Dead-naming is a new concept that is being defined in writer’s guides for AP Style and others. It occurs when a writer or reporter refers to a transgender person by the name they used before they transitioned. The AP Style guide says that it’s okay to use the person’s previous name if it’s relevant to the story, while other guides say a person’s previous name should never be used because it might cause undue emotional distress.
Is sacrificing clarity for fear of causing distress the best approach?
Recently, a famous actor announced they were going by a new name and changing their pronouns. They had been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in 2007 for their portrayal of the title character in “Juno.” Many articles didn’t use the old name and referred to them as “he”, which left people confused as to who they were writing about. (i.e., How can a “he” be best actress?) Arguments broke out in comment sections, and some bloggers chastised other writers for dead-naming the actor in their articles. The actor’s IMDB page was updated with the new name, with old credits listed as ‘the dead name’, then after a few days the dead name disappeared altogether.
One article on lifehacker related the harm of dead-naming someone, saying it robs them of their identity and can cause distress to the point of feeling suicidal for being reminded of the time not living as their ‘true self’. But the “Juno” actor is reportedly worth 12 million dollars, has starred in major films (Inception) as their previous ‘self’, and appeared as “Self” 82 times under their previous name (according to IMDB). Is it healthy to forget all this or pretend it never happened? Isn’t their previous self part of their ‘true self’? They seem like a capable and talented person, not someone who needs to be tip-toed around for fear of causing a mental breakdown.
Everyone goes through transitions in life and struggles with notions of “self”. The child becomes a teenager and then becomes an adult setting out into the world. Each new self requires a transition. Sometimes a person might present more than one different self to different groups of people in the same day. As one ego self dies, a new one is emerging, and the successes of the previous ego self become part of the new self, while other parts are cast off.
What makes one person’s ego transition any more important or meaningful than another’s? Everyone goes through fragile times, and wanting to remind someone of their past successes, of times when they made others smile and laugh is not a bad thing. Ego is a means to share talents and skills with other people and to gain further awareness. Asking others to forget a previous self is awkward at best, a strange form of forced denial. How dare you say who I used to be!
Is it possible that higher suicide rates for transgender people are due in part to trying to forget all of their old self…? They kill off the strengths and accomplishments of who they were before, leaving them feeling dangerously empty? Feeling fragile and contemplating suicide happens when one ego self dies and an emerging one isn’t whole yet; the sense of loss and emptiness of the ego death overwhelms into actualizing death.
The ‘true self’ is the sum of all selves a person has been or will be throughout their lives. Turning the page doesn’t invalidate the story shared up to that point.