One of the most respectful things to bear in mind around trans folk is never to ask or assume their dead name. It sounds common sense, but it is amazing how often curiosity gets the better of people. Indeed, as I have grown older people have done it less frequently, though since losing my hair it has been creeping back in. This week I taught a lecture on diversity, with my name very prominent, yet at the end one of the students said thank you Richard. Now, this could just be a typo on their part, but here is the thing, my name was never Richard.
It is one thing to ask a person their prior, dead, name, but it is an entirely other thing to either assume their dead name was X or to wilfully mis-gender someone by using a name you think they should be labelled as. When I read the comment in the chat, I burst out laughing, it was absurd and frankly I was in too good a mood to react otherwise. Yet, it felt in hindsight like the student crossed a certain boundary with me that felt deeply inappropriate.
Dead naming by its very nature is intrusive, almost to the point of a personal violation. For me it feels like you both do not respect my identity and wish to weaponise my identity against me. Plenty of people change their names for many different reasons and society has no problem adjusting to their wishes. Yet, when it comes to trans folk suddenly it becomes this huge issue because we are breaching societal conventions. Crossing into the gender hinterland is seen as such a great transgression that even the courtesy of names is too much for some.
For me this is then becomes a Richard problem because people think that Richard is the antonym for my name. Its amusing in the way that people automatically go for the easy option, that something like Matthew or Senacharib were somehow off the table. That they also fail to grasp that my whole name was changed seemingly does not occur to them either. Of course, I am being a tad glib about this, as the very fact people wrongly dead name me is deeply farcical. The fact is that I am no more about to correct them with my actual birth name then I am to scorn them for using the wrong in the first place.
Many trans folk rightly get upset over dead naming due to the lack of respect and probing nature of the question. To have one’s self-identity challenged and prodded is wearing, chips away at our faith and friendship in those doing the asking, which in turn erodes our trust. If you have to ask, then you are not being a good friend or colleague. There are certain boundaries that, politely, should never be crossed unless the trans person explicitly chooses to tell you. For me, my birth name is closely guarded piece of information for it has been weaponsied against me by people who I had a deep amount of trust in. I do not talk about exactly what happened, but it caused the start of my ascent away from faith and showed me a side of the world I wish I had never known.
Names are precious and valuable, encapsulating an aspect of self that is profound and mundane. Trans folk get the chance to reshape and remould our place in the world through the nomenclature we choose. As such when others seek to bend back the flow of time to a place long passed on the river they are telling us that this personal remoulding is somehow broken and not worth the water passed along the way. Being a not Richard is mine to give should I choose to tell, and with the deepest respect I expect everyone else to honour that and simply call me by my life forged name.