Sticks and stones may break my bones …

Let me begin by recounting a couple of incidents from the past week.

Firstly, on Tuesday, I was walking through a crowded shopping centre and came across a young man who is involved in customer service of some sort. He approached me and said ‘can I help you, sir?’ – or some such thing, the main point being that he definitely called me ‘sir’. Again!

I’m afraid I completely lost it: I grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket and pushed him against the nearest wall, telling him in no uncertain terms that he should desist in repeatedly addressing me as though I were a man. He then got flustered and for some reason called me ‘gentleman’, then said ‘sorry, sir’ several times, but still couldn’t seem to get the point of what I was asking him to do. I dropped him and moved on in disgust …

Secondly, I was until recently involved in a fairly major musical theatre production, with quite a significant role. Anyway, we had a big rehearsal yesterday at which the producers were present for the first time. One of them pointed me out to the other, referring to me as ‘he’. I corrected her, but she persisted, saying that she wasn’t going to modify her language for my benefit. I stormed out and needless to say am no longer involved in the production.

OK, I’ll come clean. While these things happened more or less as I recall them, I should point out that I was asleep in both cases and almost certainly dreaming. I’m not particularly assertive and I don’t believe I could ever physically assault someone like that. Dreams being dreams, these fragments are about as long as they could be without starting to sound pretty incoherent – yet misgendering featured throughout the dreams.

… but deadnames always harm me

Jar showing a label with part of the word ‘misgendering’ visible
‘Misgendering’ jar: 50p for every ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’

The childhood saying, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me, is of course a load of bollocks. Anyone with any self-awareness knows that harsh words and nasty names can hurt a great deal. The wounds may not be there for others to see, but sometimes they can take much longer to heal than broken bones.

Trans people (especially, it has to be said, trans women of colour) can be subject to all kinds of abuse, including physical violence far beyond that perpetrated by me in my dream. But it’s often the seemingly small things like the incessant drip–drip–drip of misinformation in the transphobic media and repeated exposure to the wrong pronouns, whatever the intention, that can really wear us down over time and seriously affect our mental health and wellbeing.

(In the UK, The Times has led a particularly concerted assault on trans people during the last few weeks of 2017. As recently as yesterday, 31 December, The Sunday Times had a front-page article attacking an NHS nurse essentially for having the gall to be trans – not something anyone has any choice over. Almost obligatorily, the nurse, a woman, was misgendered as ‘he’ towards the end of the article. I imagine it must have been awful for her to have her sense of self callously invalidated in a national newspaper.)

Related to misgendering – the use of incorrect pronouns or other gendered terms – is deadnaming: the use, or even mention, of a former name. While anyone can misgender me, whether they know me or not, only someone who knows something of my history can deadname me. And there is something peculiarly powerful about a deadname.

Gendered names

The name I was given by my parents grew on me over the years and served me pretty well until I first decided to tell someone I was trans in 2016. I didn’t have anything against my first name, though I was never fond of my middle name. For years, I’d had the name Anna in the back of my mind as a name for myself, and that became my legal name last April. By May, I was essentially out to everyone.

Since May, having changed most of my official documentation to my current name, I’ve found hearing or reading my deadname to be increasingly painful as time has gone on – which may seem odd, given that I lived happily with it for decades. I think it’s because the change of name represents a symbolic break with a very specific aspect of my past: my assigned gender.

I wanted my name to reflect my true gender identity rather than the gender I was assigned at birth based on a doctor peering at my baby genitals (which is just a little bit creepy if you think about it). Since I changed my name for that reason, I think my former name, which used to refer to me in my entirety, now refers not to my pre-name-change self (because Anna does that job perfectly well) but to the veneer of masculinity that I cultivated in order to live as a boy and then as a man, and which I am now trying to cast off. To hear that name, or to read it, is to relive all the trauma associated with that inauthentic life.

As an aside, in our patriarchal society, a woman traditionally takes on her husband’s surname at marriage. And after her marriage people might accidentally use her maiden name or quite legitimately mention it in explaining her relationship to someone else. I don’t think there’s usually any pain associated with this dredging up of a former name. That’s because there wasn’t usually anything ‘wrong’ with the surname the woman had before she was married. A trans person’s deadname is, I believe, quite different in that respect.

Although there has been a lot of trans-hate journalism in the UK press recently, there have been positive articles in some newspapers. The Independent has been notably free of transphobia, as far as I can tell. One longish piece in that paper was co-written by the ex-wife of the late Lucy Meadows, the trans teacher who was hounded to her death by the media in 2016. The article started well, and apparently it was a very moving piece. Unfortunately for me, though, I couldn’t get more than about a tenth of the way through it, as just a few paragraphs in, Lucy was multiply deadnamed and (as I see it) misgendered. Perhaps in part because of the precariousness of my own marriage, even someone else being deadnamed after their death was simply too painful for me.

If you are trans, you probably know something of the pain of deadnaming (though for some trans people, who conceptualise things differently, it seemingly isn’t an issue – and apparently for others it can become less traumatic as time passes). If you aren’t trans, please don’t ever use or mention the deadnames of trans people that you know – unless they say it’s OK, of course. To do so can cut deep and reopen old wounds.

4 responses to “Sticks and stones may break my bones …”

  1. I’m so relieved I got my name changed some time ago. I shouldn’t have waited as long as I did though, because that name went from being a lifelong unpleasant nuisance to a major trigger and risk to my safety 2 years into physical transition. I still hate the name now. I remember blocking someone on a dating site just because he had the same name as my deadname 🙁

    1. Thanks for your comment, Savannah (the very first comment on my new blog!). Hope 2018 is a good year for you. ❤️

  2. Caroline Mathieson Avatar
    Caroline Mathieson

    I have a very unusual oldname and the only person who ever regularly uses it is my mother who is 99 years old and suffers from dementia who also has poor hearing and eyesight. So I can understand why she refers to the large person who visits with the only reference she has. One other person refuses to use my new name, but he doesn’t count as he is an asshole about everything!

    As to misgendering, it’s a daily occurrence and I have had to learn to cope with that.

    1. So sorry you have to deal with frequent misgendering! 😢 That wears you down.

      When I wrote this post I expected to be misgendered pretty much daily, but for whatever reason I’m lucky enough not to have been misgendered at all in the last couple of months.

      You’re absolutely right about the person who refuses to use your new name: some people seem to delight in hurting others who they perceive as different. We just have to ignore them (and avoid them if possible). (If they are work colleagues, for instance, though, then you shouldn’t have to put up with them.)