Broadly speaking, the dead name (also used as deadname, one word) of a transgender person is her, his, or their birth name. Specifically speaking, a birth name is a dead name only if the trans person never wants it used. In some cases, one’s birth name is completely rejected, as if it never existed.
When someone uses the dead name of a transgender person, it is called deadnaming.
The first time I ever heard this term, dead name, was in September, 2015, when I sat on my first transgender panel discussion in a class at Indiana University. Six of us were on the panel. We were introducing ourselves. As one young person, who explained why “they/them/their” were their preferred pronouns, gave their quite gender-neutral name, they said, “My birth name was very feminine. I never want to hear it. It is a dead name to me.”
They were emotional as they spoke. Not surprisingly, the first question from a student went to them. “What do you mean by ‘dead name’?”
They told how, from their first memory, they did not identify as a girl. How their parents nurtured them very definitely as a girl, despite their protestations. How they always felt completely misunderstood by family and teachers and, well, by the world. How important finding themselves—they currently was a student at IU—in the past few years was to them.
Each of us on the panel were then given the chance to speak to the question. Our feelings were quite varied. Generally, none of us wanted our birth name used. The other three young people felt nearly as strongly as the first. The only panelist who even approached my age, who, like me, was early in transitioning, was more easygoing about it. As for me, I said that, sure, I now prefer to be called Gina, but I told them my birth name is Greg, I don’t despise my name, and that I had no intention of changing my birth certificate.
For you who might find this dead name business ridiculous or awful, consider the young guy who was known as Billy from his youth. Everyone called him Billy. He was never William, to no one. Growing up, he felt that Billy no longer fit him. He wanted to be called William. Not only did he feel that his adult station in life was a “William” one and not a “Billy” one, he now felt like he was a William. For him, Billy was a thing of the past, almost a dead name to him. Sure, some old friends might still slip with a Billy here and there, and his parents and siblings likely do the same, but they grasp William’s desire to be called what he wants to be called. And, after all, it’s HIS name, not theirs, so it’s his decision.
Why might some trans folks feel very strongly that their birth name is a dead name?
For those who experience from very young a mismatch of sex and gender, outward and inward identity, life often is traumatic. Thankfully, we are hearing more and more stories about parents who are listening to their children, who take seriously a child’s plea about who they are, and the children are enjoying peace and are prospering. Sadly, too many children continue to be told, “That’s nonsense. You’re a boy (or girl), not a girl (or boy),” and as the years go on things only get worse.
These children might be physically and emotionally abused. As with Leelah Alcorn, the young trans woman who stepped in front of a truck in order to die, they might be taken to pastors or counselors who use conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, “to get their head straight.” You know, “pray away the gay”—try the same for the person who thinks she or he is transgender; if you think right, you’ll be right. (I had several pastors try that with me, to fix me.)
While I’ve never heard of a really young child being kicked out of the house for being transgender, I have heard too many accounts about and from teens and young adults. They have lived in a world so far from my imagining, experiencing things that I only ever saw in the news or the movies.
One trans woman I got to know quite well told me of the sexual abuse she suffered. As she recounted the maltreatment she, as the young boy she had been, suffered at the hands of older boys and adult men, including her step father, she had that far away look in her eye, choking up at the hardest parts which were almost unspeakable.
Even for those who did not suffer trauma as children, including those who were well into adulthood before realizing their troubled heart was from gender dysphoria, transitioning is as huge a challenge as there is in life, and one’s name is integral to the process.
No matter the content of one’s history, one’s birth name is unequivocally attached to that history. Moving on from that history and into whatever becomes of one’s life in transitioning calls for changing much. As important as surgeries might be, and our appearance, and how we are seen and interact in the world, is how we are named. (Just ask William.)
Is it any wonder that some transgender women and men want their birth name never to be used again? Why they not only adopt a new first name but, in the most serious cases, even opt for a new last name? Why their birth name is now dead to them? Why they don’t only change their birth certificate for legal reasons, but for the most deep, personal ones?
In the fewer than two years since I first heard it, I have watched the use of dead name explode to where it is now used synonymous with birth name, even if one’s birth name has not become dead. One trans friend refers to her birth name as her dead name, yet will use her former guy name in context. Even her wife will use it, referring to before her now wife transitioned. I find it odd how they call it a dead name when they continue to resurrect it, yet how they use it demonstrates how deeply integrated into trans culture dead name has become.
What the adoption of this term—this attitude about one’s birth name—demonstrates is how significant one’s name is to her, him, or them. As with the Billy/William example, it’s OUR name, so how we feel about it is our decision.
On the positive side, the name we choose for ourselves is a wonderful name to us. We selected it because we connect with it, that it fits us. We love how it sounds when others use it. We relish seeing it in print, and signing our name using it.
We rejoice that we are finding ourselves, have found ourselves, and can now be ourselves. Our name is as integral as anything to our lives.