Usually, one of the main things that happens when someone comes out as trans is their name and pronouns change to reflect their gender. This act of self-identification is a bold and important step in affirming a trans person’s identity and, unfortunately, it can be one of the biggest things our loved ones struggle with. People will use our given name — our “deadname” — and the wrong pronouns as they’re getting used to us living our truths openly. And while occasional slip-ups are understandable and expected, when friends and family of trans people don’t make an effort to correct themselves, or outright refuse to change the way they refer to us, it can have many negative effects that our allies may not be aware of.
My coming out wasn’t really done in what most people would consider a typical order. Before I ever even started seriously considering the possibility of transitioning, I was wearing women’s clothes and rocking a somewhat gender-nonconforming look. When I did my first internship, I’d show up in a men’s polo and slacks, with my favorite pair of heeled oxford booties. When I started my job a couple of years later, I started working more women’s clothing items into my wardrobe and wearing makeup, but often left my facial stubble untouched — I was visibly trans, or at least gender-nonconforming. I existed this way for awhile, without asserting my gender identity, even though I had figured out that I wanted to transition a long time ago.
Despite the fact that I had already come to terms with my identity, I hesitated to assert my identity in the way of name and pronouns for a number of reasons. One of the main reasons was — despite the fact that I was already starting to express my gender and, as a result, getting appropriately gendered by strangers — many of the people closest to me — friends, family and co-workers — didn’t see anything wrong with using my given name and male pronouns, even though I was visibly fem.
On some level, I get it — maybe they wanted to avoid an awkward conversation, figuring if I wanted to change how I was addressed, I’d bring it up; maybe it was their way of showing they still saw me as the same person they know and love, even as my gender expression changed — and I can appreciate that. But not stopping to ask about pronouns when I was visibly trans actually made me question whether or not my self-identification would be accepted by my loved ones.
And you know what? I wasn’t totally off-base. After coming out to close friends and family, I officially came out as a trans woman, and shared my name and pronouns, on National Coming Out Day last year. It was a huge relief — I would no longer have to deal with the awkwardness of being in mixed company, where certain people knew my name, and others only knew my given name. Plus, it was just nice to finally be completely open about who I am.
But now, more than six months later, I’m sad to say many of my loved ones are still struggling to use the correct name and pronouns. And though they’ve offered apologies and excuses when confronted — “I’m still getting used to it!” — their continued use of my deadname and incorrect pronouns confirms the fear I had before I came out — the fear that my friends and family don’t truly see me.
Because that’s what you’re saying when you don’t allow people to state their name and pronouns, and especially when you misgender or deadname someone without correcting yourself — you don’t respect self-identification and you don’t see them as their true gender. It’s one thing to use the name or pronoun you’re used to using out of habit — but if you truly understand your loved one and truly see them for the gender they are, despite any steps they may or may not have taken to transition, you’d realize your mistake and make efforts to correct yourself in the future.
Unfortunately, many of my friends and family haven’t made those efforts. And that makes me feel so hopeless I often don’t even bother correcting them — if the people closest to me don’t see me for who I really am, why should I bother? That’s one of the effects of being misgendered or deadnamed and it’s hard enough — but it’s deeper than that.
Being misgendered or deadnamed can be completely draining to a trans person’s mental health and can trigger anxiety, depression and gender dysphoria. As a trans woman, when I’m misgendered or deadnamed, I can have thoughts like, Ugh, I must not be expressing my gender well enough; Oh my God, I probably look like a man right now; I’ll never be pretty enough to be accepted as a woman; I may as well go back in the closet.
It seems extreme, but because trans people’s genders are already heavily scrutinized by strangers and by society at large, when someone close to us does or says something that calls our identity into question, it can cause a full-on crisis.
And more than that, misgendering and deadnaming a trans person can actually put them at risk for physical violence. If a trans person’s gender is being properly perceived by passers-by — if they’re “passing” or blending in — the act of someone deadnaming or misgendering them could cause other people to react negatively or violently. And on top of that, the threat of violence alone adds to the negative mental health effects of being misgendered.
That’s why, if you know someone who’s trans and you’re serious about supporting them, it’s so important to use their correct name and pronouns. It’s about so much more than your friend or loved one being angry with you — though they might be, and that’s valid — being misgendered or deadnamed is emotionally and mentally taxing, and puts us at risk for violence.
But it’s never too late to start making an effort — it’s never too late to try to see someone for who they really are — and you can start by saying my name.