When you search my name on Google, the most prominent related searches are usually "Chase Strangio birth name" "Chase Strangio before"; from there, it's easy to find my deadname — the one I was given at birth that does not align with my gender. It does not represent who I am but rather a painful past that I worked hard to move beyond; it is as mean-spirited and useless for you to try to seek this information out as it would be for me to go in search of some painful experience of your childhood to define who you are for others.
But the very fact of my existence triggers in some people an entitlement to uncover something about who I "really" am and to reveal for themselves that I am just putting on this mythic identity of "Chase Strangio." To validate that — especially in news reporting — by referring to me as "Chase Strangio, formerly known as [deadname]" is to ensure that I will never have the authority to claim the truth of who I am; it cedes that authority to a structure of power and discrimination that would rather I never existed at all.
If you Google any well-known trans person, you will see the same related searches. There is, in some circles, a quest to undo the truths that we trans people have worked our lives to claim. And among all the many hate-filled attacks I have experienced as a public trans person, the most painful by far have been the deliberate speaking of my old name — as well as the quest to learn it and remind me of it.
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. It also perpetuates the false notion that women who are trans are not "real" women, that men who are trans are not "real" men and that no one could have a gender that is nonbinary.
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."
The ongoing understanding that our identities are not valid is what every trans person sees and hears whenever someone insists on referring to a trans person by using their deadname.
That is what we all saw this week, when The New York Times did it in the obituary for my client Aimee Stephens.
Aimee, whose legal case is pending before the Supreme Court, died this week and, on the day of her death, The Times and several other publications ran obituaries that included Aimee's deadname. Because Aimee was my client, I had spoken with the Times reporter writing Aimee's obituary to share my experiences with her, but it somehow didn't occur to me to ask them not to publish Aimee's deadname; I thought the Times' editors would have the forethought to be more respectful. (After public criticism, they did remove it from the piece and added an editor's note. The Associated Press also included and then removed it.)
In my grief, I foolishly forgot to be vigilant against society's constant insistence that we are not really who we know ourselves to be.
Of course, no one will understand Aimee better by knowing the fact of her deadname. It is not relevant to who she was or how anyone will actually remember her — and including it in an obituary is a final act of disrespect so cruel that it undermines whatever respect was meant to come from memorializing a person in an obituary.
It wasn't even the first time The Times had done this recently. On March 30, the trans community lost Lorena Borjas — a dear friend and longtime collaborator — to COVID-19. On the day of her death, a reporter from The New York Times called me to discuss Lorena's obituary; I was grieving and overwhelmed — and then enraged when the reporter asked me what Lorena's name had been at birth. "I am not telling you that, and I don't even know," I responded. "And wait, why do you need to know that?"
"It is customary to include someone's birth name in an obituary," the reporter explained.
What the reporter didn't understand was that my friend had not only died from COVID-19 but also that her death was directly related to the kind of systemic refusal to honor trans existence that causes the paper of record to insist on publicizing our deadnames. Lorena had feared going to the doctor when she first became sick with COVID-19 because, as a trans person, she had faced so much discrimination in the health care system over the years — including the repeated use of her deadname — that it had become hard to endure unless it was a true emergency.
And then, on the day of her death, I was being told that the articles commemorating her life and what she meant to the trans community were apparently going to reinforce the very indignities and discrimination that contributed to that death.
To reporters, I get that it can seem — falsely — like including someone's "old name" is little more than a historical fact to flesh out a story. But a deadname is neither important nor necessary to include in any reporting, and it's particularly disrespectful in an obituary, which is meant to honor and commemorate someone's life.
If you want to know (or write) about someone and then go in search of their deadname or an old picture to use or disseminate, think long and hard about why that's important to use. Your prurient curiosity shouldn't get to trump our right to dignity and respect, and we are going to assume that your self-serving desire is more about hurting and exposing us trans people than accurately describing the people we are.