Necessary Magic

Brave and Awesome: On Chosen Names and Deadnames

My name is Jacks. Yes, it's my real name, and no, it's not the name my parents gave me.

My birth name was a super feminine one that's popular in the American South, where I grew up. It's a name for the kind of nice straight girl my parents hoped I would become, not the genderqueer misfit I turned out to be. In the queer and trans world, it would be called my "deadname," and like most gender non-conforming folks, I don't like it when people use or request my deadname.

Using a gender creative person's chosen name really matters. In a 2018 study from the University of Texas, Austin, researchers found that when transgender youth are allowed to use their chosen name in places such as work, school and at home, their risk of suicide and depression drops by as much as 71%.

What?! That's so huge. But why? When folks use your chosen name, it means they are respecting you and affirming your gender identity as real and meaningful. They are probably not bullying you. They are supporting you in making changes that help your outsides match your insides. If they are using your new name, they are probably also supporting your gender creativity in other ways, like not giving you crap about the length of your hair, the bathroom you use, the gender of your dates, or your choice about whether to wear mini skirts or cargo pants. They are probably letting you be you.

I started using the name Jacks when I was 30, but I would have changed it earlier if I'd had the guts. But you know what? It's bullshit that I didn't have the guts. My reticence had to do with fear. The world is often a hostile place for gender non-conforming folks, and I dealt with a lot of transphobia and homophobia from my family growing up. From my mom breaking down crying after I shaved my head when I was 19, to her utter panic and disdain when she found my boy's briefs in the wash, being read as anything other than a girl was scary and often painful, however liberated I wanted to be. Out in the world, it could be downright dangerous—trans and gender non-conforming folks are vastly more likely to be victims of violence than most other populations.

So whenever I thought about changing my name, I was afraid. I was afraid of how much more conspicuous my gender weirdness would become. I was afraid of being ridiculed. I was afraid of being hurt. I was also afraid everyone would think I was transitioning to become a man, which was not my desire, and then I could be misread and invalidated in yet another way. People seem to have an easier time accepting that someone wants to switch from one end of the gender binary to the other than accepting that someone exists in between.

So please, be a persistent cheerleader for the gender non-conforming people in your life. They are being brave each time they show up as themselves in the world. Don't use someone's deadname. Respect their chosen name, even if they haven't been able to change it legally yet, even if it doesn't match the way you read their gender, even if you think it's weird. Never ask someone "but what's your real name?" and don't assume that gender non-conforming identities are a phase or a fad. We have been here all along, in all societies. Thanks to phenomena like the internet and mass media, we're coming out and becoming more visible, but we're not new. We're just a little less isolated and a little more awesome.

Necessary Magic is a new semi-regular column wherein writer and artist Jacks McNamara explores queer issues, liberatory politics, magical creatures and other relevant topics.

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