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News sites backtrack after 'deadnaming' transgender woman in obituary

The New York Times and The Associated Press published the birth name of trans woman Aimee Stephens, igniting swift and fierce criticism from LGBTQ advocates.
Aimee Stephens
Aimee Stephens.Charles William Kelly / ACLU

Following the death of Aimee Stephens — the transgender woman at the center of a high-profile LGBTQ discrimination case pending before the Supreme Court — a different name appeared in several news articles announcing that she had died Tuesday.

The New York Times, The Associated Press and the Detroit News were among the media outlets that published Stephens’ former legal name, the male name she had used prior to her gender transition in 2013. The publication of her previous name, colloquially referred to as “deadnaming,” drew swift and fierce reaction from LGBTQ rights groups and advocates.

“It serves no purpose of integrity to publish a transgender person’s ‘deadname,’ or former name, as the @nytimes did here in Aimee Stephens’s obituary. This should be immediately revised. Aimee deserves better,” Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ legal organization, tweeted Tuesday evening.

“The Grey Lady should know better than this in 2020,” the National Center for Lesbian Rights tweeted later that night. “Deadnaming and misgendering individuals is wrong, and also sends a message to trans or non-binary people that their existence is not valid.”

Both the Times and the AP amended their articles shortly after.

“An earlier version of this obituary included the name Ms. Stephens was given at birth, which she no longer used. That reference has been removed,” an editor’s note in the Times obituary stated.

Times editor Patrick LaForge also apologized on Twitter and said the incident would lead to updated style guidance.

“The first published version of the article our reporter wrote did not include the name,” LaForge wrote. “It was added later in an honest mistake by editors trying to interpret what we now realize is a confusing style rule for obituaries.”

The AP amended its obituary Wednesday and included the following note: “The story has been edited to remove a former name in accordance with AP Style to use the name by which the person lived and avoid former names unless relevant.”

Lauren Easton, a spokesperson for the news organization, told NBC News that the AP Stylebook was updated in June 2019 to include guidance on deadnaming.

The stylebook, which is influential in guiding the way many U.S. newsrooms write about complex topics, now reads: “Use the name by which a transgender person now lives. Refer to a previous name, sometimes called a deadname, only if relevant to the story.”

“The spirit of the entry is to make NOT printing a person’s deadname the default; to assume a person does not want their deadname used unless they say or you confirm otherwise,” Easton wrote in an email. “And then print it only if it’s newsworthy.”

As of Friday morning, the Detroit News’ article still included Stephens’ former name.

In an op-ed for NBC News THINK titled “A transgender person’s deadname is nobody’s business. Not even a reporter’s,” Chase Strangio, a member of Stephens’ legal team, argued that publishing a transgender person’s former name “is a way to shame trans people for who they are.”

“The reality of trans lives is that we struggle against the interpersonal and systemic beliefs that we are only putting on our genders and that beneath them lies some ‘truth’ of who we really are — and that notion fuels violence and discrimination against members of the trans community,” Strangio, who is transgender, wrote.

“To then write about a woman who is trans and remind the reader of her deadname under the pretense that what she was called at birth is important to understanding who she is today actually evokes the image of a man for readers and contributes to the insidious social understanding that ‘this person claimed to be a woman but was really a man,’” Strangio continued.

In a 2019 op-ed titled “Stuck on how to refer to trans people in the past? The answer is actually really simple,” Parker Molloy, editor at large for Media Matters for America, a progressive nonprofit that monitors the media, argued that in the “overwhelming majority” of instances, “it’s completely unnecessary to draw attention to former names or pronouns.”

“The best way to refer to a trans person — even when discussing their past — is to use whatever name and pronouns that individual currently uses,” Molloy, who is transgender, wrote.

Raquel Willis, a transgender activist, writer and former editor at Out Magazine, said in 2020, there’s not much excuse anymore for continued deadnaming in major publications: “We have to call it what it is: ignorance.”

“As a black woman I liken it — and this might get me into some hot water — but I liken it to a news reporter in the ‘70s saying ‘colored’ instead of ‘black’ or ‘African American,’” Willis said. “Sure, we can extend some grace to you not understanding, but it’s also your job to be aware of the communities you’re reporting on and what language they’re using.”

Something as simple as asking an interviewee which pronouns they use no matter your impression of their gender identity, Willis suggested, goes a long way.

So when, if ever, do transgender advocates think it is relevant and acceptable to use a trans person’s former name in a news article?

Willis said there are some “special cases where you would need to use a name that someone doesn’t currently use.”

“Someone who was a public figure, who people knew as one name, and this was about trying to educate the rest of the public about them changing their names or pronouns,” she explained.

However, once the new name of a public figure — Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning, for example — “becomes common knowledge, it is unnecessary and disrespectful to continue referring to their old name,” Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender media and representation, said in an interview with Media Matters last year.

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