Preferred name is unknown; polite way to use deadname?
January 24, 2021 9:47 PM   Subscribe

Is there a polite way to refer to someone in the third person when I know only their birth name, not their preferred name? I’m writing to friends about a distant friend's now-grown child. I don't want to offend anyone by using the child's dead name, but I've forgotten their preferred name. There must be something better than "formerly known as" or awkwardly trying to write around the problem with generic pronouns.
posted by kgander to Society & Culture (14 answers total)
Personally, I would err on just not mentioning that person. Or I would Facebook stalk to double check, or ring someone to ask.
posted by freethefeet at 9:58 PM on January 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

It isn't clear to me from your question, but is there a reason you can't find out their preferred name? You're "writing to friends" so maybe send a quick message to one of them and ask, "hey do you remember the name of X's kid? It's totally slipped my mind."
posted by NotTheRedBaron at 10:01 PM on January 24, 2021 [14 favorites]

I'm trans, and in this situation I'd most prefer it if you were like "I'm afraid I don't know / remember her name, but So-and-So's oldest kid / So-and-So's daughter / So-and-so's kid who lives in Boston came up in conversation recently, and..."

Asking for a name is also a good strategy, and I agree that "it slipped my mind" is all you need to say.

And writing around the problem is also ok, if by that you mean using descriptions and pronouns rather than even mentioning the name issue. "I was talking to So-and-So, and he was bragging about his daughter's new job. She got a big promotion, and..." That's a thing people do all the time when they're talking about cis people, so I see nothing wrong with talking about me that way. I wouldn't find that awkward, even if it stretched out for a long story.

For what it's worth, since someone else mentioned it, if I found out someone was avoiding even mentioning me because they felt uncomfortable around my transition, I would be very hurt and angry. Please don't let this limit how you remember your friend's kid and include them in stories. They're still the same person and discussing them isn't taboo.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:10 PM on January 24, 2021 [62 favorites]

Zengargoyle, I agree that yes, it's super easy to forget a new name, particularly if it's someone who is not in your life much. That happens and we're all human.

But please don't further the narrative that it's ok to just use the deadname and have someone correct you even if the person being deadnamed is not there. It puts other people in the position of correcting you, including those who may also have been harmed by being deadnamed in the past. And you get the reputation of being the asshole who doesn't care about deadnaming people. How about just saying, "whoops, I've forgotten their new name, can anyone tell me?" which is what I suggested in my comment above.
posted by NotTheRedBaron at 11:36 PM on January 24, 2021 [13 favorites]

Please don't just use their deadname.

People forget each other's names all of the time. This isn't really a unique situation - awkward, yeah, but I think you might be overthinking it. The fact that this particular person has a deadname doesn't really change your situation, which is that you don't remember their name.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 11:36 PM on January 24, 2021 [10 favorites]

I would really avoid using a deadname at all. It gives the (presumably mistaken) impression that you don’t support their transition or are horribly insensitive. Use almost any other strategy. All the ones mentioned by nebulawindphone are good.
posted by Concordia at 11:39 PM on January 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Mod note: One deleted. "Just use the deadname" is not helpful advice at all, and not actually harmless. I'd like to ask that people who don't have a useful suggestion refrain from commenting. (And note that if other people have already offered actually knowledgeable and logical options to a question like "I want to avoid doing X," it becomes even more disrespectful and weird to follow afterwards with "just do X." No, you just skip the thread, please.)
posted by taz (staff) at 12:06 AM on January 25, 2021 [39 favorites]

Thanks for asking this question. People forget names all the time, so you can just do what you would do if you had forgotten a cis person's name. A minor note, I wouldn't call it their "preferred" name when you ask. It's just their name. It's also definitely possible to talk your way around this problem as suggested above, like "Jake's oldest kid," if you can't ask anyone for some reason.
posted by k8lin at 12:07 AM on January 25, 2021 [9 favorites]

My grandma (sometimes forgetful) will say “your boyfriend”, “your cousin”, “my son’s children”, etc. without using first names. She describes an event or attribute that makes it possible to identify the person without a first name - “won the soccer game”, “is moving to X”, “loves X team”. Would this work as a way to refer to a person?
posted by Red Desk at 1:26 AM on January 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't ever use someone's deadname without their explicit consent.

Good for you asking this, because plenty of people wouldn't have been even this thoughtful.

That said, think it's important to remember that the minor discomfort a person like yourself might have at trying to communicate about someone without knowing their name is not the major source of pain a deadname can be.

Consider saying it taboo. That name is dead, like a body. Don't mess around with it.

You seem like a thoughtful person. I'm going to give you a tip. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable generally about a trans person, or really any member of a marginalized community, I'd encourage you to cultivate a thought process that explores whether you are centering yourself. A good rule of thumb to start is, "is what they are doing actually hurting me? Could what I am doing harm them?"
posted by Chrysopoeia at 2:38 AM on January 25, 2021 [12 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for confirming there's no polite way to use someone's deadname. I'd also like to apologize to everyone for having cluelessly used deadnames in the past. In this case, "their youngest" will work well enough until I get their name.
posted by kgander at 6:06 AM on January 25, 2021 [15 favorites]

Glad we could help. I'd like, after thinking about it, to also gently push back on the use of preferred when talking about trans names, pronouns etc. Saying that it's the correct name and correct pronoun is accurate, expressing it as a preference is entirely inadequate.

I'm glad you are making the decision not to use deadnames from now on. I hope you will also, when you see other cis people make a mistake like this, feel empowered to correct them, because it can be exhausting and stressful for trans people to have to do so themselves.
posted by Chrysopoeia at 2:18 PM on January 25, 2021 [4 favorites]

I want to pop in and note that some trans people (e.g. me) are really not cool with cis people using 'dead name' as either a generic term or in reference to their old name. I didn't die when I transitioned and the cis society that deemed my old name "unacceptable" for my gender doesn't get to tell me how I should relate to my old name. On the other hand, there are also trans people who welcome that use by cis people and find it affirming, so this isn't an in-group/out-group distinction. I have particularly strong feelings, but I don't think I'm biased when I say it's best to follow someone's lead when it comes to terminology for their old name and aim for neutral ("old name", "previous name", etc) if you don't know someone's preference.
posted by hoyland at 4:01 PM on January 25, 2021 [12 favorites]

Sorry everyone- I see my original answer was pretty poorly phrased. I guess I wanted to say "if you don't know them well enough to know their name, why are you talking about them?" Not that the writer should not talk about them because they were uncomfortable.
posted by freethefeet at 9:09 PM on January 31, 2021 [1 favorite]

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