Being an ally is an ever-evolving process.
Many people who fall under the umbrella of ‘transgender’ choose names that differ from the names given to them at birth. It is usually a huge step that feels affirming to their gender identity. The names that they choose to leave behind are known as ‘dead-names’ and should never be used to address that person, unless the person themself requests you to do so under specific circumstances. These names are ‘dead’ because they do not align with the person’s identity. Name-changing is tedious and frustrating, even if they are not changed via the legal process; which is a whole different can of worms. The last thing the person would want is to explain the social transition to you. There is no one way to be a good ally but here are a few things to remember while being a better ally to someone who has just changed their name.
I recently chose a name for myself and saw that people around me were struggling to transition and address me by it.
Call Me, Chosen Name
You would be surprised to learn how many people forget to update their friends’ contact information. One of the first, easiest, and most affirming things to do is update with their chosen name. Add a cute emoji if you want, but don’t forget to do so. It can be a stinging feeling to see your dead-name pop up on your friend’s phone. Updating their name is a small but meaningful sign of support. Additionally, it will help you commit their name to your memory better, especially if you talk or chat often.
Back And Forth, What?
If your friend changes the way they want to be addressed, your only choice is to accept and follow through. If they go back and forth, or use different names in spaces that don’t feel safe for them, follow through with that. Your confusion or inability to remember is not their burden. It is not about you, it is about them. Your friend telling you this information is a very vulnerable experience. They trust you with something very personal. Let them find who they are and walk alongside them if you can.
What About Nicknames?
If you share a close enough bond to have a nickname based on their dead name, just ask them if you can still use that. Sometimes it is more about how you see them and not about the name. Your intention should be “This is my heart’s memory of you” and not “That’s just what I will call you”, there is a difference between the two. However, if they do not like that nickname either, respect their decision and just find a new one.
How To Say Sorry
It is completely natural to mess up when someone around you is going through a change like that. The easiest way to respond is to acknowledge the mistake, apologize once, and move on. If you notice them shutting off after your mistake, give them space to process and bounce back in their time. Over-apologizing puts pressure on the person to forgive and say “it’s okay” while elevating the pressure on you. It is easier for everyone to just say it once and then be careful after that.
Don’t Out Them, Don’t Assume
Make sure to ask which name to use before doing so in front of work colleagues, new friends, or family members. Some trans people are not out about their gender in their professional circuit or at the natal home. Their reasons may vary from safety concerns to simply their choice. Hence, assuming the usage of their chosen name can put them in dangerous or uncomfortable situations. Similarly, some people do not bring up their transition in professional or social settings. Nobody owes anybody else that information, regardless of which step they are on in their journey. Hence, slipping up with their dead name in front of others can out them too. Similarly, give them the space to choose the name that they would want on social media, work credits, and professional settings.
Safe Work Space
If you have the authority or agency to do so, try making changes in your establishment, where that is at the school, college, or in a professional setting. You can collaborate with local trans-led organizations to conduct sensitization workshops. Additionally, you can help develop a process that would update records with one’s chosen name and pronouns, regardless of legal changes. Try ensuring that this process is easy and seamless to avoid confusion, dead-naming, and causing dysphoria. If one’s legal name is required for any sector (like HR, accounts, or exams), ensure either sensitivity and discretion in these sections.
Discard The Curious Cat
While asking questions is a good thing, some questions are simply inappropriate. You don’t have to know or deeply understand something in order to respect it. I don’t know Chinese but I respect Chinese traditions. So, please never ask a transgender person their dead-name, intimate details about their body, transition history, or life pre-transition. Just don’t do it.