Deadnaming — Armchair Philosophy

Joe talks about deadnaming.

Episode script:

Let’s talk about deadnaming.

<Thwak, thonk, shing!>

When trans people transition, they often rename themselves.

This is a deeply personal choice. It’s what people are going to call you forever, and for most of us, it’s a choice made by our parents, and we never get much say in it.

But for a trans or nonbinary person, this can be a very affirming thing. A way you can mark the change from who you were thought to be, to who you actually are.

A re-birth.

I talked about pronouns last episode, and how difficult it can be to adapt to new ones, whether you’re changing your own or adapting to someone else’s.

My position was that the human brain is a complicated thing, and a period of forgiveness should be afforded so long as the effort is being made. At least in my case. I’m not an ambassador from trans and nonbinary land to the United States of CIS people, though I would enjoy having an office, a title, and an excuse to wear women’s business attire. 

Anyway, less so is the case, this forgiveness of adaptation to new words, when it comes to names.

Deadnaming is the act of calling a trans or nonbinary person by the name of the selves they were, before telling the world who they actually are.. This can be done accidentally, as one’s brain adjusts, but often it’s done purposefully, by people seeking to undermine or belittle one’s decision to live as their true selves.

The academic term for this, is “being a turd.”

When you deadname somebody, you are asserting power over them. You are saying, to that person, “I refuse to accept you as you are, and I will, willfully, remind you that many believe you are not who you know yourself to be.”

And the only reason anybody would ever do this is to assert power. But it isn’t a good kind of power. It isn’t the power to help, or to grow, or to make the world a better place. It is the power of dominance.

This is an act born of insecurity. One where things you don’t understand on a personal level are inherently threatening. And in a weird way, I get it. Dismissing entire concepts to which you will never relate makes the world seem like it makes more sense. If the thing you’ll never experience isn’t real, you don’t have to understand it. And if this were the only reason people deadname, we could leave it at that, but it isn’t.

I’m discovering, more and more as time goes by, that people aren’t just lacking in empathy. But that people are, on some level, terrified of their own empathy.

And so, we deny. Racism isn’t real. Sexism isn’t real. Ableism isn’t real. Because if we deny the concepts, we never have to face the pain of others as we benefit from ignoring it.

And as grim as that is, there’s some good news there.

On some level, we do understand that we’re denying that pain. We know we’re being terrible. We know we can do better. And the only reason we’re not facing it isn’t just evil, or callousness, though yes, that exists in abundance, but that if we have to take in how awful these things are, we will not only have to face up to the guilt of it all, but we’ll have to feel so much more pain than we already do.

And that means our fear can, in fact, be conquered. I’ve experienced this first-hand. I was a pretty terrible human being in my younger days, and for many reasons, but none more omnipresent than the fear of confronting it.

And with enough peer pressure, that person absolutely would’ve deadnamed somebody: a sleight-of-hand to mask my own self-loathing queerness.

But you don’t have to be trans or nonbinary to be deadnamed. I went by J.D. until I was eleven, at which point I changed my name. Thankfully, Joe is gender-neutral already, so I don’t have to change it again if I don’t want to. Claiming Joe as my name was a baby-step I took in my formative years toward coming out. It was me demanding I be in charge of a part of me that was foisted on me and assumed to be innate and out of my hands: something I’m repeating in a larger way now. And at the time, I did it in a really low-key way:

I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t make demands. I just started writing my new name on my papers at school. And I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about going to Catholic school, but I will say that my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Rutkay, caught on. And started using my new name. And that meant the world to me, because when you’re a kid, you don’t get to choose a damn thing.

You don’t get to pick what you eat, or when you sleep, or what you get to do with your day. And when you’re queer, and you’re hiding it, you don’t even get to just plain exist as yourself without some serious repercussions.

So my teacher pulled me aside one day, and asked, “is this what you’d like to be called?” and I said yes. And that was that. And I was allowed some actual autonomy for the first time I could recall. I got to make a choice about my personhood, and it was respected.

I changed my name in 1993. It’s 2018, and my own mother still deadnames me. She excuses this by saying, “you’ll always be my baby,” which sounds cute to her, but parents are people. And people love to hang on to power. Especially power over others. It’s how literally every system of government eventually produces dictatorial fascism.

To my mother, me changing my name was a power-grab akin to a socialist uprising. It was an insistence that I get to control myself. That I’m not an object. That, uh… typically doesn’t go over well.

Joe has mother issues. What a surprise!

So when somebody tells you to call them something, respect their autonomy. I’d say don’t act like a child, but even children get this. Don’t act like a mean child. Don’t act like a terrible adult! Whatever somebody tells you to call them, call them that, because to do otherwise is to tell that person, “No. I’d rather lord my power over you than treat you with a modicum of respect.”

For Sofa Justice Warriors, I’m Joe. Thank you, everybody. Goodnight.

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