Deadnaming is when someone refers to a trans or nonbinary person by a name they no longer use. Here’s how it can affect mental health.
For many transgender and nonbinary people, a name change is a powerfully affirming part of living their true gender. It’s an opportunity to choose a name that feels like a better representation of their gender identity.
After changing their name, many people find that reminders of their old name — typically the name they were given at birth — induces anxiety, gender dysphoria, and a sense of not being seen as their true gender.
While occasional slipups from family and friends are inevitable at the start, if your name, pronouns, or ultimately your identity aren’t respected and used by those around you, it can feel deeply invalidating, with various mental health effects.
Deadnaming is when a trans or nonbinary person is, mistakenly or deliberately, called by a non-affirmed name they no longer identify with. This is known as their “dead name.” It’s usually the name they had before they transitioned or “came out.”
Changing your name, unfortunately, doesn’t happen overnight. Your old name might still exist on official documents and in the minds of friends and family. As psychologically painful as deadnaming can be, it can occur on a regular basis.
Friends and family
Loved ones may mistakenly refer to you by your old name, especially as they’re getting used to calling you something new.
In other cases, they may be resistant to the change or refuse to use your chosen name. This lack of acceptance can feel very painful.
Work or school
Colleagues, classmates, administrators, or teachers may also use your old name. Systems within schools or workplaces are often lagging when it comes to making changes to peoples’ names at the administrative level, particularly if their old name is still their legal name.
Government-issued IDs, such as a birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, or Social Security card, may also contribute to deadnaming.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey reported that only 11% of trans people were able to change their government-issued IDs to their true name and gender, while 68% said none of their IDs had been changed, citing financial costs as a barrier.
Print and digital media
Deadnaming also occurs in print and digital media, especially when the person’s name has not been legally changed, or if the publication appears before the name change.
When a celebrity comes out publicly as transgender, media outlets often refer to both their dead name and their chosen name.
In general, LGBTQIA+ folks experience higher rates of mental health problems and trauma than the general population. The reasons are numerous, and can include:
- a lack of acceptable by family or wider society
- bulling in work or school
- physical threats to their safety
- negative portrayals of LGBTQIA+ people in the news and media
Specifically for trans and nonbinary people, hearing your old name can induce feelings of anxiety, gender dysphoria, and a lack of acceptance. And depending on the situation, it can make you fearful of your safety.
“Being deadnamed can also be potentially dangerous, outing them to people that they are trans who may not have that information, who may respond with questioning, harassment, discrimination, or even violence,” says Abbie Goldberg, PhD, a Clark University psychology professor focusing on gender diversity and sexual orientation.
Refusing or failing to use a person’s chosen name can also affect personal relationships and family dynamics.
“People who are deadnamed, especially by a friend or loved one, may experience that act as a signal that the person does not respect them, support them, or doesn’t care enough about them to put in the effort to use their name,” Goldberg says.
“The result can be a feeling of profound invalidation, [and] at the very least, it’s invasive and unwanted,” she says.
As such, dealing with deadnaming can lead to:
- chronic stress from worrying about your acceptance and safety
- avoiding certain situations, people, or places
- low self-worth
- suicidal ideation
The role of discrimination
According to a 2020 study, transgender people, particularly transgender Youth of Color, face widespread discrimination.
Katie Ziskind, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma at Wisdom Within Counseling in Niantic, Connecticut, says that deadnaming adds to the marginalization and oppression that trans people have already been working so hard to overcome.
Transgender people desire to be seen and observed as their true gender, Ziskind says.
“When someone uses a dead name, it can feel invalidating, because they are not being seen as the gender they want to be seen as,” she says.
On the other hand, research has shown that affirming someone’s identity can make a big difference in supporting their mental health.
Changes to a person’s name and pronouns are powerful self-affirmations.
- suicidal ideation
- suicidal behavior
The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health showed that 42% of LGBTQ youth considered suicide in the past year, more than half of which were trans and nonbinary youth.
Importantly, trans and nonbinary youth whose pronouns were respected attempted suicide at half the rate than those whose pronouns were not accepted.
In addition, the survey found that trans and nonbinary youth who changed their name, gender marker, or both on legal documents, including birth certificates and driver’s licenses, had lower rates of suicide attempts.
The survey’s respondents were 45% LGBTQ People of Color, and 38% were trans or nonbinary.
The research indicates that gender affirming support for transgender and gender nonconforming youth should include consistent use of their chosen names and pronouns, and is crucial to their psychological well-being.
Gender affirming support can truly help save lives.
If someone has used your old name, you might gently correct the person, if you feel comfortable doing so.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you might ask an ally to correct them later, or to jump in and correct them for you next time.
If friends or family are frequently using your old name, it may help to sit down with them and explain the impact this can have on your mental well-being. You might explain that it feels invalidating, shows a lack of care, or feels like a refusal to accept you.
If your old name appears in print — for example, writers and researchers may have publications under their old name — it can help to contact the outlet and request that they update your name.
If you’re experiencing discrimination or a lack of acceptance at home or at work, it can help to contact a trans or nonbinary support hotline to talk with someone who understands. This includes the TrevorLifeline and TrevorChat for LGBTQIA+ people in crisis.
If you’re frequently encountering your old name through your ID or legal documents, there are a few organizations that can help you change your documents or provide legal or financial support:
To avoid deadnaming someone, a helpful exercise is to practice using their name when you’re with them, and — provided they’re OK with you doing so (more on this next) — using their chosen name when you’re talking about them with other people, too.
“This will make it easier over time and signal to others how to correctly refer to that person,” Goldberg says.
Just make sure that you’re not using their chosen name with someone who they’re not “out” to. They might want you to continue using their old name with certain people. If you’re not sure what name to use at a given moment, ask the person in private, and then respect their preferences.
Here are a few other ways you can avoid deadnaming:
- Practice saying the person’s chosen name to yourself.
- Be intentional about using their name.
- Ask others to correct you if you use the wrong name.
- Never ask someone to share their dead name with you.
What to do if you’ve used someone’s dead name
Even when you’re making an effort, you might use someone’s old name by accident.
When this happens, simply acknowledge your error, apologize, and then move on.
Remember that referring to a trans person by their newly chosen name allows them to show up in the world as their fullest self.
If you’re a cisgender ally and want to advocate for transgender, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, you can help spread the word about why deadnaming is harmful and educate others on how to avoid it.