Deadnaming: We Need to Respect Trans People’s Choices

I saw a really great blog post today about ‘deadnaming” and how the media covers transgender issues, particularly coming out stories like that of Caitlyn Jenner.

I have to be honest, before I read that article, I had no idea what “deadnaming” was. Not that I hadn’t experienced it before– I experience this all the time. I just didn’t know there was a word for it, other than “people not using the name you asked them to use.” I guess deadnaming is a bit more concise.

I won’t speak for all trans people everywhere, only myself here, when I say this: I understand that it takes a while to change the name and identity you  pair with that name in your head. I don’t expect anyone to get it 100% right all the time, especially in the beginning.

However, there comes a point where a lack of ability to get it right begins to look like the person not trying, or not caring, or not respecting your right to define yourself.  I’m not sure where the line is, but I know when I feel like someone has crossed it.  I’m sorry that doesn’t sound particularly helpful for those of you wondering if you’ve crossed the line, and I’m sorry. I guess all I can ask is that you do your honest, very best.

That being said, there are few things that are more annoying than people who either don’t care to get it right, or insist that somehow they can choose to continue to talk about you as they wish and you just have to get over it. An example of the latter:

I came out to my father a few weeks ago.  He sent me his usual “I love you and I’m praying for you” email that I get about once every six months, and I responded by asking how he was, what he was up to, and a bunch of other pleasant questions that I knew he wouldn’t answer. I also told him that there was a lot going on with me, and I told him I am trans. I also sent him a recent picture so he would have a visual clue.  I also told him about my name change.

I was prepared to have him respond badly. I was also prepared for him to ignore me altogether. His recent religious fanaticism has left him with a well-developed ability to stick his head in the sand and ignore things that are inconvenient, so I knew it was a possibility that he would never acknowledge what I said.

Instead, he emailed back one sentence: “I hope I can still call you Annie.” For good measure he attached a childhood photo of me in a dress (which must be one of only a handful of such photos that exist, because I did NOT wear dresses as a kid).

I went through a few drafts with my friends before responding, but I told him that his response was incredibly hurtful because it ignored everything that I said in my previous email. Love is not just an emotion, it’s a verb. If you say you love me, then respect me. What you said showed neither love nor respect– rather it told me that you value your own comfort more than whether I can be myself. I ended the email with:

“You are free to call me Bennett, or you’re free to not call me at all.”

You see, I realized that in that instance, it was not about adjustment, or a slip up, or even just ignorance.  What my dad was telling me, in so many words, was that I did not get to control my own story, rather he had the power to veto something I said about myself.

When she came out publicly two weeks ago,Caitlyn Jenner said “Call me Caitlyn.” The title of her piece said it all– she was taking charge of her identity, her statement a command, not a request. We must respect that, and realize that continuing to use her old name does not make her oppressors more powerful, it makes her seem invincible because she is Caitlyn no matter what anyone else says.

So. Call me Bennett.

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Coming Out at Work

I have said, and will continue to say, that I am exceedingly lucky to be transitioning in this day and age. I am also lucky to have a supportive family, amazing friends, and very accepting coworkers.

When I was considering transitioning, one thing I really got hung up on was what transitioning would do to my career. I am an attorney, and just graduated law school a year ago. I was worried that beginning my career and then transitioning right after would be detrimental to my job– I didn’t want people to have to get to know me as a trans person and get to know me as an attorney all at the same time.

But, it was obvious that I couldn’t hold it in anymore. So I worked with the firm diversity coordinator and my closest friends to come up with a strategy. Ultimately, I sent my office an email. I sent it at 4 pm on a Thursday. I wanted to be able to leave the office quickly if I got too overwhelmed or if it went badly. I also didn’t want to have to be there the whole week if it was weird. So, I did it. And it’s been awesome.

Within two hours of sending it, I had about 30 emails back from various attorneys and staff expressing their support. I have had not one weird or awkward moment since. I am now on the firmwide diversity committee and am starting a new pro bono project to help with name/gender changes for trans people.

Here’s a copy of the letter I sent:

Dear Los Angeles Colleagues,

I am writing to tell you about a matter that is essentially personal but will result in some changes at work—I am transgender. This means that while I was born female, I identify with the masculine and will be undertaking the process of physically transitioning to a more male appearance. While I doubt this will come as a shock to any of you, the decision to physically transition has been the culmination of a ten year process of self-discovery. With the support of my family, friends, and wonderful colleagues here at [firm], I am ready to live as authentically as I can.

I’ve done my best over the last several months to make this transition go as smoothly as I know how. It turns out that there’s no ‘handbook’ to refer to on these matters. I regret that I have not been able to talk to each of you personally about this, but as you can imagine having ‘the conversation’ is a somewhat emotionally draining experience (usually for both parties) and so I’ve sometimes shied away from it, even when opportunities presented themselves. For this I hope you’ll forgive me.

Starting today, I ask that you call me [name] and use male pronouns (he, him, his) when referring to me. I am in the process of legally changing my name to [name] and Human Resources has been very supportive in making arrangements to change my name and gender on all my firm documentation. Our goal is for everything to be as smooth and uneventful as possible.

This change will inevitably take some getting used to, and there will be a period of adjustment. One thing I’m acutely aware of is the disruption and awkwardness that is brought in terms of ‘renegotiating’ social relationships that are to a large extent premised on one’s gender. The last thing I want is for any of you to feel nervous about ‘saying the wrong thing’, accidentally using my prior name, mixing up pronouns etc. These things happen and I am very used to it. I have developed considerable immunity to slips of the tongue etc. I am not shy about discussing any aspects of my situation that you may be curious about – indeed I’d welcome the opportunity to discuss it with any of you.

If you would like to learn a little bit more about what it means for someone to be transgender, I direct your attention to these resources, which are all quite good:
http://www.hrc.org/resources/entry/transgender-faq
http://community.pflag.org/Document.Doc?id=202

One thing I want to add is that I feel I am extremely lucky to have found myself working in such a wonderful environment with such amazingly supportive, sensitive, compassionate and understanding colleagues. Many people in my situation face incredible difficulty when they attempt to transition at work, and in many cases it is the fear of the consequences of doing so that delays or even prevents them ever making the decision to live their real lives. I thank you all for your continued support and understanding and look forward to a bright future together.

Warmly,
BJK

Trans Guy Can’t Cry?

Before I begin, I just want to put a huge caveat out there that this post describes my experience in transition and is not meant to be a statement that applies to all trans guys who are taking testosterone. I’m sure there are other people who FullSizeRender (2)have experienced this same feeling, but I am not in any way implying that my problem here is universal among trans guys.

I can’t cry any more. I used to cry. I wasn’t the type of person who cried easily, but when I needed to cry, I never failed to do so. Coming from a very stoic Norwegian family, I always felt like the “sensitive one” because I would cry when I was sad about things. But I can’t cry any more.

It’s not that I don’t feel sadness– I definitely do. But where feelings of sadness used to cause tears to form, thus providing a release of sorts, they no longer come. I think that taking testosterone has actually blocked the physiological response of crying. It’s really, really strange.  I have had some very sad things happen to me since starting testosterone that normally would have made me cry: the tragic death of a foster dog, the loss of a loved one’s mother, stress at work, physical pain, the end of a relationship. But nothing. Nada. Seriously, I really wish I could cry.

This experience has given me some insight into what is perhaps one of the great stereotypical social divides between “men” and “women” in our culture. Women cry, men don’t, right?  More than that, men often perpetuate this idea that women who cry are “hysterical” or “emotional” or a slew of other not-flattering and loaded terms.  While this is definitely the patriarchy at work, my experience of late has given me some understanding as to why men might actually believe those things are true.

Before I transitioned, years ago, I lost a book on an airplane. It was Mockingjay (Hunger Games Part III) and it had just come out that day. I was about 1/2 into it when we had a layover and I left it on the plane. When I realized it was gone, I cried a little. Now, I understand (as any of you Hunger Games fans would) why I was upset– I had been so looking forward to reading it, I was really into it, and then out of carelessness, I lost it.

However, had I always been raised male, always had testosterone in my system– basically if I had the same inability to cry then that I do now– I would have looked at myself and thought “Okay, that person is crazy. Seriously? Crying over a book?”

In my mind now, I think I would probably cry if something really devastating happened. But it would have to be really, really upsetting. But for most of your everyday this-would-have-made-me-cry-a-year-ago events, it’s just not going to happen. If that had ALWAYS been my experience, and I had never felt what it was like for tears to form under less-than-tragic circumstances, I think I can see why I would look at “women” who cry and think “gosh, that’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

Is it possible that the “women are hysterical” myth exists simply because cisgender men have never lived in a body that reacted to non-catastrophes with tears? How much better would this world be if testosterone didn’t block that response? Would we be more empathetic? Less judgmental?

I guess there’s two lessons here:

1. to those who don’t cry: don’t judge those who do. They cannot control what their bodies do under stress/emotional circumstances any more than you can.

2. to whose that do cry: I know it sucks when those who don’t cry judge you for crying. But in addition to what you’re weeping for, add to the list the fact that those who don’t cry either physically can’t, or socially do not allow themselves to do so. Both of those things suck, too.

As Bill and Ted say: Be most excellent to each other.