By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
On Dec. 2, a fire broke out in a warehouse building in Oakland, California. Its tenants knew the building as Ghost Ship; it housed an artists’ collective. That’s not uncommon in the Bay Area, where affordable housing is scarce. What’s more, the residents were able to find welcoming, supportive community within the walls of Ghost Ship.
The fire at Ghost Ship ended up being the deadliest fire in Oakland’s history, claiming the lives of 36 people. Three of those people were trans Feral Pines, Cash Askew and Em B.
The fire was national news, supplanting the latest tantrums of the President-elect. These reports, while usually fairly sensationalist and often quick to blame Ghost Ship’s victims for their own deaths, never once spent a lot of time focusing on what the building held prior to becoming Ghost Ship, or did any dwell on previous tenants of the building. This is more respect for the identity of a building than the three trans victims of the fire received.
Much of the coverage stripped away the identities of the trans tenants of Ghost Ship. Hard-won names were ignored, and pronouns that were incorrect for these three lives were applied.
In a rare turn of events, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, when releasing their final list of names on Twitter, clarified the names of Em B and Feral Pines — albeit it still to names closer, but unlike what their friends know them as.
Their experience is not an uncommon one when it comes to media coverage of trans lives.
First and foremost, the process of updating your identity documents — such as your driver’s license, social security card, passport, or birth certificate — remains a burdensome one. Even with some streamlining over the last decade at both the state and federal level, these updates can still require letters from medical professionals, a court-ordered name change, and other paperwork, each of which comes at some cost.
Likewise, there are always judges and others who will decide to make name and gender changes all that more difficult, rejecting our identities as a morality-based statement or because they are just plain mean-spirited.
This, by the way, is part of what makes the notion of people using a trans identity to assault people in bathrooms such a ridiculous argument. Transgender people have to work very hard to forge their identities in this society. It’s simply not that easy.
Police and rescue personnel may only have the identification papers — such as the driver’s license — of a transgender person, and report that name. Or they feel that it is somehow more “accurate” to use a legal or “wallet” name and gender over the ones a person chose, and that which all those knew them as.
This is compounded by the media, who simply use the information they were given, without doing any further due diligence. In some cases, too, it’s not just shoddy reporting or a ham-fisted attempt to be “accurate,” but a deliberate stripping away of transgender identities in an attempt to “spice up” a story.
When the former name of a transgender person is used in such a way, we in the community tend to refer to it as “deadnaming.” The term is perhaps a bit overstated, but it is certainly applicable.
I changed my name nearly 25 years ago, and today I have to take a moment to remember what it once was. There is no connection to it, no sense of recognition that one might associate with one’s name.
That said, no one wants to be called something they are not. Consider what it might feel like, to you, to have a name you do not associate with yourself used as a weapon against you, as a way to delegitimize your very being? That is what it is to use the “deadname” and incorrect gender for a trans person.
Having transitioned so long ago means there is no real record of me with that name or gender to be found on the World Wide Web. While I’m sure someone would find it easily enough if they really were determined, it’s not so casually stepped over. I like it that way.
Recently, however, I’ve ended up having to sort through paperwork as I apply for a United States passport prior to President-elect Trump taking office. My birth certificate still has that old name on it, and a gender I left behind decades ago. It’s almost foreign to see it and have to present it as proof of my identity, given that it honestly is not my identity. It is, rather, something alien to me.
Yet I too must deal with the fact that, no matter how buried my former name may be, no matter how many identity documents I update, no matter what I do, there’s still that chance that someone will try to use an identity I rejected a quarter-century ago. Maybe they’ll be police who are “being accurate,” or maybe it will be journalists who want to tell “my whole story” to the public. Then again, it could just as well be someone setting out to deliberately harm me.
I’ve said it many times before: when we talk about fighting for our rights, the number one right we need to fight for is the right to exist. That’s not just a reference to our staggering homicide rate, but to the very notion of our identities being respected and seen as legitimate.
Let our “deadnames” rest in peace, and let us live as ourselves.