Ever Heard of ‘Deadnaming’? It’s Not What Some Seem to Think


The term ‘deadnaming’ is being used to document forms of transphobia. But in journalism, it’s often an accusation that’s unwarranted.

Ever heard of deadnaming?

If you don’t know the term, tht would not surprise me. Its etymology, which is the study of a word’s origin, suggests it’s a relatively new term, as young as about five years.

Deadnaming refers to the act of using the birth name of a person who identifies as transgender. Though the transgender person now goes by a new name, some still insist on using the old identity.

A perfect example of Caitlin Jenner. As a transgender woman, she must deal with people who insist on referring to her by male pronouns and her former name.

Those people, who refuse to acknowledge her gender identity, deadname her when they refer to her old name.

Misgendering is closely related to deadnaming. Someone who refers to a transgender person as the gender into which they were born, not the gender with which they identify, misgenders them.

But it’s not always intentional.

It’ does happen. So far in 2019, there have been at least 22 deaths of transgender or gender non-conforming people, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The organization then adds this:

As is too often the case in the reporting of anti-transgender violence, many of these victims are misgendered in local police statements and media reports, which can delay our awareness of deadly incidents. 

Imagine a transgender person named Pamela.

Someone attacks and kills Pamela in the latest example of anti-transgender violence.

Pamela, though born male and named Peter, identified as female and dressed as female. But Pamela’s driver’s license listed gender as male. Pamela never had a sex-change operation.

When police investigate, they’ll probably list in their incident report (depending on the extent to which they examine the body at the scene) a female victim.

But the coroner will do a more detailed examination. The coroner will also rely on official documents, such as a state-issued identification card.

The coroner releases the victim’s identity after notifying next of kin. Based on official ID, the coroner releases the identity that conforms with the official government documents.

Though surely noting that Peter dressed in women’s clothes, the coroner won’t assume that Peter was transgender. The coroner may not have witnesses to speak to about this. The coroner may not have any direct information that Peter identified as female or any alternate name Peter may have used.

Obviously, the coroner can’t clarify any of this by asking Peter.

So the coroner releases the victim’s identity as a male named Peter.

The media, which likewise relies on official sources, identifies the victim as a man named Peter, attributing that information to the coroner’s office.

While the coroner may well have been aware of Peter’s appearance, the news outlet almost certainly won’t be. If police note the victim’s appearance, those details may come to light after the media receives a copy. But even then, the media may not choose to mention that detail. That’s because there’s no way to know for sure at that point why the victim dressed that way.

There are more complications.

Unless there’s an obvious reason to believe someone killed Pamela because she was transgender — a hate crime — police may not even mention gender. For all they know, Peter may have been playing a prank or goign to a costume party.

Some states do not allow people to change the gender on their state-issued identification. The exception, in those cases, comes when the transgender person provides proof of a sex change operation.

Everyone who identifies as transgender may not elect to have gender reassignment surgery. There may be health considerations. There may even be financial considerations to prevent the surgery.

It may simply be a matter of preference.

So it’s entirely possible that a transgender person’s only identification lists their gender of birth, not their gender of identity.

Then there are some families who do not want to acknowledge their loved one’s identity. Some may find it embarrassing to have a son named Peter who identifies as a daughter named Pamela. They refuse to acknowledge that identity, a decision that can cause a permanent rift.

Pamela’s friends, however, are just as adamant that Pamela was Pamela, not Peter.

Between a rock and a hard place

The media relies primarily on official sources. So when police or the coroner release information, that information makes up the news reports.

There was a case a while back in which a transgender woman was killed. Authorities listed the victim’s identity as male, not female. They listed her birth name, not the name she used. (I don’t know that they had any idea about what name she used.)

People who knew the victim immediately complained about the “false” information. Fortunately, the victim’s family acknowledged their loved one’s identity and multiple news outlets then adjusted their stories to reflect the correct identity.

The media can’t just take someone’s word for such an issue. The media needs to verify sources. If multiple sources — the government and next of kin — say one thing, and friends and acquaintances say something else, what’s the media to do?

Should they acknowledge the conflicting information about gender identity? (Even if the family of the victim doesn’t want that acknowledged?)

It’s a tough predicament. And it’s one that surely will come one day if it hasn’t already.

Those of us who work in the media want to present the truth first and foremost. (At least, once we’re able to satisfactorily verify what that truth is.)

At the same time, we also want to respect the victim’s family, of course. They’ve been through enough already and we don’t ever want to add to their pain.

Sometimes, journalists must go with the information they can verify even if that doesn’t give the whole picture. And then we update as we continue to nail down additional facts.

It’s not always an ideal scenario. Some will find fault with this kind of story no matter what. (In some cases, they’ll find fault solely because of their own transphobia.)

But not all cases of misgendering or deadnaming are part of a conspiracy.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.