Apr 9, 2020

It may be “That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene I), but there is a lot in a name, particularly if you are transgender. ‘Deadnaming’ denies and repudiates the gender identity of transgender individuals.

Our sense of personal identity responds to the recognition of it by others, and much of this recognition rests upon how we are known – our name.

For most of us, our name was given to us. We had no choice in what our parents determined as our moniker. Our names accompany us in every which way – in face to face conversations, across the world wide web, and in all the documents required to authenticate our identity, and transact our lives.

Names signal who we are. Studies have examined what our names suggest about our ethnicity, religion, social status, and socioeconomic background. These studies tend to focus on what our names say to others, but not on the use, or mis-use, of our names by others, and what this says back to us.

Most names are linked to the sex assigned at birth. Our first or personal names therefore, not only inextricably relate to our bodies, they establish sex and gender. While choosing a name for the newly born can include familial and other considerations, the primary determinant is the assigned sex of the child as female or male. There has been no significant increase in the use of sex/gender neutral names over the past hundred years, and usually babies receive a first name reflective of their designated sex.

Our name therefore, is not just a label that identifies us as ‘this person, not that person’; our name is a gender display which publicly and repeatedly throughout our lives, signals whether we are female or male. Our names also trigger expectations of our physical appearance and behaviour as being aligned to the ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ associations of our name.

For many transgender people, birth name is associated with the gender that is not theirs. When changing gender and advising the world accordingly, choosing a new name is important symbolically and functionally. Psychologically, it makes real, the internal self, and re-naming brings gender identity into tangible existence.

Re-naming is important for all people of transgender experience as it’s fundamental to recognition. Legally changing one’s birthname in official documents legally validates the new identity of transgender people, and can be crucial for protection from discrimination and violence. Changing legal names in Australia is relatively straight forward compared to some other countries, but even so, it is not a magic wand.

Language, specifically the use of names, is a vehicle for acknowledging gender identity. ‘Deadnaming’ – usingthe birth name that a transgender person no longer uses upon transitioning genders, and ‘mis-gendering’ – the use of a pronoun that does not match the person’s gender identity, negates gender identity. In this light, far from being mere ‘labels’, using chosen personal names is powerful affirmation of the transgender person’s gender identity. A 2018 study found that when transgender youth are allowed to use their chosen names, their risk of suicide and depression decreases.

Deadnaming and misgendering are experienced as expressing disagreement with the legitimacy of trans lives and identities. These behaviours are not benign or neutral cultural practices. A UN consultation on privacy and gender held in late October 2019, identified obstacles to changing names in legal documents and official records, and ‘deadnaming’ as actions that breach privacy regularly and exacerbate the risks of discrimination and violence. This is significant as trans individuals around the world experience a less tolerant environment than that experienced by the straight binary community, or even that experienced by lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals.

Disagreement with the legitimacy of transgender identity is not confined to words. In Australia, the 2018 trans and gender diverse sexual health survey by the Kirby Institute UNSW found 53.2% of participants experienced sexual violence or coercion compared with 13.3% among a general sample of Australians. Of those experiencing this abuse, 69% experienced it multiple times, compared to 45.3% of a general sample. These findings reflect earlier international studies.

For example, a US 2014 national survey found gender based harassment, physical assault and sexual violence led almost 15% to leave school early. It is troubling that abuse from teachers was reported, and that it was more harmful than peer abuse. Further, 41% were found to live without ID matching their gender identity. The situation was far worse for transgender people of colour.

Turning to Europe, an exhaustive study conducted in 2013 by the European Fundamental Rights Agency across 28 countries with 93 thousand LGBT respondents, found transgender individuals experience the highest levels of discrimination, harassment and violence. 34% of all transgender respondents reported physical, or sexual attacks, or threats of violence compared with around a quarter of lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents.

Addressing behaviours that range from casual insult to outright physical violence require social change. We may be seeing the start of change with social media recognising the destructive nature of the vilification experienced by trans-people. In 2018, Twitter announced changes to its “hateful conduct” policy to include “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” Violations of the policy can see users temporarily or permanently barred from the site. This change signals a move from denying the legitimacy of trans lives and identities, to recognising the rights to a life where one’s gender is not a matter for derision or worse.

The measures seen by trans-people participating in the 2013 Fundamental Rights Agency survey that would enable them to be more comfortable living as a transgender person, included public leadership with better acceptance by religious leaders and open support by civic figures.

Malta has led the way in recognising the rights of trans-people. In 2016, it introduced legislation establishing that being trans is not to be viewed as psychologically abnormal. Last year, the WHO ceased classifying gender dysphoria as a mental and behavioural disorder in its global manual of diagnoses. The WHO reportedly now understands that being transgender is not a mental health condition, and labelling it as such leads to stigma and discrimination.

In Australia, gender identity is not a legitimate basis for discrimination whether by the State, business enterprises, religious organisations or individuals. An example of gender identity discrimination is persistently calling an individual by their former name and humiliating them in front of others.

Language when it comes to gender, is important. For transgender people, chosen personal names are interwoven with lived gender.

These may be regarded as trivial concerns in that they are seen to affect a small section of the population, but for many individuals, the new and self-chosen name represents the identity for which they have fought significant battles – and, most likely, will continue to fight.

But getting back to ‘The Bard’, trans-people today find themselves in a strikingly similar situation as Romeo and Juliet, fighting bigotry and the burden of what they were called at birth. As Shakespeare made clear, names are not the ‘enemy’, rather it’s the failure to address underlying hostility. Let’s not let names divide us – when a trans-person requests to be called a name in everyday life that may not be their birth name, each of us has the capacity and the opportunity, to confer social identity and recognise the importance of names in other peoples’ lives.

Dr Elizabeth Coombs is  immediate past NSW Privacy Commissioner, now working in international human rights and based in Malta.

Ms Amy McCarthy, is a professional musician and human rights researcher focusing on transgender health and international policy. She has juggled a varied career, have played trombone with the Sichuan Symphony Orchestra in China as well as having presented on diversity and transgender human rights issues within Australia and internationally. Amy also has rendered service in the Australian Army Reserves for four years, most recently assisting with bushfire recovery in NSW. 

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