Deadnaming A Trans Person Is Violence  —  So Why Does The Media Do It Anyway?

This piece by Sam Riedel originally appeared on The Establishment, an independent multimedia site founded and run by women.

Content warning: discussion of homicide and assault

Here are some facts: Mesha Caldwell lived in Canton, Mississippi. She studied at Jackson State University and worked as a hair and makeup artist, winning competitive “hair battles” and mentoring younger beauticians in the Madison County area. She was also a black transgender woman.

I know these things because Mesha was found shot to death on January 4, the first of seven trans women of color to be murdered this year. But the first thing I read about her was the one thing I never wanted to know: the deadname she was assigned at birth.

For transgender people, our relationships to our names are complicated, to say the least. What we’re called has power, and hearing a blatantly masculine or feminine name applied to you when you’re trying to realign your gender in a different direction can be a source of profound, dysphoria-inducing anxiety. 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.

Hearing or seeing one’s old name can induce a visceral sense of terror.

Hence the term “deadname”: a name that shall not be spoken, for it invokes a restless spirit. Many trans people will go to great lengths to prevent people from finding out their deadnames, destroying irreplaceable photos and documents in an effort to ensure that who they really are is the only identity most will remember. We may not be able to make our families forget what they used to call us, but we can change how we’re known to the rest of the world.

Except when we can’t.

Breaking the news of Mesha Caldwell’s murder, MS News Now reporter Waverly McCarthy chose to position Caldwell’s deadname as the first piece of information readers would learn about her (after being informed that she was trans). In doing so, McCarthy violated a deeply personal boundary that perpetuated the single most harmful misconception about trans people all over the world: that our true gender identities — who we are at our core — are the ones we were assigned at birth.

This has become a pattern in reports on transgender homicides: CNN and Slate both deadnamed Kayden Clarke when he was shot by police in a hospital last year; The Daily Mail printed Mayang Prasetyo’s deadname directly under a 2014 headline that referred to her as a “young man”; Reuters deadnamed and called Jennifer Laude “the transgender” when reporting on her murder at the hands of a Marine; and so on.

In addition to Mesha, the other trans women of color murdered in January and February didn’t escape this trend. In reporting the murder of Keke Collier, the Chicago Tribune deadnamed her twice: once in their initial report, and once in their follow-up after Collier’s true name had been established. WTOL has yet to correct their report deadnaming Jojo Striker, and in a shocking display of cognitive dissonance, LGBTQIA news site PinkNews reprinted Chyna Gibson’s deadname while noting that initial reports had misgendered her. (They have since removed that information, nearly four days after the fact.)

This represents a systematic process of denying trans people not just our identities, but our humanity — one that I wrote about in 2015, when Kathy Sal was assaulted in front of her apartment in Queens (and deadnamed on WCBS, naturally). That was my second column as an out trans girl. As I waded through the litany of abusive comments and misgendering media reports, I wondered how to fix society’s preconceived notions of what it means to be trans, and if such a thing was even possible.

But more than anything, I wondered — and still do — what the news will say about me when I’m dead.

I have a handmade clay coffee mug with my deadname on it that I still can’t bring myself to throw away. Though seeing it emblazoned on bills and checks makes me depressed, and I can’t wait to legally be Samantha, there’s a small spark of sentimentality in me that can’t let that little souvenir of my past go — maybe because it’s one thing that ties me to my father, who I lost to cancer five years ago. I was named for his favorite playwright (I’m sure some of you can guess who). Disposing of that shard of history, both cup and name, feels like a slap in the face, if a necessary one.

If trans folks’ feelings about their deadnames were easy to parse, we could hardly call this problem a trans issue — after all, nothing about transitioning is simple. It’s important to know that some of us have an amicable relationship with our deadnames; during the period of time I identified as genderfluid, I had no feelings at all about what was on my driver’s license. It was only after I reexamined my transness that I began feeling upset at how obviously male my name was, and started looking into the long process of changing my name to a more feminine version. 

If trans folks’ feelings about their deadnames were easy to parse, we could hardly call this problem a trans issue.

I’m not the only one whose feelings about their given name have changed over time; one friend of mine took a permanent marker and scissors to anything bearing her deadname immediately after coming out, and experiences some dysphoria at the mere thought of anyone knowing it.

We also have to consider the feelings of trans people who transition in the public eye, whose deadnames are plastered on books, movies, albums, and so forth. The Wachowski sisters are a prime example, as is comics creator Lilah Sturges, whose old name appears on a swath of publications (some of which have been nominated for high-profile industry awards). Though she’s ecstatic to have her name changed legally now, Lilah told me in an interview that personally, she doesn’t even use the term “deadname.” “It makes me a little dysphoric to see it and hear it, but I respect it, just like I respect the things that I did in order to make it through life,” she told me. “Some books I feel belong to that name, in a strange way that I can’t quite elucidate.”

Trans people all have different relationships to the concept and even terminology surrounding deadnaming — and that’s okay, because this is an integral part of our struggle to self-determine our identities. The problems come when cisnormative media and society at large decides to make those decisions for us.

We have to consider the feelings of trans people who transition in the public eye.

One of the best examples I can use to illustrate this is Caitlyn Jenner.

I don’t bring up Cait because I think she should be a spokeswoman or icon for the broader trans community (on the contrary, one of the only things almost all trans people agree on is that we wish she’d go away), but because hers is a deadname that virtually everyone knows. While Caitlyn is reportedly still “dad” to her kids, she’s been clear that she isn’t who she used to be anymore. Whereas many trans people consider themselves to have been “born this way,” a la the prevailing gay rights narrative, others feel like their identity has actively changed over the years, and Caitlyn has often referred to her pre-transition self as though she were talking about a totally different person.

No matter where Caitlyn falls on that spectrum or how comfortable she is personally referencing her deadname, it’s no longer appropriate to refer to her as anything other than her chosen name. Even if you haven’t read GLAAD’s style guidelines on the matter, Caitlyn Jenner is a name that almost everyone invested in pop culture recognizes; she’s arguably far more famous now than she was as an Olympian. Did you notice I managed to get through that last paragraph about her deadname without using it? You still knew who I was talking about, right?

But mainstream media outlets can’t seem to get it out of their mouths. Tabloids like the New York Post are obviously the most egregious violators (our old friend the Daily Mail can’t resist deadnaming Caitlyn even in passing), but this extends to larger publications as well. Forbes, Inquisitr, the International Business Times — even Vanity Fair, the magazine via which Jenner once famously asked the world to “Call Me Caitlyn,” bizarrely referenced her deadname four times in the course of an article about David Foster.

All of these examples are from the past two months, and none of them are necessary or appropriate. Regardless of Caitlyn’s own willingness to use her deadname in certain contexts, it’s obvious that the media at large isn’t doing this because she granted them permission; these reports reference her deadname as though doing so is imperative.

Why, when Caitlyn Jenner is one of the most recognizable names in the world? Maybe because, on some level, many still think transgender people are play-acting and don’t believe us when we assert our true selves. (Did you look up my deadname when I referenced it above? What made you think you needed to?)

On some level, many still seem to think that transgender people are play-acting.

And make no mistake: This rhetoric is harmful. When mainstream news reports constantly reference deadnames like Caitlyn Jenner’s, they propagate the idea that transphobia is just a difference of opinion — that when sites like Breitbart stubbornly deadname and misgender her, it’s simply a political disagreement.

But in what universe does the idea that “trans women are really just men” not directly lead to violence? Almost one in 10 respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey said they’d been physically attacked in the past year because of their identity; over half of those attacked for any reason had been assaulted multiple times. Many shared harrowing experiences, like this woman’s:

I was found in a ditch after being brutally raped for three days. I was taken to an ER. There I met an officer who told me I deserved it for attempting to be a woman and should have died.

Stories like hers don’t exist on the fringes of the trans community. Jennifer Laude, Gwen Araujo, and untold others have been murdered because people “found out” who they “really were” — and somehow that’s not related to the media’s reckless weaponization of deadnames?

If you’re friends with a trans person and they give you permission to use their deadname in the past tense, fine. That’s their personal choice. But in any other context — especially a journalistic one — that information should be strictly confidential. Sharing it is violence under the guise of reportage, and any writer who engages in it should feel personally ashamed.

Because until they learn, we’re going to keep losing people like Mesha Caldwell. And those of us who survive are tired of being the only ones who remember the names of the dead.

You can support The Establishment’s independent media work by purchasing a ‘Member of the Resistance’ tee or making a donation here.

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