On May 27, in Tallahassee, Florida, an unnamed police officer shot and killed Tony McDade, a Black transgender man, for allegedly being armed and making a “move consistent with using the firearm” at the officer. Though McDade openly lived as a Black trans man, when reporting on his death, the Tallahassee Democrat chose to refer to McDade by his dead name and use she/her pronouns throughout their reporting. Jeff Burlew, the reporter who covered McDade’s death for the newspaper, knew McDade wasn’t a woman, writing that McDade “went by Tony and used male pronouns on Facebook.” Though the article has been edited at least once, it’s still full of inaccuracies, with McDade’s dead name and incorrect pronouns still dotting the page.
Though Burlew might believe he was simply aiming for accuracy, the Democrat’s decision to use McDade’s dead name is just a further reminder that transphobia is heavily interwoven into the fabric of mainstream media. Trans people are regularly deadnamed by writers and reporters. After Mesha Caldwell, a trans woman of color, was murdered in Mississippi in 2017, she was misgendered in initial reports. In 2019, the Chicago Tribune deadnamed Chelsea Manning, a trans woman, in their reporting. And, in May 2020, the New York Times and a number of other mainstream papers deadnamed Aimee Stephens, a trans woman who sued her employer in 2013 for anti-trans discrimination and became the plaintiff in a Supreme Court case about the right of trans people to be employed. The NYT noted in an editor’s note, “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.” But Stephens’s deadname was never her name.
So many writers and reporters are more invested in getting the story “right,” based mostly on outdated standards, than in respecting the people they’re reporting on. And they do so knowing how much harm it causes to the person in question. In “Deadnaming A Trans Person Is Violence — So Why Does The Media Do It Anyway?,” a piece published in The Establishment in 2017, Samantha Reidel writes, “For transgender people, our relationships to our names are complicated, to say the least. What we’re called has power, and hearing a blatantly masculine or feminine name applied to you when you’re trying to realign your gender in a different direction can be a source of profound, dysphoria-inducing anxiety.” “Hearing or seeing one’s old name can induce a visceral sense of terror that no matter how much progress one makes in their transition, the person they used to be (or pretended to be) is still there,” Reidel wrote.
Deadnaming doesn’t make reporting more accurate. It simply causes harm and disrespects the person being written about, especially if they’re no longer alive to defend themselves. And Black trans people face enough harm without us adding to the slate. Trans women of color have been murdered at a rate high enough to lead some to call it an “epidemic.” Black trans women who are homeless or housing insecure live in fear because it’s dangerous for them to be on the streets, and yet, the federal government wants to make it even easier to discriminate against trans people in both housing and employment, only exacerbating an already deadly issue.
In a May 2020 opinion piece for NBC News, Chase Strangio, a trans activist and staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote that “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.”
It’s not accurate to call a trans person by incorrect pronouns, or a name that isn’t, and never was, their name. It’s just another way for those in power to fail them.
Of McDade’s death, the National Black Justice Coalition released a statement, with executive director David J. Johns writing, “Tony, a Black trans man, is our brother. Prior to being shot and fatally wounded by a police officer, Tony posted a video to his Facebook page recounting a horrific beating he received from five men because he is a Black trans man.” McDade’s death is murky given the way that police manipulate stories, especially those of trans people and Black people, but what isn’t murky is his name or who he was. He wasn’t the woman he was defined as in the Tallahassee Democrat, just as Stephens wasn’t the person she was named as by the prominent papers who chose their own egos over her existence.
Trans people, especially Black trans people, receive minimal respect socially, structurally, and from the powers that be. As writers, journalists, and reporters, the least we can do is tell the truth by telling their truth. It’s not accurate to call a trans person by incorrect pronouns, or a name that isn’t, and never was, their name. It’s just another way for those in power to fail them. And especially in their death, the least we can do is honor who they are.
Editor’s Note: We previously published a graphic that read “say his name” with the word “his” slightly blurred as commentary on the invisibility of trans people who are killed by police. We have updated the text in order to preserve the original intent of “#SayHerName” which specifically uplifts the erasure of Black women killed by police. (06/02/2020, 7:52 p.m.)