Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Often people who are transgender, gender expansive, non-binary, gender non-conforming or agender choose to change their name. This new name serves to confirm their identity, as their previous name may be associated with their sex and gender assigned at birth.
One common way the trans community refers to a previous name is with the term "dead-name". To some, leaving their name and previous gender identity behind is a kind of death and rebirth. In more hostile times, this made sense. Creating a new name, persona, identity was necessary for safety. Now, the idea that our old self dies has lost traction among trans people. It has been replaced by a larger narrative that a trans persons entire history informs their present. Many of us, including me, choose not to delineate our lives into a before and after, but instead see our whole lives as a series of opportunities to grow and see ourselves more and more for who we really are.
So how should we refer to our loved ones in the past? What if I want to talk about a trans person as a child, or in the time before they began using a new name?
As you will see in future posts, my first answer to any question will always be, ask! Ask your person or loved one how they would like to be addressed when speaking about them in the past.
That said, as a general rule, when speaking about someone in the past, it is the most respectful to use their current name and pronouns. When people speak about me when I was a child, I want to them to call me Sage, and refer to me as a boy, as a brother to my siblings, as a nephew, a son, a grandson. Rarely does a name and gender make a different to a story. When it does, consider if the story needs to be told before you ask your loved one how they would like you to address stories like these.
Here's an example: I hated dresses growing up. One year, while trying on a Christmas dress, I stuck my belly out as far as it would go so it wouldn't zip, though it fit perfectly. You might imagine that telling this story it would be imperative to refer to me with my dead-name and former pronouns because it includes a dress and the assumption that I was assigned female at birth. But that's not necessary.
Here's how I would tell it if I were a family member. Remember that time that Sage put on his Christmas dress and stuck out his belly so far that it wouldn't zip at all? I mean, it was such stretchy fabric, I'm amazed we couldn't get it zipped til he gave up the ghost.
Yep, that story is about a dress, and a storyline that would be typical of any dress hating girl. But I was never a girl. I didn't conceptualize of myself that way. The first time I knew I was a boy, I was three years old, about the same time that most people start realizing that gender exists, and start making pronouncements about their own identity.
Though it may be incredibly uncomfortable for families to leave pronouns and names in the past, and tell stories about memories with current names and pronouns, but using names and pronouns respectfully is a life saving act. Fifty percent of trans children under the age of 18 will try to commit suicide, adults are not far off of those numbers. What brings the numbers to normal levels? Calling trans individuals the name and pronouns of their choosing. That's it.
If you're a parent who is grieving the name that you gave your child (no matter their age), talk to a therapist, a supportive trusted friend, your spouse, a PFLAG chapter, or get in touch with us, but let you child be a child (even as an adult) and don't put this emotional burden on them. They have so much to contend with as a trans person.
Your use of their current, chosen name and pronouns is literally a life saving act.