Updated: Oct 8
Avoiding Dead Names is an act of respect. Avoiding the term "Dead Name" is an act of caring because of the way that the association with death can land...
One of the things you learn quickly as you navigate the world of gender fluidity is just how important language is.
“To me, the term "dead name" unnecessarily evokes the concept of death in a way that can cause distress for those processing a loved one's identity transition.”
By using language sensitively and with respect for the wishes of the people in question, we show our care, concern, and support. Being called by the name they prefer is a key aspect of someone inhabiting their identity and so it is very common that, with a shift in gender away from that assigned at birth, a new name is chosen. It becomes a person’s “chosen name” or “preferred name” until they go through the necessary process to change it to their legal name, if they choose to take that optional step.
As a new name is taken, the name that is released is generally referred to as their “dead name”. Continually “dead naming” someone after they have informed you of their chosen name—particularly if it is done based on your feelings about gender—is an act of overt aggression against that individual, communicating that their identity is not fully supported by society. Sadly, use of chosen names has become something of a flashpoint in the “gender wars” sparking legal cases in several states as those who are opposed to gender fluidity take a stance on whether someone has the right to be called by a name of their own choosing.
Even for those who are supportive of a loved one's change of identity, transitioning to calling them by a new name can be challenging. Even though I am committed to using people’s chosen names, I occasionally slip up. Memory is a funny thing and once trained it can be hard to reprogram. Whenever it happens, I apologize and correct myself, making sure the person knows I accept their choice of name.
In addition to not using dead names, I also prefer not to use the term “dead name”. I know it is the generally accepted term for a birth name that someone has released but to me it unnecessarily evokes the concept of death in a way that can cause distress. At the most tender times of experiencing a loved one’s identity transition it can be triggering, reinforcing a perception that a person once loved is now dead. Those who are still processing the emotional impact of identity change are in the curious position of trying to locate where the identity that has been released now is. This involves processing how the past, the present and the future come together in an individual’s life story. I believe that using the terminology of death and dying with regard to this process can add to the loss and pain being felt.
Therefore, I prefer to simply refer to the terms “birth name” and “chosen name” skipping the use of “dead name” altogether. If someone’s chosen name is different to their birth name, then that's the name I use. In this way everyone's choices can be honored in a way that is loving to all.