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Laverne Cox lambastes ‘deadnaming.’ What is it and why is it a problem?

Laverne Cox attends a screening of the documentary “Free CeCe!” during LGBTQ Pride Month on June 21. (Daniela Kirsch/NameFace/Sipa USA/AP)

Many years ago, Emmy-nominated actress and LGBT activist Laverne Cox said she thought about committing suicide.

In an emotional post shared Monday to Twitter and Instagram, Cox, a transgender woman, wrote that she had planned to leave behind notes — one in her pocket and several others placed around her home.

These notes had a special purpose, Cox wrote. They were intended to prevent her from being misgendered and deadnamed, experiences with which members of the transgender community are all too familiar.

Misgendering means referring to, or using language to describe a transgender person that doesn’t align with their affirmed gender, for example calling a transgender woman “he” or “him.” A transgender person is “deadnamed” when they are called by their “birth name” or “given name” when they no longer use it.

The “Orange Is the New Black” star wrote that her notes would state her name, preferred gender pronouns and her desire to be described as a woman in death. It “would be clear,” she added, that she wanted to be called “Laverne Cox only” and “not any other name.”

“Being misgendered and deadnamed in my death felt like it would be the ultimate insult to the psychological and emotional injuries I was experiencing daily as a black trans woman in New York City, the injuries that made me want to take my own life,” she wrote.

Cox shared her story in response to a recently published ProPublica article detailing how police and other law enforcement agencies often misgender or deadname transgender murder victims.

“As I read this report from ProPublica I sobbed and wept for all the trans people who have been murdered and those experiencing direct, cultural and structural violence,” she wrote. “I wept because I haven’t been allowing myself to. I wept for all of the violence I have experienced in my own life.”

While the article largely focused on the actions of authorities in Jacksonville, Fla., the investigative news site found that across the United States “some 65 different law enforcement agencies have investigated murders of transgender people since Jan. 1, 2015. And in 74 of 85 cases, victims were identified by names or genders they had abandoned in their daily lives.”

“I am angered, saddened and enraged that the police in Jacksonville, Florida and other jurisdictions don’t have policies in place to respect the gender identities of trans folks when they have been MURDERED,” Cox wrote. In Jacksonville, four black transgender women have been shot, three fatally, over a six-month period, ProPublica reported.

The number of transgender women being murdered is increasing, according to a recent report by the LGBT advocacy group, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.

In 2017, there were 27 “hate-violence related homicides” of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, the report said. In comparison, a total of 19 incidents were reported in 2016. Of the deaths in 2017, 22 were transgender women of color, the report said. The report does not take into account any increase in the number of individuals identifying as transgender.

Beyond disrespecting transgender victims, misidentifying them can also have a negative impact on investigations of attacks, Cox wrote, calling the situation “injustice on top of injustice.”

Monica Roberts, a transgender rights advocate and journalist, told ProPublica that deadnaming not only makes it harder for people in the community to identify the victim, but it also makes police appear untrustworthy.

“If Susie is murdered, don’t use ‘Sam,’” said Roberts, who has tracked the murders of transgender women for years.

Using information, usually from law enforcement sources, media outlets have also been known to both identify transgender victims by their “dead names” and refer to them as the incorrect gender. In the section of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report dedicated to remembering victims, 12 entries for transgender women included a note that they were misgendered by local media.

Most recently in July, Orlando media, citing a press release from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, described Sasha Garden, a transgender woman who was found dead, as a “man dressed as a woman,” and a “man in a wig,” according to the Orlando Weekly. Days later, the sheriff’s office issued a statement apologizing for how it identified Garden, WFTV 9 reported.

Misgendering and deadnaming are both threats to transgender people’s identities, according to an article published in the Advocate titled “10 Words Transgender People Want You to Know (But Not Say).”

According to the Advocate, misgendering “erases the trans person’s gender presentation,” while deadnaming “is seen as a verbally violent offense that attempts to invalidate a person’s authentic gender identity.”

In an April 2017 blog post titled “Say My Name,” one transgender woman wrote that the experience of being misgendered or deadnamed “can be completely draining to a trans person’s mental health and can trigger anxiety, depression and gender dysphoria.”

“As a trans woman, when I’m misgendered or deadnamed, I can have thoughts like, Ugh, I must not be expressing my gender well enough; Oh my God, I probably look like a man right now; I’ll never be pretty enough to be accepted as a woman; I may as well go back in the closet,” she wrote.

Monica Jones, a social worker and activist, told the Arizona Republic in February 2017 that using deadnames is a “degradation of life and erases us.”

“It’s sad because you think about what’s going to happen if you die or pass away,” Jones said. “How is your legacy going to be reported in the news? It’s all about our legacy and the things we want to leave behind.”

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