What’s in a name or a pronoun?

Juliet says to Romeo that he would still be wonderful if he had a different name when she utters: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Maybe his name doesn’t matter to Juliet, but if Romeo were a trans male, he would be hurt, and maybe even outted, if Mercutio called him by his given name, say Rose. Recently this issue came up in the newsroom around ‘deadnaming’ transgender and non-binary people and appropriate pronoun usage.

For background, a transgender or non-binary person’s ‘deadname’ is their birth or given name. They consider that name dead to them, like their former gender identity. Deadnaming is when anyone, from the media to law enforcement, work colleagues to family, uses their birth name instead of their chosen name, without their consent.

I deadnamed a friend’s child without knowing it last year, as I legitimately didn’t know their new chosen name. Deadnaming can be accidental, or a lack of emotional intelligence, but more often it is seen as an overt or microaggression delegitimizing their new identity.

I’ve heard reporters argue that the deadname is factual; but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t offensive. We don’t dig up bodies without consent, and we shouldn’t dig up deadnames without consent either. When we know better, we should do better.

Back to the newsroom, I suggested that the deadname be removed from the article and the pronoun corrected. I was told that the deadname was needed for context. I persisted, suggesting alternate wording that removed the deadname and an incorrect pronoun, without changing the context. The article, which was well done, ran with the deadname and incorrect pronoun. I later apologized for overstepping, but as is stated in the movie The Contender: “Principles only mean something if you stick by them when they are inconvenient.”

I don’t blame the reporter for not knowing that a deadname is offensive to the LGBTQ community. The term was coined less than a dozen years ago, and there hasn’t been a lot of sensitivity training in this area. Thanks to two of my friends having transgender teens, and the Ricky Gervais comedy special about him being criticized for using Caitlyn Jenner’s deadname at the Golden Globe Awards, I was schooled this past year.

I sought out guidance in the 18th edition of the Canadian Press Stylebook, published in 2017. It states: “confirm with the person how they wish to be described in print, including their preferred pronouns – male, female or gender-neutral pronouns like they and them.” The 19th edition, published in 2021, includes an important addition on deadnaming: “When writing about someone who has transitioned, avoid using their former name.”

South of the border, the Associated Press updated their stylebook for newsrooms across the United States in June of 2019. It now reads: “Use the name by which a transgender person now lives. Refer to a previous name, sometimes called a deadname, only if relevant to the story.”

The Trans Journalists Association (TJA), released a style guide in August of 2020, encouraging news outlets internationally to improve the accuracy of their reporting and avoid harmful narratives (https://transjournalists.org/style-guide/). They state: “There’s never a reason to publish someone’s deadname in a story,” not even in a quote. I’m encouraged that the reporters who come next will probably do this fluidly (pun intended), as the TJA style guide was posted on student-focused Canadian Journalism Project’s website, J-Source.ca.

Twitter and TikTok have banned deadnaming. Wikipedia only allows the use of a deadname if the person was notable before the transition (like Jenner). The corporate world and government are also beginning to implement policies for staff to always use colleagues’ chosen names and pronouns.

I grew up with very different terms for Asians, Inuit, First Nations, the LGBTQ community, salespeople, and board chairs, among others. As the language evolved, so did I.  Even if I didn’t understand why it was offensive, if that group was telling me that it was, that was enough for me.
Once you know what a deadname is, and that it is offensive, you can write around having to use one. It’s also possible to use peoples’ chosen pronouns in an article without confusing readers. It simply takes a little bit more work at first.

Juliet may be right that Romeo is a good person regardless of his name, but Mercutio has no right to deadname him in any context.

When we know better, we should do better.

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