This is something that seems to come up from time to time so I think it’s an important thing to talk about. What’s the best way to talk about a trans person’s past? For example, if you’re telling a story about someone, how should your refer to them? Should you use their chosen name and the pronouns they’ve asked you to use or should you stick with what they went by at the time?
For the most part, 99% of the time, you should never use a trans person’s birth name–or, as some of us often call it, dead name–and you should always stick with the pronouns they’ve asked you to use. There may be a situation in which the person said it’s okay to do otherwise, but unless you’ve been specifically told to deviate from this, you should stick with what you refer to them as now.
First, it’s important to understand they didn’t become who they are the moment they told you their chosen name. And they didn’t become this person because they transitioned, instead, they transitioned because they already were this person. When you’re talking about their past, even though you may not have known them as the person they are now, this is still the person they were. For example, I’ve always been Amelia. I may not have gone by this name in the past, but this was always the person I was inside, even if I was hiding it as much as possible and pretending to be someone else.
The second thing at play here is the fact that it’s never okay to out a trans person. Depending on the company you’re in, it’s possible, perhaps even likely, that not everyone is aware this person is transgender and they would like to keep it that way. While I’m 100% openly transgender, it’s still not okay for someone else to out me. Even if it’s pretty obvious to someone else that I’m trans, no one else has the right to confirm that information. Maybe I don’t want to actually talk about trans stuff at that time. Maybe my safety could be at risk, which is not something anyone else is in a position to evaluate. Maybe there’s just no reason why that person needs to know I’m trans.
It can also create a confusing situation for everyone. This past New Year’s Eve, I was at a party and another guest was telling a story from a few years back that involved me. It’s actually a rather funny story, but the people he was sharing it with had never met me before that night. As he was telling the story, he kept pointing across the room at me while saying things “then HE ran down the hill…” and “the cops caught up to HIM…” (Side note: I didn’t get arrested, but I thought was I going to! Remind me to share this story sometime!) Imagine being a person listening to this story and looking across the room at someone who is very clearly a woman while someone else in the room is referring to her as a man. Don’t you think that’d be a little confusing for them? After that, how would they know what to call me? Needless to say, I was mortified and spent most of the rest of the night hiding in one of the bedrooms crying.
To move back outside of my own life, some trans people choose to live stealth, meaning they are not openly trans. Referring to their past with a different name and a different set of pronouns would take away their ability to continue being stealth. You would be outing them when they very clearly do not want to be outed.
Another thing to consider here, besides name and pronouns, is what it is you’re actually saying. I once had a coworker mention something about how I used to use the men’s room at work to a new employee at our company. This was actually how he found out I’m trans. When you’re talking about someone’s past, you should take care to avoid things that may out them or that may be a bit embarrassing for them now. In addition to the change in which gendered facilities they use, try to be careful when discussing how/who they used to date, what kind of relationships they used to be in, etc. When I was younger, I had a bit of a streaking phase (hey, I was going through some stuff, okay!). Obviously, this isn’t something I’d really like people to associate with me, Amelia, now.
When we’re around our friends, especially people we’ve known for a long time, it can be easy to let something slip out without thinking. This happens every once in a while with friends of mine. Many of them have commented that hanging out with me is the same as it ever was and my having transitioned isn’t something they really think about or that matters to them. So when we’re talking about the past, it’s easy for them to forget certain things may be off-limits to talk about depending on the company we’re in (if it’s just us, anything goes). The key here is to really do your best. If this person is your friend or family member, I would imagine that you wouldn’t want to say anything that makes their life harder.