Say Their Name: The Importance of Affirming the Identity of our Transgender and Nonbinary Loved Ones
A guide for parents and others for loving and affirming trans and nonbinary young people
by Jake Ellesworth (he/him), Hannah Smith (she/her) and Theresa Tribuzio (they/them)
The following article was submitted to Charlotte Pride and was written as a project by the authors, who are graduate students in the Youth, Family, and Community Sciences Department at NC State University.
In late September of 2019, Sam Smith came out as non-binary and requested the pronouns of they/them be used. In the AP article describing the announcement he/him/his pronouns were repeatedly used in sentences such as, “Sam Smith has declared his pronouns ‘they/them’ on social media after coming out as non-binary in what the pop star called his “lifetime of being at war with my gender.” In a recent BBC article describing the ending of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” Caitlyn Jenner was dead-named “Bruce” almost 5 years after her transition in 2015.
As the concepts of using proper pronouns, proper naming, and deadnaming may seem confusing, we aim to provide a guide to parents to understand these concepts and continue to be a support system for their children who may be a member of the LGBTQ+ community or who just wants to be an ally.
The importance of a name
Have you ever felt the frustration of someone mispronouncing your name? Perhaps it was a teacher or someone at the doctor’s office. How could they get your name wrong? It is so simple. These experiences do not feel good, but overall, they are an inconvenience. They do not cause harm, just frustration. How would it feel if your family got your name wrong instead? That would be a lot more painful. Getting a person’s name right is one of the simplest forms of support and respect. That is why it is so important to use a person’s chosen name. Many transgender individuals have a chosen name that is different than the name they were given at birth. An individual’s ability to use their chosen name can have a significant impact on an individual’s mental health. Studies show that transgender and non-binary individuals face increased risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thought. We want to do everything we can to protect our loved ones. Affirming the identity of transgender and non-binary youth can do that.
Research has shown that validation can help reduce the risk and help individuals cope with depression and anxiety.
Using an individual’s chosen name
Fortunately, there is a simple step that can be taken to support our transgender and non-binary loved ones. Say their name. Use the name that a person identifies with. Recognize that is who they are. Don’t wait for it to be legally recognized as their name. Someone may be too young to legally change their name or the legal change may be cost prohibitive. Use a person’s proper name. It can go a long way. A study by the University of Texas found a significant drop in the rates of depression and suicide when transgender youth are allowed to use their chosen name at home, school and work. Youth who were able to use their chosen name at home, work, school and with friends reported a 71% reduction in depression symptoms as well as 34% reduction in suicidal thoughts and a 65% reduction in suicide attempts. The ability to use one’s chosen name has a significant positive impact on an individual’s wellbeing. Using a person’s chosen name, and embracing them in going by their chosen name, shows you respect them and their identity.
What is dead-naming?
According to an editorial in the Journal of Adolescent Health, a dead-name is “a term used by some transgender youth to describe a birth name that is no longer used.” As a part of their transition, transgender individuals often choose a name for themselves that matches their true gender identity which can and often does differ from their birth name. This chosen name is an important part of the transition as it serves as a symbol of their true selves and also as a way for others to support and affirm their transition. Dead-naming is not well recognized and continues to be a widespread issue. For example, and as mentioned before, when the ending of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” was reported in a BBC article recently, Caitlyn Jenner was dead-named despite having transitioned five years ago. Dead-naming is also prevalent in the criminal justice system as transgender individuals are often referred to as their dead-name and incorrect pronouns in police and media reports.
How can youth be affected by dead-naming?
Youth have several social contexts they exist in where their names are used. These include home, school, work, and their friend groups. As mentioned earlier, a transgender individual’s chosen name serves as a way for that individual to identify themselves and have others recognize their true gender identification in an affirming way. In each social context, transgender individuals can introduce themselves with their true identity through a chosen name. The hope is that parents, family members, friends, teachers, and other connected individuals will affirm their true identity and show support by using their chosen name. Using a transgender individual’s dead-name can be harmful and hurtful, especially to a loved one. Dead-naming is considered a form of transphobia, regardless of whether harmful intent is present or not. One transgender woman wrote in a blog in 2017 that being misgendered or dead-named:
“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 dead-named, 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.”
Studies have shown that for each “additional social context in which a youth’s chosen name was used, there was astatistically significant decrease in depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behaviors, after adjusting for degree of social support and demographic variables.”
Changing long-held habits is difficult, but not impossible. As a parent, acknowledging your child’s chosen name and preferred pronouns is a simple, yet effective way to support them in their transition. By avoiding dead-naming, you are affirming their true gender identity and providing support they may not receive in other areas such as school, friends, or with their healthcare. Assisting your child in ending dead-naming at school, when going to the doctor, and in government-issued identification is also helpful and a way to show support in their transition.
Why is it important to use the proper pronoun?
Through data collected in the California Healthy Kids Survey, the sample of transgender youth reported nearly double the amount of suicidal thoughts as well as being significantly more likely to be depressed and felt victimized when compared to their non-transgender youth peers. Throughout many intersectional research studies one thing continuously stands out about the LGBTQ+ community and that is they are under enormous pressure and have higher risks of stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Transgender and non-binary youth are at even higher rates of risk.
Using the proper pronouns and addressing individuals correctly can add to the levels of self-love and self-acceptance. The importance of parents using these pronouns is even greater as almost all youth and even adults still look for acceptance from their family as part of developing their self-identity.
What is a gender neutral pronoun?
The common gendered pronouns are “she/her/hers” and “he/him/his.” We typically use these with certain expectations and gender norms. Gender-diverse individuals would rather distance from these norms and allow themselves to use their own forms of self-expression because they do not feel as though they are fully “male” or fully “female;” they identify as non-binary, as mentioned earlier. Therefore, they may use a gender neutral pronoun. A gender neutral or gender inclusive pronoun is a pronoun which does not associate a gender with the individual who is being discussed. Some of the most common gender-neutral pronouns are “they/them/their,” or you may hear “ze/hir/hir.” According to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, “Ze is pronounced like “zee” can also be spelled zie or xe, and replaces she/he/they. Hir is pronounced like “here” and replaces her/hers/him/his/they/theirs.” If you are ever unsure, you could always just use the person’s name as a replacement. However, the most important thing is to never refer to a person as “it” or “he-she”. These are offensive slurs used against transgender and gender non-conforming individuals.
Important Tips and Information
- Don’t make assumptions of gender based on an appearance or behavior. Many individuals can choose to express themselves in numerous ways, as well as some may not be able to control their physical appearance.
- If you don’t know, ask! More times than not an individual will not be offended if you ask them what their preferred pronouns are and most will see it as a sign of respect.
- If you are having a pronoun conversation with your child, make sure they understand the support they have from you in choosing pronouns or names to be called. Parental pressure can be overwhelming but parent support can make the world of difference.
- Use the name and pronouns that an individual requests.
- Use a person’s chosen name even when referring to the past.
- Ask where it is safe to use their chosen name. If a person is not out everywhere, respect them and ask how to refer to them with others.
It is important to actively support transgender and nonbinary individuals. Simple actions such as using their chosen name and preferred pronouns are crucial to affirming and validating their identity and them as a person. It is also vital to never deadname an individual because doing so invalidates their identity. Everyone wants to do what is best for their loved ones. Using their name and proper pronouns is one way in which you can do what is best for someone, respect them and support them. LGBTQ+ individuals face increased risk of depression and suicide.
However, we can help prevent these risks by being active participants in affirming their identity. Say their name, use their pronouns.
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