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Why 'deadnaming' Elliot Page is offensive

Torsten Landsberg
December 9, 2020

In reports about transgender actor Elliot Page, media often mention their old name. DW speaks to Kalle Hümpfner from the German Trans* Association about why he thinks this is a problem.

Elliot Page
Image: Rich Polk/Getty Images

DW: Kalle Hümpfner, last week Elliot Page, previously known as an actress, announced that he is transgender and would like to be addressed with the pronoun "he" or "they." On social media there was a lot of criticism that German media used the old name in their reporting, which trans* people call "deadnaming." We also discussed this in the editorial office. What is the right approach? 

[Editor's note: despite disagreements surrounding the use of the term within the LGBTQ+ community, the trans asterisk is used throughout this interview to include a broad diversity of gender identities; it also reflects the fact that its use is more widespread in the German language.]

Kalle Hümpfner: Many trans* people who come out of the closet find the name they discarded very unpleasant and therefore prefer to use only the new name, even if it's related to the past.

This concerns both the new first name, in this case Elliot, and the pronoun. Here, for example, it is important to use the word "he" and call him an actor.

For what reasons do trans* people reject their old name? 

This often has to do with the attribution that is associated with a name. What gender is ascribed to a name? Into which category is the name placed? Is it considered a male or female first name? This gender attribution is very unpleasant for many trans* people because it is something given from outside and does not correspond to their own gender identity.

Yet there is an inner knowledge: I am a different person than the one seen from outside. For example, I am male, even if my birth certificate says I'm female. This discrepancy is perceived very painfully again and again throughout the course of life and is therefore a kind of sore spot for many trans* people.

So do you generally assume that if someone is trans*, this also applies to that person's entire past; that the realization is often the result of a long process of self-discovery?

This is difficult to answer generally. Coming out often has a long history, as you just said. Some trans* people only come out after years or decades of inner conflict. In the meantime, a social climate has developed in which it is becoming increasingly easier to come out.

Of course there is still a lot of blowback, but openness, knowledge and acceptance have increased in the last 10 to 20 years. Many trans* people say: I am trans* today, a trans* man, a trans* woman or non-binary, neither male nor female. And they go on to say that it has always been the case. I was the same as a child, even if I couldn't disclose it at the time or didn't have the words for it.

But isn't the name of a person also a part of their personal story? Elliot Page lived 33 years under a different name and with a different gender, at least publicly. The experiences he had with the old name certainly had an influence on who he is as a person today. Isn't banishing a name also the repression of what they've experienced?

I know few trans* people who say "it is okay if people use my former name to talk about the past." On the other hand, I know quite a few people who communicate clearly: "For me, using my old name is a massive violation and extremely unpleasant."

I don't know what Elliot Page's preference would be. But I have noticed that Netflix very quickly changed and updated the name of Elliot Page's earlier movies as well. Most North American media have also been very careful with this issue.

If it is unclear what a person's relationship is to their previous name, the safe option is to use only the new name to avoid offense.

Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair in June 2015
The coming out of Caitlyn Jenner in 2015 led to discussions about more trans* rights

A public figure's past is known. With a person who is not in the public eye, it's different. How are they protected?

In Germany,  the Transsexuellengesetz ("Transsexual law") even prohibits the continued use of the old name if a person has legally changed their name. There is indeed special protection, even while we know discrimination in society still occurs.  

It is also important to remember that some trans* people are not recognized as such in public because one can't tell by looking at their face that they have lived in this gender role for a long time. If it is disclosed that a person is trans*, this always carries the risk of discrimination, violence or hostility. For this reason, interpretations should be urgently avoided by carefully dealing with names.

You said that social acceptance has increased in recent years. How much work still lies ahead of us as a society?

I would say there is still a lot to be done in terms of the legal situation I just mentioned. In Germany, the law on transsexuals, which was introduced in the early 1980s, is still in force. At that time the understanding of trans* was quite different.

This idea was very pathological: being trans* was considered a mental disorder and it was said that the decision of trans* people would have to be very closely monitored. Whatever changes they wished for, be it a change of name or marital status, or what medical adjustments could be made, was always very, very strictly controlled and had to be supported by the opinions of experts.

And is this still the case today?

Yes, these appraisals and the close control over the decisions of trans* people unfortunately still exist  today. A trans* person who wants to change their name and gender in Germany still goes through a long procedure at the local court.

On average it takes about one year until this process is completed. In the meantime, a trans* person must live with papers that do not correspond to their identity and in many cases also not to their appearance. This quickly leads to many unpleasant experiences in everyday life — when the validity of their papers is questioned because the name and their appearance do not match. 

In the medical field, trans* people often fight for the costs of gender matching to be covered by health insurance companies. This is often a legal battle that can take years. Added to this are experiences of discrimination in the job market and attacks against trans* people in public.

Reporting can also contribute to acceptance, whereby the choice of language plays a role. Many media outlets already write or speak using a gender star or the gender colon to include all people. This is also being discussed at Deutsche Welle. How satisfied are you with the media's handling of the topic in Germany?

The media deal with gender diversity in very different ways. Some have found language that takes more than two genders into account. At the same time, we also know many media outlets that continue to use the generic masculine. In any case, it is a good step if a symbol such as an underscore, gender star or colon is used.

It is also important to address people using the correct pronoun.  If "he" or "she" is used to refer to someone who doesn't use those pronouns, it also represents a denial of gender identity. These are crucial questions and also relevant discussions in order to represent people with different gender identities more in language.

And what other terms are often misused in the media?

Terms such as "transsexual" or "transsexuality" are now outdated. These terms merge two concepts that do not belong together. Sexuality is a matter I would only discuss with those I am close to. Trans*identity, however, is not a matter of sexuality, but rather about gender identity. In other words: Who am I? With which gender pronoun and role do I feel comfortable?

Moreover, "transsexual" is a term that hails from the medical context and carries with it a very pathologizing idea of what it means to be trans*. Unfortunately, these terms are still frequently used by the media. There is still a lot of room for improvement and I hope that in the next few years more alternative terms like "transgender" or "trans*" will be used.

Kalle Hümpfner is a consultant for socio-political work at the German Trans* Association (Bundesverband Trans*). 


Correction, December 11, 2020: An editor's note was added at the top to explain the use of trans asterisk in this interview. 

This interview was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.