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Here's what you need to know about deadnaming — and how to support your trans and non-binary friends

female transgender holding hair against colored background
What is deadnaming?Klaus Vedfelt

We’ve all been there: half an hour into your Hinge date you realise you can’t remember their name because you haven’t bothered to save their number yet. Using someone’s name is a sign of respect and familiarity, which is why it can feel so embarrassing when we accidentally call someone by the wrong name or forget their name entirely.

And if forgetting the name of someone we’ve just met makes us cringe, using the wrong name for someone we’ve known for a while can feel even worse — for us and them. It’s understandable then, to feel anxious about slipping up if a loved one changes their name.

Calling them by their new or preferred name can be a way of showing respect and acceptance, and can strengthen your relationship with them. For people who’ve changed their name, being called by their old name can feel uncomfortable, disrespectful, and painful.

Many trans people change their name to something that better aligns with their gender identity, and the name they used before becomes their ‘deadname’.

We spoke to Cleo Madeleine, Communications Coordinator at Gendered Intelligence to get the lowdown on deadnames and how to support your friends and loved ones who’ve changed their names.

What is deadnaming?

In 2023, Webster's dictionary included ‘deadname’ as one of its most notable words of that year. It defines ‘deadname’ as “the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning”.

Deadnaming, then, is the act of calling someone by their deadname, either intentionally or by accident. “Most trans people change their names to better fit their identity and the way they want to live their life,” says Cleo, adding that intentionally deadnaming someone is insulting.

Purposely using or outing someone’s deadname is an act of transphobia and is sometimes weaponised against trans people to undermine their identities or trigger gender dysphoria.

What to do if you accidently deadname someone

Intentionally calling someone by their deadname is insulting, but mistakes do happen and the most important thing is to be respectful.

“I think because the subject is so polarised at the moment, there's this feeling that if you get someone's name or their pronouns wrong, it's going to be a capital P problem,” says Cleo.

“That's absolutely not the case. It is just a thing that happens and all you can do is apologise, correct yourself, and move on,” she adds.

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What’s most important is supporting your loved one in their decision to change their name. After all, research shows that using trans and non-binary people’s chosen names and pronouns is associated with positive mental health outcomes.

What effect does deadnaming have on people?

Using someone’s chosen name is a way of showing that you recognise that they are who they say they are, says Cleo.

“So intentionally refusing to recognise a trans person’s name is not just insulting or upsetting, but also a way of saying that you don't accept them – and that lack of acceptance, particularly for young people who unfortunately sometimes face this at school, can be really depressing,” adds Cleo, noting that ultimately this lack of acceptance can be isolating and can cause people’s relationships and confidence to suffer.

In some situations, you may be asked to use someone’s deadname and old pronouns. For example, if they haven’t yet come out to their family or certain members of their community, or in environments where it may not be safe for them to be out as trans.

Stonewall recommends checking in with them to ask what they’d like you to do if you hear someone else calling them by their deadname or old pronouns. They may want you to step in and correct that person, or they may prefer to do it themselves — or even not at all. If you’re unsure, the best thing to do is politely ask rather than trying to assume what the right move is.

Mistakes happen, but what matters most is seeing your loved one as the person they’re telling you they are. Working to understand someone’s gender identity and reasons behind their new name will make it much easier to get right than just trying to remember not to call them by their deadname. Focus on their future and how to best support your trans loved one. And remember: if in doubt, you can just ask!

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