth certificate were able to do so
Presenting an ID that does not match a person’s gender presentation can have adverse effects. The survey respondents reported the following negative responses to this:
- verbal harassment, which affected 25% of respondents
- denying the person services or benefits, affecting 16% of respondents
- asking the person to leave, which 9% of respondents experienced
- physical assault, affecting 2% of respondents
Institutions can make several policy changes to prevent deadnaming. The GLMA (formerly the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association) recommend:
- allowing people to record and use their preferred name and gender without requiring documentation of a legal name or gender change
- providing sensitivity training to staff and personnel
- asking people who are transgender how the institution can make their policies more inclusive
- including people who are transgender in committees and other organizations
People can support someone who is transgender by using their chosen name and pronouns. People should use these whenever they refer to the person unless the person tells them otherwise.
People should also refrain from asking the person about their deadname. If a person prefers to use another name, people should respect that decision.
If a person is experiencing deadnaming and feels comfortable and safe to inform others that they use a different name or gender, they may find that educating others stops any deadnaming. However, this is not always the case, and some people may deadname the individual deliberately.
Supportive friends, family, colleagues, employers, or school staff may advocate for people who are experiencing deadnaming. If a person feels comfortable doing so, they may ask supportive members of the community for help.
Several organizations provide advocacy for people who are transgender, including:
- National Center for Transgender Equality
- Transgender Law Center
- Transgender Law & Policy Institute
- Sylvia Rivera Law Project
- TransLatina Coalition
- World Professional Association for Transgender Health
- TransYouth Family Allies
- Gender Spectrum
- PFLAG Transgender Network
- Transgender American Veterans Association
Several resources are also available to people who want to change their government IDs, including:
Telling friends and family that they are changing their name or gender can cause a person to experience anxiety. People can take several steps to reduce anxiety and feel more comfortable letting friends and family know about a name or gender change. These steps include:
- thinking through how and when to tell people
- telling the person who is likely to be most supportive first
- informing people through text, email, or letter, if that is more comfortable than talking face to face
- giving people time to understand the new information
- understanding that some people may mistakenly and nonmaliciously use the wrong name or pronouns at first
The Human Rights Campaign’s Transgender Visibility Guide includes more resources and information for people who are transgender. This guide may be useful for those who want to educate their friends and family about the issues that transgender people may face.
The main way to avoid deadnaming someone is by asking them what name and pronouns they prefer. Once a person knows which name and pronouns to use, they should use them unless that person tells them otherwise.
If a person mistakenly deadnames someone, they should apologize. It is important to apologize without dismissing the mistake or making excuses. It is also important not to overapologize. People should simply acknowledge their mistake and continue the conversation using the correct name and pronouns.
Deadnaming people can be harmful, as it may contribute to mental health conditions and physical and verbal abuse. People should respect others by using their chosen name and pronouns.
Some people may find it difficult to change their name and gender on government ID and other documentation. Institutions should be aware of this and enact policies that are trans-inclusive.
A variety of resources can help people advocate for fair treatment and make the process of changing ID and other documentation easier.