What is deadnaming and why is it so harmful?

Deadnaming, the act of using a trans person’s former name (their deadname) can feel hurtful, like a refusal to accept a person for who they are. Here’s its meaning and why it’s harmful.

There has been widespread condemnation of The Times newspaper after it published the deadname of Brianna Ghey, a 16-year-old trans girl stabbed to death in Warrington, England.

What is a deadname and what is the meaning of ‘deadnaming’?

A deadname is the name a transgender person used to go by, having changed it as part of affirming their identity. Often, it’s the name they were given at birth.

Deadnaming comes where someone – accidentally or on purpose – uses that name.

Trans Activism UK co-founder, Felix Fern, says a name change, for some transgender people, is part of them “taking control” and celebrating their autonomy.

He also highlights that many people – transgender or not – change their names for a variety of reasons, “yet it is typically only transgender people who have our previous names weaponised against us”.

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“To use someone’s deadname is to show a conscious lack of respect for someone’s identity, autonomy and authenticity,” Fern says.

The result could be “truly traumatic and invasive”, he adds.

Don’t make a big deal if you accidentally use a person’s deadname

Gendered Intelligence spokesperson, Cleo Madeleine, says when done intentionally, deadnaming can feel disrespectful, hurtful and like a refusal to accept a person for who they are.

“It’s really important that trans people are treated with respect but, outside of intentional attacks, mistakes do happen and it’s not the end of the world.”

The main thing is trying to communicate with respect and in good faith, Madeleine adds.

If people are unsure of how to address someone, she advises, they should check with that person and if a mistake has been made, “correct yourself, apologise, and move on”.

“More harm is [done] by making a big deal of getting the wrong name than by getting it wrong in the first place. It’s also important to remember that talking to trans people… isn’t a minefield.”

Trans social media star Dylan Mulvaney hasn’t name changed her name. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

It’s also important to note not all transgender people change their names, such as social media star Dylan Mulvaney.

In a YouTube video, she has said it “really bothers” her that people think she has to change her name “in order to be a woman”.

She added: “My girl name is Dylan.”

Deadnaming and the media

When it comes to dealing with deadnaming, both Madeleine and Fern say some situations are more stressful than others, namely when it happens in the media.

Madeleine says “getting into arguments with bad-faith actors only serves them more oxygen and makes the situation more stressful”.

“If deadnaming happens in the press, you may be able to complain to the Independent Press Standards Organisation on the grounds that it is intentional[ly] seeking to harm an individual.”

Fern says it is a “distinctly different, wider-picture problem” when deadnaming occurrs in the media rather than on an individual basis.

People should be held accountable for deadnaming in media, noting it was disrespectful “on a far more impersonal level”, he says.

“A deadname never adds anything to a news story, it only causes hurt.”

That goes for not just news media, but also for social media.

A notable example is when actor Elliot Page’s deadname started trending on Twitter last year, which goes against the platform’s hateful-conduct policy.

Actor Elliot Page’s deadname trended on Twitter (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

It started after Canadian conservative commentator and psychologist, Jordan Peterson (he calls himself a traditionalist), tweeted about Page, deadnaming and misgendering the actor.

Just a year ago, TikTok introduced its own policy against deadnaming and misgendering people on the platform.

A spokesperson for trans youth charity Mermaids says the United Kingdom’s current media landscape, as well as its social and political outlooks, are “increasingly hostile towards trans and non-binary people”.

“Given this climate, deadnaming can be extremely harmful and invalidating for the person on the receiving end of it. Care needs to be taken to respect the chosen pronouns and name of an individual,” they add.

“We know from the young people we support, and our wider community, how affirming name changing can be for those who are currently transitioning or have already done so.”