I was sorting through some old photos recently and found one of me as a girl, when I must have been about nine years old, I think. I look quite happy in the photograph, but it saddens me to think that that young girl (me) was being raised as a boy, with absolutely no awareness that things could ever be otherwise.
Some people who have known me all my life (or even just for a few years) might take issue with the first paragraph. After all, wasn’t he a boy then, and wasn’t his name …?
First of all, I don’t think gender changes significantly during a person’s lifetime. Our perception of gender may become refined. Our performance of gender roles may vary considerably. But our innate sense of gender identity is, I suspect, immutable – for the vast majority of us, anyway. If you’re cis, i.e. not trans, you may think you have no gender identity, but that’s probably just because you’ve never felt the need to question your gender. Thought experiment: if you’re a cis woman (or man), would you really be perfectly happy to wake up tomorrow as a man (or woman), all other things being equal? If not, why?
If gender doesn’t change, then given that I’m a woman now, I must have been a girl back then. However, I didn’t think I was a girl at the time, no matter how much I may have wanted to be a girl or to be like the (other) girls around me. I believed my parents and teachers when they told me I was a boy. For this reason, you could say that I was a girl who didn’t have a girlhood (much as someone forced to work from a young age is often said to have missed out on a childhood though they were undoubtedly once a child).
Even if I hadn’t once been a girl – or for that matter a woman before I married my wife – it wouldn’t automatically excuse the use of my deadname or male pronouns in reference to my past self. Yet I’ve encountered several people who think that’s absolutely fine, almost as though they see me as a completely different person now from the person I was a year ago, before I’d legally changed my name. For me, I’ve changed the name that I use to identify the space–time totality of me, from birth to death. And I’ve asked people to use the pronouns that match my self-identified gender. There is no underlying pre-existing man or boy who can be referred to using my deadname. This isn’t a role I’m playing. If anything, I’ve stepped out of the performance of a lifetime; for now, I’m just being me.
My wife hasn’t fully come to terms with the person she married over twenty years ago being a woman. From her perspective (which I would love to consider equally valid if it didn’t invalidate my sense of self), she married a man. So either she sees me as a (deluded) man or else she thinks I have only recently become a woman.
Although my wife doesn’t use my name or female pronouns, because she can’t bring herself to do so, she does at least try not to misgender or deadname me, by avoiding third-person references altogether when she can – although to my son she refers to me as Dad (repeatedly, to avoid having to say he or she). A couple of times, though, she has talked about my pre-coming-out life to other people and has felt it appropriate to refer to past-me using my deadname and male pronouns.
I wonder whether those trans people who have no problem with deadnaming conceptualise their own histories in the way my wife appears to conceptualise mine.
For me, my life consists of numerous strands of experience reaching as far back as I can remember. One of those strands, interwoven with many others, is my gender. For much of my life, that strand was pushed behind the general weave, and another strand, my performed gender, took its rightful place. When I came out as trans, the usurper petered out and my true-gender thread began to make itself visible. My change of name is highly symbolic of this transition: my new name refers to me as a woman. The old, male name has naturally come to refer in my mind to the false-gender thread and closely intertwined male performance. So it specifically triggers recollection of traumatic aspects of my life.
For someone else, though, with a different conception of gender, it may be that all of the threads are broken and a new life is begun. The deadname then refers to the totality of the old life (both good and bad), while the new name refers exclusively to the post-transition life. A trans person who conceives of their life in this way would understandably have no problem with the use of their deadname to refer to their old self – indeed, it would be more or less obligatory – because they see their old self as a different person. Similarly, difficulty in letting go of a trans partner’s deadname may arise because of a similar conception: the old person, the person they loved, has gone, and the new name simply doesn’t refer to that person.
A linguistic footnote or two
When I started this blog, I planned to write about linguistics among other things, but this is actually my first brief foray into that topic. Although I’m studying for a PhD in linguistics (well, I would be if I weren’t taking time off), this isn’t directly related to my area of research.
Years before I studied linguistics, I was interested in logic and philosophy of language. Saul Kripke’s Naming and necessity (1980) is a book that particularly informed my understanding of the way proper names work. I haven’t read it for a long time, but I think it would certainly be worth revisiting. I suspect that, given my experience of deadnaming, I would now find room for improvement in Kripke’s account. When I first read the book, I viewed names as arbitrary designators of individuals. I don’t think it occurred to me back then that an individual might have a complex history. And I suspect I wasn’t impressed at the time by any kind of ‘psychological’ account in which names and their referents are linked bidirectionally. The idea of a person ‘having’ a particular name was of little interest to me. With different questions in my head from the ones that occupied me then, I’d probably take a very different approach.
English has a few gendered pronouns, which are used mainly for people: she, her(self), her, hers for girls and women; he, him(self), his, his for boys and men; they, them(self), their, theirs for non-binary people. Non-binary they is a relatively recent innovation, distinct from centuries-old singular they in that it can be used with a proper-name antecedent; e.g. Jo said they had read the book (where they is understood to be coreferent with Jo). This vestige of grammatical gender in the English language, being so tightly coupled to notions of gender identity, requires a speaker to know or second-guess another person’s gender in order to talk about them in the third person, at least once they know the person’s name and want to avoid cumbersome circumlocutions. This can unfortunately lead to inadvertent misgendering.
The interaction of proper names, gendered pronouns, gendered terms and tense makes things more complicated. Can we say, assuming Mary is OK with us revealing her deadname, that she was called John at the time? I think that’s OK. But for some people – perhaps those who conceptualise a person’s history differently – it doesn’t seem to be possible. People who think of the person now called Mary as having been a man at a previous point might well prefer to say of that person that he was then called John. (Is this respectful of Mary?) Or to come back to my starting point, is it OK to say of Mary that she was (or identified as) a man until five years ago, or do we have to say that he was a man? And if we say that Mary was called John, can we then add that Mary was a well-known artist at the time, or do we have to say that John was a well-known artist? I have my own views on these questions (and I daresay there are subtler points to be made), but I’d be interested to know what others think.
Postscript: the woman who missed out on her girlhood
I said that I missed out on my girlhood, that I took on the role of a boy because I didn’t think there was any other choice. I’m not the only one. And there are men who missed out on a boyhood, and non-binary people who were forced to live as boys or girls when they were in fact neither.
Though I’m transitioning now, I often wish I’d known enough and been confident enough to transition when I was much younger. Not being your authentic self takes its toll on you. That’s why I’m so glad that things are changing and that young people today are better informed than I ever was. It’s also why I think the work of organisations like the UK charity Mermaids is so important, and why I’m pleased to be able to support them. I’d encourage you to do likewise if you can.