Writing about Transgender People

Recently, a reader of this LBGTQ Genealogy blog series asked me how to properly document trans family members.  That is an excellent question, worthy of its own genealogy education blog post.

In genealogy, there is precedent to document women with their maiden names, not their married names. This is an accepted convention in genealogy to more easily identify a person’s birth connections. We also record alias or “Also Known As” names for individuals who’ve changed their birth names for a variety of reasons. We readily include alternative names in our narratives. However, applying that same practice to transgender individuals, revealing their birth names, is offensive and I recommend against it.

When a person transitions, they often take a new name. The name given at birth becomes their “deadname”. The term deadname has been adopted by the transgender community. To me, the term sounds negative, even violent. But I also get the severity. Alternate terms are “former name”, “given name” or “birth name” but these terms do not hold the same gravity as “deadname” = a name that should never be used.

A deadname is not “their real name”. As an adoptive father, I despise when people ask about my children’s “real” father.  I am their real father. Just like a transgender person’s chosen name is their real name.  Other terms that should not be used include “biologically male,” “biologically female,” “genetically male,” “genetically female,” “born a man,” or “born a woman”. The acceptable terms are “assigned male at birth” or “assigned female at birth”.

How you refer to a transgender person both in name and in pronouns should be sensitive to who they are or striving to become. Relationships with names are powerful. A name connotates identity. Using a person’s chosen name and gender pronouns supports their identity. Using a person’s deadname or referring to them with pronouns assigned at birth equates a disrespectful attempt to negate their identity.

In your family history writings about a transgender person, you can make a quick statement such as, “Thomas transitioned from female to male in 2012.” Or, “Thomas was assigned female at birth and began his transition in 2012.” In these examples, “Thomas” is the chosen name and the deadname is never mentioned in writing. Transition is an important fact in a person’s life and their family’s history and therefore should be acknowledged in genealogical writings. Also, be respectful to only use appropriate gender pronouns, he/him/his, when writing about Thomas. Asking a trans person if they want more of their transition story included in the family narrative is also a great idea.

Look at last month’s blog post on Military Records and the story of Albert Cashier, a transgender Civil War Veteran. I did choose to use Albert’s birth name in my writing to illustrate that being transgender is not new. Here is an example of a transgender person that lived over 100 years ago. I would not do the same with anyone living. Also note, that I only refer to Albert with he/him/his pronouns throughout.

Unfortunately, in media reports about transgender people, the deadname is often used. Why is this information relevant in a news report? Even though we all know Caitlyn Jenner is a trans-woman, the media cannot resist using her deadname as if it were fresh news. Lady Gaga, Elton John, Whoopi Goldberg, Queen Latifah, Bruno Mars are only a few celebrities that changed their names. The media does not constantly remind us of their given names, as they do with transgender people.  Do not follow the media’s example in your genealogical writing.

Genealogical records, such as birth certificate, census records, baptismal books are public records that cannot, nor should, be changed. These are the shared records of our history. Some records will contain a transgender person’s deadname and sex assigned at birth. Those facts are available for any researcher to find.  As example, you are reviewing a census record with a Dad, a Mom and their four daughters. However, you know that one of the daughters transitioned to a male identity. In your writing about the family, you would say that the couple had three daughters and one son. As mentioned above, only one sentence about transition is necessary for the reader to reconcile your writing versus the historic record.

It is acceptable to store the factual birth name and birth sex you find in genealogical records in your private notes. These facts may be necessary for future research.  But that is where the deadname should remain, in your private notes.

Finally, be mindful to use the correct preferred pronouns. The subjective, objective and possessive pronouns are “he/him/his”, “she/her/hers”, or “they/them/theirs”. Never use the pronoun associated with the sex assigned at birth. Even though these are called preferred pronouns, the term “preferred” does not mean optional in this case.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has two very helpful guides:

In conclusion, using accurate terminology is the first step toward creating a respectful genealogical profile about a transgender person.