Elliot Page’s coming out as transgender on Tuesday prompted media outlets and LGBTQ organizations to consider the inappropriateness of using a trans individual’s former name.
“Reminder: there is NEVER a reason to publish someone’s deadname,” the Transgender Journalist Association said in a statement on Twitter. “We are delighted @TheElliotPage, star of Juno & The Umbrella Academy, loves being trans & is sharing that part of himself. We urge journalists and media outlets to treat Elliot with respect & not deadname them.”
To many trans people, using a former or birth name misgenders the person and dismisses their identity expression. While many transgender people legally change their name, it can be difficult (and, in some states, costly) to do so and some people end up going by a different name than the one on their legal documents.
“There’s never any reason for journalists to deadname a trans person in their coverage,” said Oliver-Ash Kleine, a founding member of the TJA. “This is extremely disrespectful and dehumanizing. It undermines the person’s autonomy, gender and identity.”
Lambda Legal, a group that works on behalf of the LGBT community and people with HIV, has said that even in cases where a subject’s gender identity is integral to the story, “it serves no purpose of integrity to publish a transgender person’s ‘deadname,’ or former name.” The group had criticized the New York Times’ May obituary of Aimee Stephens, a woman at the center of a Supreme Court case about workplace discrimination against transgender people, that had initially included her birth name (it was subsequently removed).
The LGBTQ advocacy organization GLAAD takes a slightly different approach: In a style guide sent to media on Tuesday, the group encouraged journalists to avoid referring to trans people “by their former name” but noted: “Since Elliot Page was known to the public by their prior name, it may be necessary initially to say ‘Elliot Page, formerly known as Ellen Page, …’ However, once the public has learned Page’s new name, do not continually refer to it in future stories.”
After Page’s announcement — which noted that the actor can be identified by masculine pronouns as well as gender-neutral ones like they — outlets like USA Today and the New York Times were praised for headlines that didn’t use Page’s birth name. Others, like NBC News’ Out, were called out for including Page’s previous name in their headlines. TMZ was similarly called out — TMZ didn’t immediately respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
“Since Elliot Page was so widely known by his former name, we’re using it in our 1st tweet/article ONLY. This decision also abides by GLAAD’s guidance when referring to celebrities who come out as trans,” Out said in a subsequent statement.
TJA member and writer Jo Yurcaba acknowledged on Twitter that newsrooms might be “scrambling” to find ways to responsibly identify the actor, but this discussion has surfaced repeatedly since Caitlyn Jenner became one of the most prominent celebrities to share their trans identitiy in 2015.
Kleine urged journalists to focus on an individual’s work, rather than their previous name, to identify them. “When reporting on a public figure or someone high profile who has publicly shared that they’re trans, journalists should reference the work that person is best known for rather than use their deadname to convey who the person is to their audiences,” Kleine said.
Writer Megan Lasher provided a tip on how to identify Page without using his prior moniker: “It’s really easy to use Elliot’s projects like ‘Umbrella Academy’ and ‘Juno’ to identify him to fans instead of deadnaming him in your articles.”
In his own coming-out statement Tuesday, Page highlighted concerns about violence against trans people, especially trans people of color, and the impact misnaming can have on the mental health of members of the community.
In 2018, actress Laverne Cox addressed the practice of deadnaming in a Twitter post responding to a trend of police departments using trans victims’ deadnames when releasing information on murder investigations. She spoke openly about her past consideration of suicide to raise awareness of the mental toll taken on her and fellow transgender individuals by “cultural and structural violence” such as deadnaming.
“Being misgendered and deadnamed in my death felt like it would be the ultimate insult to the pathological and emotional injuries I was experiencing daily as a black trans woman in New York City, the injuries that made me want to take my own life,” Cox wrote. “I have been saying for years that misgendering a trans person is an act of violence. When I say that I am referring to cultural and structural violence. The police misgendering and deadnaming trans murder victims as a matter of policy feels like a really good example of that cultural and structural violence.”
*story by The Wrap