out with the old

What ‘deadnaming’ means, and why you shouldn’t do it to Caitlyn Jenner

Elena Scotti/FUSION

Now that it’s been a few days since Caitlyn Jenner revealed her true name, it’s time to officially retire the one she was assigned at birth—the one she shouldn’t have had to begin with.

Caitlyn herself couldn’t have made it clearer: “Call me Caitlyn” is the only name she declares on her Vanity Fair cover.

Yet this week has already brought numerous lessons in “deadnaming”—the term used in the trans community for calling a trans person by our assigned name at birth. Sometimes deadnaming is done unconsciously, like when a friend or family member is still adjusting. But there are also many times when trans people are deadnamed as a way to silence and shame us, or to pointedly out us as trans.

For that reason, and because Jenner is now in some ways a representative of the trans community, the media and broader public shouldn’t use her old identity unless she clearly expresses that preference, and should extend the same respect to any person who reveals themselves to be trans.

It’s a matter of basic courtesy. Jenner hasn’t just definitively announced her true gender, but also let go of a male identity that she’s felt alienated from since early childhood. If she thinks of her life in her male role as a lie, then it’s also true that her former name, the one that stands in for that life, is also a lie.

This will be difficult for some, especially in reporting about transphobic people who insist on calling Jenner by her deadname, like these articles from VH1 and The Daily Beast, both well-meaning in their affirmation of Jenner’s name and identity. But in decrying those who continue to insist on calling Jenner by her assigned name, both pieces still use that name in reference to her, and simply writing “formerly known as” is not enough. This is not a situation like “The artist formerly known as Prince.” This is a situation where a trans woman has publicly stated her lifelong alienation from her male identity, symbolized by her assigned name. The sooner we stop using it the better.

The use of headlines with the construction “formerly” followed by Jenner’s deadname is a convention that major newspapers like The New York Times and the U.S.A. Today have also used, even as both outlets have featured positive transgender coverage the past few months, most notably in the Times’ ongoing “Transgender Today” series. This indicates how even supportive publications still aren’t willing to prioritize trans experience when talking about trans people, and lack transgender representation in their staff. It’s easy enough to use a headline like “Transgender Olympic Champion Announces Her Name: Caitlyn,” which allows the public to identify Jenner without recalling an identity she has specifically distanced herself from. It’s not that Caitlyn was formerly anything. Judging from everything she’s said about her life, it’s more that she has always been Caitlyn even if she didn’t know it.

Just yesterday, I left a queer online group I’ve belonged to for more than a decade because one of its members deadnamed me, in a comment that also described me in unflattering terms. This has been a common aspect of my experience with deadnaming, one that I’ve seen with many other trans people. The person who does it usually sees no harm in using a name that’s been associated with us, but does it while also trying to discredit or shame us, or imply that we will never be our true gender. And every time this happens, painful associations continue to accrue and be associated with names that most trans people already feel alienated from to begin with, because it reminds us of a time in our lives when we didn’t feel as though we were living as our true selves.

Simply writing “formerly known as” is not enough. This is not a situation like “The artist formerly known as Prince.”

Jenner spoke eloquently in her interview with Diane Sawyer about never having felt comfortable being assigned male, and about how athletic achievement was her way of trying to escape from a womanhood that was socially unacceptable. She said, “I was running away from myself, running away from who I was.” In telling us that her name is Caitlyn, Jenner has finally stopped running from her womanhood, but deadnaming her pushes her back to a manhood that has taken her decades to shed because of the burden of social expectation.

Even if it’s more convenient to use Jenner’s deadname to clearly describe her transition, such convenience comes at the great cost of dismissing the reality that the vast majority of trans people privately think of ourselves as our true gender long before we publicly disclose as trans. It promotes the idea that a trans person’s gender only functions as long as she presents herself in a particular way, and puts way too much focus on transition as a before and after event, rather than one part of a long series of steps that trans people undertake to be able to live as our true selves.

There are plenty of ways to make Jenner’s identity clear without using her deadname, and it would be respectful both for the media and the wider public to make use of them. Usually, just describing her through her actions and accomplishments is enough. It’s a process that will take time for many; even I as a highly-experienced trans woman still mistakenly use her deadname in conversation. But if media outlets refer to her exclusively as Caitlyn, this will make it easier for the public to follow suit, and by extension allow the wider trans community that Caitlyn Jenner now represents to feel a greater sense of dignity, not just in our names but also our lives.