Jules Gill-Peterson, University of Pittsburgh
I have the unusual experience, for a living author, of having been both male and female — in print, that is. Not because such crossings of sex are what actually define being transgender, but because naming — as a gendered system that organizes authorship and publishing – forces such scenarios upon trans authors. If you pick up a copy of my first book, Histories of the Transgender Child, you’ll see it has a name different from the one under which this present writing appears. When my next book comes out it will proudly bear the name Jules, much to my pleasure and affirmation. When Histories was preparing to go into its third printing, the press reached out to me, having noticed that my name and pronouns had shifted publicly. My editor asked if I’d like to see the next printing of the book altered to my new name. I said no.
I wasn’t willing to kill my old name.
That choice of verb is deliberate. The neologism “deadname” has exploded in popular usage in the last five years, particularly thanks to the efforts of high profile trans celebrities like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox. As the documentary Disclosure details, both Mock and Cox pushed back forcefully on the gatekeepers of popular culture to end the routine misgendering, sexualization, and horrifyingly transphobic and misogynist interrogations to which trans women were subject in the media. As a trans woman of color, I am forever grateful for this. I would not dare be publicly trans and brown as a writer if not for the efforts of so many other Black trans and trans women of color who have shifted the ground floor of trans legibility.
But what makes a name dead, exactly? And need names always die? There isn’t much of an origin story to the term deadname, other than it likely grew organically out of the early 2010s Tumblr-verse that has impressively, though not without its challenges or problems, remade the mainstream vocabulary for gender and sexuality over the past decade. Whatever you know or think of the conventions or best practices of names, pronouns, and identity categories, you owe it to queer and trans Tumblr.
Against the grain and somewhat polemically, let me make my case against the deadname.
The demand placed on trans people for consistency and commitment to names and pronouns has the opposite of its intended effect in the outcome. Would-be allies think they are showing that they take trans people’s identities seriously by intensely conforming to contemporary conventions, but what they are really saying is I need you to be legible, clear, and easy for me to understand. I need your gender to make me comfortable. The system of gendered naming and pronouns itself is completely untouched, untroubled, by this maneuver. Whatever the origins and possibilities of the deadname as a useful concept—which are many, I admit—it is nevertheless ensnared in this gendered system that obligates each of us to have a clear, consistent, readable gender. Most gendered violence trans and nonbinary people face, especially when we are racialized, comes from situations in which the visual is read as fantasized proof of a problem needing correction or punishment. This question of the power of a broader system radiates back down to names and authorship. Trans-inclusion into the terms of the dominant system is not good enough and there is a lesson here for everyone.
In “A Year Without a Name,” a moving essay in the New Yorker drawn from their book of the same title, Cyrus Grace Dunham puts it this way: “Any name can be destroyed, can destroy itself. I know myself only insofar as I know that I will always surprise myself, that ‘I’ will collapse and be scrambled whenever I think my own structure is sound.” As Dunham emphasizes, “Cyrus is a sign, and he may not last.”
So are all names, I would add. My name, Jules, is one that I’ve had my entire life. Though it’s not the name on my birth certificate, nor the name gracing my first book, it was the nickname my mom gave me and called me my whole life. When it came time to find my new name as a woman, then, Jules was already me. But even so, it should not fall on trans people to bear the instabilities and impossibilities of a gendered culture that relies on but disavows the inconsistency that greases its wheels.
I raise the question of the deadname and the fact that trans authors sometimes have two published names in circulation not because I consider this an analogy to the questions raised in the critical pushback on Reclaim Her Name. Trans naming practices are not analogous to the question of altering non-trans women’s noms de plume. I would argue that they are the same issue. Renaming is no simple matter when it involves, by necessity or in practice, making decisions without asking or being able to ask the person in question for their opinion. Smoothing out, or realigning names after the fact, is not categorically a good move. To assume in renaming a recuperative victory presupposes a harm and an integrity to gender that isn’t nearly true enough to work as a categorical imperative. How do we know when a name is alive or dead? How do we know that zombie names have no value? In short, if we cannot presume that a trans woman author wants her life’s circumstances to recede from visibility by aligning past name with present, then how can we assume that the same would be true for non-trans women? Both are subject to the same system of gendered naming, however differently.
The erasure of the power dynamics that make access to a writerly voice, to authority, and to a platform in which to think so difficult for women, trans and non-trans (notice that I did not say cisgender), are much more important than assuming that retrospective renaming without an author’s permission repairs a wrong. In fact, to do so may cover over the original wrong and the persistent wrongs for women of color and trans women of color, whose voices may be increasingly visible in print, but who are certainly not valued or taken as seriously as white women or white men. I know this, too, from the way that race and history live inside my names. Jules Gill-Peterson is brown like me in that it obscures, or muddies, the histories of empire that gave it to me. Gill, an anglicized Scottish surname, is common to Sikhs like my family from the Punjab province of India, who traditionally bear only one of two last names: Singh, for boys, and Kaur, for girls. The process of immigration to white Dominions of the British Empire like Canada forced them to adopt surnames that bear no information other than the violence of colonization, twice over. Yet that process, that whitening, also saved me from having a gendered last name. Its hyphenation, a product of my mother’s feminism, further complicates what it signifies about gender. The name I have chosen for myself is still two thirds what I did not consent to but was throw into by history. To pretend that I could refuse such an inheritance of empire, race, and gender is, I think, as naïve as someone else deciding on my name posthumously.
If I die tomorrow, take this as my explicit instruction: do not misgender me in my obituary, but do not re-release my old work under my current name, either.
My old name is not dead. It’s just not my name anymore.
Cyrus Grace Dunham, “My Year Without a Name.” The New Yorker, August 12, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/19/a-year-without-a-name.
Disclosure (directed by Sam Feder), 2020.
J. Gill-Peterson, Histories of the Transgender Child (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).