Earlier today, I caught a headline that was really lovely about a New Jersey transgender pastor getting a renaming service. The report mentioned Rev. Peter Beeson’s old name and my reading of this was innocent enough: it was clear that the pastor was happy with that use, or at least willing to have it show up in his renaming service. I thought it was a beautiful gesture; Christianity done right. But one Facebook comment in the link caught my eye. Just one word, ‘Deadnaming.’
The commenter was clearly marking the use of Beeson’s old name as an offensive thing, and I had to question my own reading of the story. I dug around for other coverage of the event - it’s been reprinted across several news sources - and found that, actually, I couldn’t know whether that old name’s use was in fact a case of deadnaming or not. There wasn’t enough information to support either reading.
Deadnaming is the practise of using a transgender person’s old name after they’ve taken a new one. It’s often regarded as a form of assault - mostly because it is. Deadnames can be weaponised against a transgender person as a tool of intimidation. It can also be used to out an individual in unsafe arenas and circles that could damage a person’s life. Many transgender people find their deadnames emotionally triggering and painful to hear, and as a default position, I agree with the commenter: the reports probably shouldn’t have done that.
"WHEN I FIRST CAME OUT, I ASSUMED THE USE OF A PERSON’S OLD NAME WAS JUST A UNIVERSALLY BAD THING."
When I first came out, I assumed the use of a person’s old name was just a universally bad thing. But over the months I’ve encountered several transgender people who are perfectly comfortable and happy with their old names. They might not share them as a matter of course, but they’re able and willing to use them in conversation and reflect on the past using their old name. Sometimes, this is a reference to before, like an old self. Other times it’s used in a functional way, like this nugget was true but isn’t now.
The realisation that deadnames weren’t always horrible traumatic things to talk about was an interesting twist in my process of understanding what this whole transgender lark meant to others. Some people close to me were absolutely destroyed by a deadnaming. I’ve only been deadnamed once or twice by family and it was accidental, caught, and immediately apologised for. But it did make me jump. Unhappy neurons were fired. I don’t share my old name and I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I don’t have to even for things like crime checks.
Even more interesting, I don’t think of my old name as a deadname, even if I don’t want to share it and I don’t want to have it used to talk about me at any point in my life. It’s just an old name. One I left behind. One I was rather fond of, but never quite fit. If I had a son, I would strongly consider giving him my old name. It’s just not me and I’m glad to have shed it.
So that’s my boundary: don’t want my old name shared, don’t want it used to apply to me, but it’s not really a deadname in my mind. I think I distance myself from the term because of the implications that I somehow died. I’m clearly still here and I’m not a different person, though I understand there is an appeal in seeing oneself as a different person. I do look back and think of my old life, but I think of it the same way one might think about how things were after a flood or getting off a horrible, addictive drug: it’s life changing. My life is not as it was, for better or worse. Perhaps my name change symbolises that change? But I still don’t want it used, so its significance doesn’t quite sit with that sentiment.
"WHATEVER THE REASON, IT’S IMPORTANT TO AVOID ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT HOW PEOPLE FEEL ABOUT THEIR OLD NAMES (OR DEADNAMES)."
Whatever the reason, it’s important to avoid assumptions about how people feel about their old names (or deadnames). Rev. Beeson may have been absolutely comfortable with his old name, or he may have been quite upset at having been deadnamed all over the Internet. It’s unclear from the reports what his feelings are. My initial sense that it was voluntary and comfortable might have been right, but on reflection I have to admit that the mainstream media is notoriously bad about deadnaming. So perhaps they don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.
That supposition that it was OK to use Beeson’s old name was based on my experience of so many transgender people who are actually perfectly OK with their old names being used. It’s still a bad assumption and I was wrong to make it. Trouble is, deadnaming is so terribly painful to those who aren’t comfortable with their old names that we can’t afford to get this wrong.
The extremes we can reach aren’t worth the risk. People are driven out of jobs, homes, hobbies and friendship circles by this information, even if a person is comfortable with their old name. The damage can be the same as outing that person, and usually, it outs a person automatically. Course, you can be out but still not share a deadname.
"PEOPLE’S OPENNESS ABOUT THEIR GENDER AND SEXUALITY ISN’T RELATED TO THEIR OPENNESS ABOUT THEIR OLD NAMES."
People’s openness about their gender and sexuality isn’t related to their openness about their old names. I’m comfortably out in most places but I’m not comfortable sharing my old name. I’m not comfortable talking about my privates in most contexts, even if I’m reasonably clear about how far along the gender clinic’s process I am. How far along I am will give people a pretty good idea what my privates are like, but I still won’t talk about them. And none of that changes my feelings about keeping my old name as secret as is practical.
Another aspect of using an old name is it makes those people who hear it form an association that is unhelpful or unwanted. I’m usually pretty unhappy about hearing other people’s old names even if they’re not bothered about sharing it. It creates a new label floating around in my head, and I latch on to words so I often work hard to forget old names if I end up learning them. Once it’s there and in my mind, I get paranoid that I’ll slip up and use the wrong name.
So regardless of our comfort, it’s just best to not share. People are seriously harmed by this, and even if they aren’t it can create problems. As with being out and so many other things, it’s that person’s information to share and not anyone else’s.