“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet…”
This is one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines, but is it true for everyone?
In the mid-1900s, Psychologist Wolfgang Köhler created an experiment called the maluma-takete effect. Köhler invented two words: “takete” and “maluma.” He then drew a rounded and a jagged shape and asked participants which name went with which drawing.
The majority associated “takete” with the jagged shape and “maluma” with the rounded shape. Suggesting people have an underlying bias associated with the way a word looks or sounds. Names are no exception and are often attached to male or female connotations.
In the transgender community, when someone makes the transition to the gender they identify with, their birth name is now their “deadname.” Some transgender individuals might not have strong emotions tied to their deadname, but for others it can be triggering and associated with deep trauma.
For Diana Wilson, an adjunct faculty humanities and history professor at Salt Lake Community College, hearing her deadname became more jarring 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,” Wilson explained. “It is also inherently a 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. They changed their name more than 20 years ago and also have a jarring, emotional response to hearing their deadname.
“Half my life that name has been a deadname for me. So, if someone calls me my deadname, I find it surprising, especially if I didn’t know them before the change and yes, it is jarring,” 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 adjustments 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.
Using someone’s deadname can be invalidating for several reasons. An article from Psychology Today refers to deadnaming as a form of psychological abuse which can contribute to the hostility transgender people face. Not using a transgender person’s chosen name is a rejection of their transition. Many change their name to reduce misgendering.
A sobering Williams Institute survey on suicide statistics of transgender adults found the thoughts and attempts of suicide were significantly higher 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, there is less negativity associated with a deadname. Even though they don’t prefer their deadname, there can still be a fondness associated with it.
Emma Yates, who 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, “I don’t mind it even though I have changed my name. 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. I’m fortunate in that aspect where I’m less triggered by my birth name.”
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 started his transition less than a year ago and experiences a similar relationship with his deadname as Yates does.
“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. My parents gave me that, and they gave me that name with love and purpose the day I was born,” Felix explained. “I never saw it as a tether to bad emotions. My name from when I was born isn’t dead to me, it just really isn’t as accurate as it once was.”
Felix emphasized he wished 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. People need to stop being afraid to talk and ask questions.”
If a transgender person is wondering how to change their name, there is information available.
For someone apart of the LGBTQ community experiencing a mental health crisis, there are support resources.