What Is Deadnaming and Why Is It Harmful?

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What Is Deadnaming?

To deadname someone is to call or refer to them by the name they no longer use, AKA their dead name. The former name is usually their birth name, from before their transition. While technically you can deadname any person who now uses a different name, the term is used in relation to trans, gender nonconforming, and nonbinary people, and it is considered a violent act.

An Important Note

Although based on the technical definition, any person who changes their name and is then called by their former name is being deadnamed, the term deadnaming is not applicable for cis people. That's because it is known as a specifically harmful act towards people who are under the trans umbrella.

Deadnaming is generally perpetrated by cis people, and rarely does a cis person's former name invoke the same level of pain or discomfort.

What Leads A Person on the Trans Spectrum to Change Their Name?

People who are trans, GNC, or nonbinary often do something called transitioning. That is the process of going from being who others labeled you as, to who you actually are. Transitioning can have many different steps and stages, and is an individual journey. One common part of that journey is to change your name. A person who is on the trans spectrum may feel that their birth name, which may not represent their true gender, is no longer a fit for them, if it ever was.

The act of changing one's name to something that better represents them is usually seen as an empowering act, and it can bring a lot of joy to someone's life. A person's previous name may represent many past elements of life that they no longer want to be associated with. These are varied, but can include:

  • Emotional trauma from being treated as a different gender
  • Violence perpetrated on the person
  • Dysphoria
  • Painful childhood memories
  • Lack of autonomy in identity

History of Name Changing

In cisgendered, heterosexual marriage, women have been taking their husband's names for about a thousand years now. It is normal practice that when a woman changes her last name to her husband's, only that new name is used.

However, the practice of changing one's first name legally is newer. It was only in the 1950s that a sexologist introduced the concept of gender as a separate identity from assigned sex at birth, and it is only in the decades since that states have begun approving name and gender marker changes on official documents. The process of changing one's first name requires court approvals, and can be complex and time consuming, as all of a person's assorted official documents must be updated.

Studies have noted that the act of changing one's name, along with their gender marker, improves mental health. Specifically, the act of "gender affirmation was significantly associated with lower reports of depression, anxiety, somatization, global psychiatric distress, and upsetting responses to gender-based mistreatment."

Why Is Deadnaming Harmful?

Knowing that the act of changing one's name is associated with improved mental and emotional wellness, it makes logical sense that calling that person by their dead name would lead to the opposite. Inasmuch as the usage of a new name is a validating and affirming experience for someone, to instead use their former name is invalidating of a person's identity, as well as emotionally hurtful.

When you deadname someone, you're telling them that you don't see them as their true self. Instead, you see them as you choose to, which is not in alignment with who they are. Deadnaming someone, even when done accidentally, brings all of their negative life experiences with that name to the surface. It forces the person to deal emotionally with all of that trauma in a random moment when they may not be prepared to do so. Even if they are prepared to deal with that trauma, there is no reason to give them cause to do that.

Because deadnaming happens to trans people, it is a slap in the face that glaringly notes the cis privilege of the person doing it. Deadnaming is one person telling another that they have the option to view them however they choose, rather than respecting the person's identity. This is an incredibly disrespectful act, whether done intentionally or not.

How to Avoid and/or Stop Deadnaming Others

As the saying goes, change is hard. The difficulty of changing your behavior is no excuse for mistreating others, though, and deadnaming isn't an acceptable practice. It's important to remember that deadnaming, while particularly harmful when done directly to someone, is also unacceptable when done indirectly. That means it's equally not ok to refer to someone behind their back by a previous name they no longer use, or to write about them under their dead name.

If someone in your life has changed their name and you way to make the positive and necessary change of only referring to and calling them by their new name, here are a few steps you can take that don't involve emotional labor on their part:

  • Look at photos of the person and say their new name out loud to yourself regularly.
  • Tell people you know that the person has changed their name, and ask them to only use the new name.
  • Ask others to correct you if you deadname the person.
  • Practice using the new name in conversation with others.
  • Create a reminder for yourself. This can be a pop up on your phone, a post it on your desk, or anything else that brings the topic to mind.
  • When you speak to the person, intentionally use their new name in those conversations.

What to Do If You Deadname Someone

Deadnaming may occur in conjunction with using the wrong pronouns for a person. That's because both are changes that are typical parts of a trans person's transition. As the acts of using the wrong pronouns and deadnaming are similar in that they both reference a person incorrectly, the same method can be followed for deadnaming as for pronoun misuse. The ABC method by Collaborate Consulting is streamlined and quick.

Apologize Briefly

The first step to take when you have deadnamed someone is to acknowledge it. Doing that makes it clear that you understand you've made a mistake. However, once you have apologized briefly you should immediately head to the next step.

Spending time wallowing in your mistake, expressing that using a new name is difficult for you, and/or continuing on in any way that shifts the emotional labor onto the other person isn't helpful. Your mistake is yours, so don't make anyone else have to do any work around it.

A good example apology would be, "I'm sorry, I called you Sue, but your name is Sam."

Correct

Once you've acknowledged your error, immediately use the new name. This step is also very quick, and nothing further is needed other than the correction. "I should have said, Sam went there."

Move On

Lastly, but equally important as the previous steps, once you have apologized and corrected the situation, you should move on from it right away. There's no discussion or processing about the issue needed. Just continue with the conversation right where it left off, and let everyone digest what happened without further commentary.

A Word From Verywell

Everyone deserves to be called and referred to by the name they use. Though deadnaming might not seem like a big deal to you, chances are it's very important to the person it happens to. To be the best person you can, always use the name a person gives you.

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  1. Restar A, Jin H, Breslow A, et al. Legal gender marker and name change is associated with lower negative emotional response to gender-based mistreatment and improve mental health outcomes among trans populationsSSM Popul Health. 2020;11. doi:10.1016%2Fj.ssmph.2020.100595