The Power of Deadnames
A deadname is what most transgender people refer to as their legal or birth names. Not all trans people use this term, in fact some people keep their name the same after transitioning. On the flip side, some non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer, etc. people use the term deadname as well.
Deadnaming is the act of using said deadname to refer to a trans (trans being an umbrella term here) person without their permission. Deadnaming, generally speaking, can be quite harmful and in fact, causes trauma for that person. But this is something that most cisgender people don’t know, realize, or at times acknowledge. The reason is because they don’t understand the power that deadnames hold.
There are two reasons why deadnames hold power. The first is quite simple. For most trans people, their deadname is a secret. We often hold our deadnames under lock and key and hide them from the rest of society. Because of this, we give them (unintentionally) an air of value. If I actively choose to keep my deadname private, then the few people that know my deadname are now part of a rare group.
This causes curiosity in others who will try to find my deadname, actively look for it, ask me what it is, and maybe even ask my family or friends who know. They will want to know because the name now holds value. If I was to actively tell others my deadname without their prompting, then there’s no value to it—it’s just another piece of information about me that everyone knows. But there’s a reason why trans people hold their deadname under lock and key, and that brings me to my second point.
Trauma. Deadnames hold power because they hold a type of trauma for a lot of trans people. And just like not every trans person uses the term deadname, not every trans person has trauma related to it. But it does in my case. I can’t speak for others so I’m going to speak from my own personal perspective here. Hearing my deadname brings a sharp shot of pain. It brings with it a lot of dysphoria, and generally just reminders of the fact that I am trans, that my body is still in transition, and that name is still out there to haunt me. It’s trauma.
Every time my deadname is used to refer to me, whether intentional or not, it brings trauma. And that’s why it has power. I use the name Grayson—that is the name I go by, the one I ask everyone around me to use. So the use of my deadname without my permission, without my consent, and accidental or not, is taking the power out of my hands. And that’s what I think people often struggle to understand. They believe that I go by Grayson out of preference or by request, but that’s not the case. I go by Grayson out of necessity, and to use that name is a requirement that I have for everyone around me. Not most of the time, not some of the time, all of the time.
Deadnames hold power. And if you use one without the consent of the person who owns that name, you are causing harm and even trauma. No matter the circumstance. But, if you actively work to use the name that is requested of you to use (some people refer to this as a chosen name) without ever making a mistake, and if you never share a deadname without permission, then you are giving that power to the trans person.
Realistically, I should have the power of my deadname in my hands. I should have the ability to always pick and choose when it is shared or used, because it belongs to me. In reality, I don’t always have that power. And that is the problem that most trans people face regularly, and a problem that needs to actively be corrected by everyone around them. ▼
Grayson Putman (he/him) is an openly trans man of Cape Verdean heritage. Putnam is an openly trans man of Cape Verdean heritage. Putnam is a senior at Saint Michael's College. He is currently the president of their LGBT+ community since high school when he was a part of his high school's GSA. In 2019 he came out a trans man, and has been trasitioning ever since. It's been a privilege and an honor having Gray be part of CAMP Rehoboth's YOUTH Up program. - Barbara Antlitz
Barbara Antlitz, CAMP Rehoboth YOUTH Up Coordinator, works with Genders and Sexualities Alliances (GSAs) in middle and high schools in Kent and Sussex Counties, and with other groups supporting LGBTQ+ youth. Barbara can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.