Utahns talk about their deadnames and what they think when they hear them now

Many transgender people associate their old name with deep trauma.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Diana Wilson is photographed at Salt Lake Community College in Taylorsville, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

When someone transitions to the gender with which they identify, they usually pick a new name. And their birth name becomes their “deadname.” Generally, others should stop using it. For many transgender people, it is associated with deep trauma, though for others it holds less emotional weight.

For Diana Wilson, hearing her deadname wasn’t so bad at first but became more difficult over time.

“When it had lost the simple ‘someone is addressing me’ meaning and picked up the ‘reminder of the time when life was worse than now most of the time’ meaning, I became less comfortable with it,” said Wilson, an adjunct humanities and history professor at Salt Lake Community College. “It is also inherently misgendering, which never feels good but feels more jarring when being misgendered has become rare.”

Kenny Smith has attended SLCC for two years, majoring in video and audio production. Smith changed their name more than 20 years ago and they also have a jarring, emotional response to hearing the name they left behind.

“If someone calls me my deadname, I find it surprising, especially if I didn’t know them before the change,” Smith described. “Some might say my response to this can be feisty because I have yet to respond really well when it happens. I almost want to shrink up and disappear and it can ruin an entire day.”

Psychologist Jean Twenge found a link between disliked first names and psychological dips in a 2006 Journal of Psychology study. Although, she did not discern if the lack of self-confidence stemmed from the undesired first name, or if the first name became associated with a lack of self-confidence and then became disliked.

A Williams Institute survey found that thoughts and attempts of suicide were significantly higher among transgender adults than the general U.S. population. The data also shows a significant drop in attempts and thoughts of suicide from respondents who were not rejected, invalidated, or attacked as often.

For some, their deadname is not weighed down with such negativity. They don’t prefer it, but there’s still some fondness associated with it.

Emma Yates, who lives in Salt Lake City and began transitioning three years ago, said she doesn’t mind her deadname. Her new name, Emma, came from her nickname, which stemmed from her old name.

“I have a unique experience with mine. I don’t mind the name I was given at birth very much because it is somewhat androgynous,” she said. “There are a few people who still call me by my birth name, which sometimes feels right to me. But that’s not the experience most trans-folks have with their names.”

Yates recalled a friend who has a masculine deadname and has seen firsthand the emotional strain it causes when forced to hear and use it regularly.

“There’s a lot of stupid things where you are forced to give your deadname. Like PayPal cash app and anything online, getting things shipped to you properly, this and that,” Yates said. “There are just all these times you have to give that name and I just saw this person’s heart get destroyed a little bit every time.”

Felix Patterson, a senior in high school, started his transition less than a year ago.

“I guess it’s odd that a name can hold so much power that you want said name dead entirely. While I don’t like being referred to by my old name, I still appreciate it and hold it dear in my heart,” Patterson said. “My parents gave me that, and they gave me that name with love and purpose the day I was born.”

Patterson said his deadname isn’t dead. Not to him. “It just really isn’t as accurate as it once was.”

Patterson wishes more people would treat transgender people like people, not an enigma.

“I don’t think people realize that transgender people don’t mind answering questions if people would just ask,” he said. “Some of them may seem uncomfortable and inappropriate, and maybe they are, but you won’t know unless you ask.”

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the UNI CrisisLine at 801-587-3000. LGBTQ-specific support is available through THRIVE.

Leilani Miller wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.