Dominating celebrity news on Tuesday was word that Umbrella Academy star Elliot Page had come out as transgender. He did so through a lengthy Instagram post that began, “Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot.”
News of the announcement spread quickly through media outlets and on social media, where Page was largely inundated with praise and support — and where some media outlets, this one included, were in turn denounced by some for printing Page’s previous name, a practice called “deadnaming” by some in the transgender community.
So, what does deadnaming mean? A deadname is, in simplest terms, according to Merriam-Webster, “the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning.” Used as a verb, it means “to speak of or address (someone) by their deadname.” Alternative terms such as “birth name” or “prior name,” which are used by GLAAD, mean the same thing, and, according to GLAAD’s media reference guide on covering transgender stories, can be deeply upsetting to the person in question.
Hooray for Elliot Page! Now please stop immediately deadnaming him in your 'breaking news' articles.
— L. Spooner///BLM///TRANS RIGHTS///WEAR A MASK/// (@spoonerwrites) December 1, 2020
tw // deadnaming , transphobia
if i see ANYONE deadnaming or insulting elliot you're getting hardblocked /srs
— calico (@nonbinaryang) December 1, 2020
We can do a little deadnaming, as a treat https://t.co/D5eyxQwvFt
— Violet (@violet_jones26) December 1, 2020
THIS. This is both awesome (GO ELLIOT!! SO PROUD HE CAN LIVE HIS TRUTH!!) and the correct way to write an article, without deadnaming him!! https://t.co/mjO9rdceKw
— SomethingClever (@Somethi65105005) December 1, 2020
“When a transgender person’s birth name is used in a story, the implication is almost always that this is the person’s ‘real name.’ But in fact, a transgender person’s chosen name is their real name, whether or not they are able to obtain a court-ordered name change,” notes the guide. “Many people use names they have chosen for themselves, and the media does not mention their birth name when writing about them, (e.g., Lady Gaga, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg). Transgender people should be accorded the same respect.”
Further, it urges, “Do not reveal a transgender person’s birth name without explicit permission from them. If the person is not able to answer questions about their birth name, err on the side of caution and do not reveal it.”
According to a style guide by the Trans Journalists Association, launched over the summer by 200 transgender journalists, “There’s never a reason to publish someone’s deadname in a story. Reporters should refrain from asking for this information unless it’s absolutely necessary for background checks or public records access. If writing about an individual, you should ask them what language they prefer if you refer to the existence of a deadname.”
Not everyone was on the same page, however, when it came to reporting on Page, as GLAAD acknowledged in a style guide sent to journalists on Tuesday and later posted online. The extensive guide — which Page signed off on, according to his longtime manager, and shared to his Instagram story —notes that all situations are different, particularly when it comes to celebrities who have long been in the public eye.
“DO refer to them as Elliot Page. DON’T refer to them by their former name. He has changed it, and should be accorded the same respect received by anyone who has changed their name,” the guide notes, referring to Page by both “they” and “he” pronouns, both of which are acceptable to Page. But, the guide adds, “Since Elliot Page was known to the public by their prior name, it may be necessary initially to say ‘Elliot Page, formerly known as Ellen Page …’ However, once the public has learned Page’s new name, do not continually refer to it in future stories.” (Yahoo Life and Entertainment, along with other publications, opted to follow this guidance.)
Regarding that guidance, Page’s manager tells Yahoo Life, “Elliot affirms the right of each trans person to decide how their prior name is used. The style guide released yesterday reflects Elliot’s feelings about seeing their prior name used in association with yesterday’s announcement only. Elliot agrees that no one should use a transgender person’s birth name without their explicit permission, in any media format or on social media. Respecting trans people involves respecting their chosen names and pronouns while understanding the use of a birth name without express permission is harmful and inappropriate.”
Further, she adds, “Stories referring to Elliot Page prior to his name and pronoun change should always reference his chosen name and pronouns and, where helpful, include an update linking to a story about Elliot’s chosen name and pronouns. Elliot feels, as is his prerogative, that there is no need for old stories to be rewritten to remove his prior name, however he stresses that any use of his birth name moving forward is strictly inappropriate.”
The term “deadnaming” is also not used unilaterally, Nick Adams, director of transgender media and representation for GLAAD, tells Yahoo Life.
“Trans people use ‘birth name,’ ‘prior name’ and ‘deadname’ to refer to the name they used prior to their transition. There isn’t universal agreement about which phrase to use,” he explains. “Some feel strongly that deadnaming accurately describes the harm caused by using someone’s birth name without their permission, while others feel that the idea of deadnaming implies that when we transition our former selves ‘die’ — and that’s just not the case. Cisgender people often react with grief when they learn someone they love is going to transition, and to be honest, that’s just weird when not only are you not dead, you’re actually happier and more yourself than you’ve ever been. So personally, I never use the phrase ‘deadname’ or ‘deadnaming,’ because I don’t want to reinforce that we somehow die when we transition.”
And not all transgender celebrities, let alone all transgender people, have the same wishes regarding the use of their prior names. As Adams explains, “Individual trans people have different feelings about sharing their birth name; some find it so painful they never want to hear it again, others don’t mind sharing it, and some trans people keep their birth name and don’t change it. That’s why it’s important to talk to a trans person and ask them how they feel about it — and then don’t assume all trans people feel the same way.”
Actress and producer Zackary Drucker, for example, opted not to change her name upon transitioning, explaining in a 2016 interview, “I considered changing my name and when I realized that I didn’t want to, that I’d only be doing it to make everyone around me more comfortable, I decided that it was the epitome of a bad decision. Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world,’ and the world I decided to live in is one in which a woman is named ‘Zackary.’”
Caitlyn Jenner, meanwhile, has been known to self-refer to her prior name, noting in a 2017 interview, “I liked Bruce. He was a good person. He did a lot in his life. Oh, ‘he didn’t even exist.’ Yes he did exist! He worked his butt off. He won the [Olympic] Games. He raised amazing kids. He did a lot of very, very good things and it’s not like I just want to throw that away.”
Still, the deep pain and anger felt by many trans people when they witness deadnaming, such as in the case of Page, comes from a long, reckless and traumatizing history of the practice, Adams explains.
“For decades the media has dragged a trans person’s birth name into a story when it’s not relevant, with the false implication that the birth name is their ‘true gender.’ Just this year, too many journalists included Aimee Stephens’ birth name in stories about her death,” he says, referring to some of the May obituaries of Stephens — the transgender woman at the center of a high-profile LGBTQ discrimination case that had been pending before the Supreme Court (and which was later won) — and their inexplicable inclusion of her birth name. It drew swift retribution from organizations including Lambda Legal and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, prompting the publications to amend their stories.
Further, Adams notes, “we don’t truly know how many trans people are killed in acts of anti-transgender violence, because the news reports about their murder often only use their birth name. Unless someone from the community steps forward to say they knew them, they were trans and this is their real name, we don’t even know that the person killed was transgender. The trans community has been traumatized by our birth name being used as a weapon against us, and there is growing anger and pushback when it’s used without the trans person’s consent.”
It’s an issue that actress Laverne Cox — who just recently spoke out about being the target of an anti-trans attack in Los Angeles — highlighted on social media in August, in reaction to a report about how police often deadname and misgender transgender murder victims.
“As I read this report from ProPublica I sobbed and wept for all the trans people who have been murdered and those experiencing direct, cultural and structural violence,” she wrote. “I wept because I haven’t been allowing myself to. I wept for all of the violence I have experienced in my own life. I am angered, saddened and enraged that the police in Jacksonville, Florida and other jurisdictions don’t have policies in place to respect the gender identities of trans folks when they have been MURDERED,” she added, calling it “injustice on top of injustice.”
Bottom line: Regarding celebrities who come out as trans, follow their wishes, and in the absence of a specifically tailored style guide, focus on the person's work, rather than their previous name.
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