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Caitlyn Jenner's anti-trans harassment at CPAC shows the power of deadnames

Deadnaming is all too often used as a weapon to deny trans people's existence.
Image: Caitlyn Jenner
Television personality Caitlyn Jenner listens during an interview during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas on Saturday.Dylan Hollingsworth / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last weekend, Caitlyn Jenner appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference's Dallas spinoff. Jenner, a Republican attempting to replace California Gov. Gavin Newsom in this fall’s recall election, was met with transphobic abuse throughout her time there. Hecklers greeted the transgender woman with slurs, calling her a man and repeatedly using her former name, even while getting their picture taken with her.

One livestreaming YouTuber and preacher rained down perhaps the most depraved abuse as Jenner stopped to pose for pictures with conference attendees. “Don’t forget about Jesus,” he yelled at her. He then said she's a “sick freak” and referred to her as a derogatory term for a transgender person (“tr----”) to his audience after she departed.

The heckling wasn’t difficult to see coming. CPAC and its more religious cousin, the Values Voter Summit, have trafficked more and more in transphobia as time has marched on. Vast swaths of the Republican Party have made draconian restrictions on trans lives a core plank of their legislative agendas nationwide, from the “bathroom bans” debate to the current push to exclude trans athletes from competing in sports. And conservative media consumers have been fed a steady diet of sensationalist transgender news for years.

Taken together, it means the likelihood that Jenner would face transphobia at the conservative conference was as predictable as the English national soccer team losing in penalties at a major tournament, again, and the racism disappointed fans threw at the team’s Black players.

But what happened to her also makes for a teachable moment about trans people’s names. While pronoun usage is more often the focus of mainstream attention, the right to be called by your own name is crucial in the movement toward transgender liberation.

For transgender people, our names are the most basic form of humanization and respect.

Names can be complicated things, as immigrants struggling to decide whether they should adopt an Anglicized name could tell you. Like some geographic locations have multiple names, some first-generation Americans find themselves switching between their “white-sounding” name and their traditional name depending on the audience. But even then, generally speaking, when someone is born, someone — usually the child’s parents — gives them a name, and most people will end up using that their whole lives.

But names can sometimes hurt, too. For transgender people, our names are the most basic form of humanization and respect. In English, like most languages on the planet, names are typically assigned in a fairly strict, gendered fashion — traditionally feminine names for those assigned female at birth and more masculine names for those assigned male. When trans people transition, they often choose a new name to fit their new public identity. (Though there are exceptions, including when a name is widely considered androgynous.)

Calling a trans person by their birth name is commonly referred to as “deadnaming,” a term collectively created by the trans community itself. Most trans people interpret the use of someone’s deadname as a sign of significant disrespect, a rejection of the trans person standing in front of them. For many, it triggers gender dysphoria, the clinical term for the distress caused by a disconnect between a person’s assigned sex at birth and their gender identity.

But crucially, the community isn’t a monolith. Different trans people have different feelings about their own deadnames. Some trans people aren’t bothered as much by their deadname; for others, it’s quite painful. It varies. For me, it depends on the person who is saying it. For example, a family member calling me by my deadname hurts more than an internet troll doing the same.

Jenner herself has said in the past that she doesn’t mind when people use her very famous deadname. In 2017, two years after she came out publicly as transgender, Jenner said she didn’t mind if some people referred to her with her old, male name.

“I had a life for 65 years. OK?” she told The Guardian. “I liked Bruce. He was a good person. He did a lot in his life. Oh, ‘He didn’t even exist.’ Yes he did exist! He worked his butt off. He won the [Olympic] Games. He raised amazing kids. He did a lot of very, very good things, and it’s not like I just want to throw that away.”

Apparently conservatives at CPAC were happy to oblige her, which is part of the issue with Jenner saying it’s OK to deadname her. Her level of celebrity and prominence — coupled with the audience she’s cultivating — then gives transphobic cisgender people the mistaken belief that they have carte blanche to do it to any random trans person. “Well if Caitlyn Jenner is OK with it, why can’t you be?” is the resulting logic.

The answer to that hypothetical question is that there’s a difference between a deadname used out of ignorance or reflex and its use as an attack. In this case, it’s clear that what happened to Jenner was the latter. Use of a trans person’s deadname, especially if it’s purposeful, is very clearly meant to deny trans identities and, ultimately, dehumanize trans people.