A few weeks ago, Michael Che misgendered Caitlyn Jenner during SNL’s “Weekend Update.” He seemed to deliver the joke knowingly as if anticipating a negative audience response, of which he received plenty online. Let’s get one thing straight. Pronouns and names aren’t a revocable privilege, whether out of anger, humor or anything else, and Che’s joke was wildly thoughtless. I’m deliberately not quoting Che’s hateful joke here, because it is not productive to reproduce such deeply hurtful words, especially when they are framed as humor. While Jenner has had her share of media missteps, nobody deserves to be misgendered — let alone on national television, in a joking manner or otherwise — and I refuse to reproduce such speech in my own work.
However, the sentiment still remains: to deliberately misgender or deadname a person for any reason (for humor, malice or simply by accident) is unacceptable. Names, pronouns and gender identity are deeply personal linguistic markers that follow us in our every move. Their rigidity is only temporary; names and pronouns are only as fixed as their wearer constructs them, and in their change, identity shifts as well. Since so much of our personhood is defined by the vocabulary we use to describe it, the gravity of hearing our truths reproduced back to us is indescribable. To put it more simply, the validation of hearing others articulate a chosen name, pronoun and gender identity language is vital to our wellbeing, trans or otherwise. When this social agreement is broken, such as in Che’s comment on “Weekend Update”, not only does the joke’s subject suffer, but so does the ethos of the entire community.
For me, part of embracing my genderqueerness manifested in choosing a new name and they/them pronouns, in addition to renouncing — and, in some instances, reclaiming — gendered language (colloquialisms like “fella,” “guys” and “lady,” as examples). Although my self-naming process was informed by my choice to honor family naming traditions, the revolutionary act of re-identifying oneself is universal: our linguistic identity markers are no longer the ones assigned to us at birth, and, in fact, we create new ones by our will alone. In this way, a “Hello, my name is ___” sticker does more than extend a friendly introduction to strangers. It is a proclamation of our personhood as we construct it.
As liberating as a name tag may be, any sort of personal evolution does not come without growing pains. Misgendering and deadnaming are daily occurrences that I and other trans folks constantly confront. While the experience of interacting with one’s deadname is different for each individual, this clash between past and present iterations of self are almost unavoidable. My ideological sticking point is this: for almost two decades, my life existed in another name, memories of my now unused identity still live on in others’ minds and work I’ve produced under an old identity speaks to others in its own voice. My writing, achievements, losses, friendships and connections, all which occurred under a different set of names and pronouns, are not erased simply because I now go by another title. In a sense, my deadname is a form of immortalization of this person that no longer exists corporeally, but has a different timeline in a metaphysical way. My and others’ choice to allow our deadnames to exist in old work is thus a personal and deliberate decision, and a political one at that. At the same time that we may choose to do this, we have no control over peoples’ memories of us or the ways in which we have been read in particular spaces, which results in a dichotomy between deliberate interaction with the deadname and the places it still exists outside of our reach. So this honor I give the person I was when in my past through allowing her to exist as my deadname is both in my control and out of it. By still allowing that name to publically exist, I’m entrusting our viewer quite a bit, and inviting them in to this project of honor too.
Although a bit unconventional, I’ll close with an introduction. Hello, my name is Em. Just Em. You may know me by another name, and you may not. Either way, let’s do a bit better than Michael Che and let past iterations of myself lie as what they were. The power of a deadname is two-pronged: the compassion with which I honor the person I used to be and an aggressor’s theft of that power, taking it as their own to manipulate. While it may continue to exist outside of my control, the reclamation of my deadname is mine alone to choose, and it is never anyone else’s punchline.