Words Matter: Trans People, Suicide and ‘Deadnaming’

To mark World Suicide Prevention Day writer Michelle Green shares her thoughts about the recent suicide of a young trans boy, Leo Etherington, who died earlier this year and whose death was recently reported in the media.


This week we heard about the heartbreaking death of Leo Etherington, a young trans lad who committed suicide after his school refused to use his chosen name and acknowledge his gender identity. His family was fully supportive of his transition, but the school told him he could not legally change his name until he was 16 (which is not true), and so they would continue to refer to him by his old name until then.

After his death, the school released a statement of condolence that referred to Leo by his old name. The school received much criticism for this, and so they released a second statement in response, in which they again used his old name numerous times. Calling a trans person by their old name is known as ‘deadnaming’, with absolutely no hyperbole.

For years now I’ve read many, many articles and think pieces by high profile writers claiming that trans people are mentally ill, or attention seekers, or misogynists, or predators, or just too coddled and privileged to cope with real life. These attacks usually weave in claims that anyone who opposes this view is either delusional, or – here’s Julie Burchill’s favourite taunt – a simpering little snowflake who needs to wo/man up and stop inventing silly little names for anything but the two binary genders.*

The basis – and defence – of these diatribes is that words don’t matter. Sticks and stones and you know the rest. #freespeech

But here’s the thing: we’ve built our whole society on the assertion that words matter, and even more than that, that precision with words matters. It’s how you get married. It’s why we swear an oath in court, it’s the entire basis of international diplomacy, and it’s (one of the reasons) why Trump is so frightening. It’s why we don’t call every roughly spherical thing in the world ‘ball’. Precision. When I hear journalists, writers, broadcasters, bloggers, pundits, and talking heads repeatedly and vigorously claim that new terms for identifying diverse gender are invalid, including chosen names, I understand that to mean that words don’t matter, and that precision with words doesn’t matter. When they consistently use the wrong pronouns and couch their attacks on basic personhood as ‘debate’ – again, words don’t matter.

It’s entirely disingenuous for someone who makes their living with words to say that words don’t matter. If you don’t think words matter, stop writing. Stop talking, stop posting, publishing, speaking on panels debating whether or not trans people deserve to have their humanity recognised, stop filling the air with words. Stop lying. You know that words matter, and this week, we know that a child died, in part, because of words. I really cannot imagine how devastated his family and friends must be, and to have their grief publicly smeared with one of the weapons of death not once but twice… I don’t know what to say to that.

Words matter, and precision with words matters.


*This argument is frequently accompanied by an assertion that language doesn’t evolve and that meaning can never shift. Please see all of recorded history for rebuttals to this line of reasoning. So, in summary: words don’t matter, except when they do. That’s the argument. The takedown of transphobic language games has been done so well by so many, but as they don’t have Damehoods and national press gigs, you may not have had the chance to read or hear their work. If you want to find out more, you could start with Paris Lees, Janet Mock, and Julia Serano – all excellent.

–BY MICHELLE GREEN (http://www.michellegreen.co.uk/)



Photograph taken at the Transgender Day of Remembrance in Manchester, November 2016, by ‘Remember Me’ Research Fellow, Dr Louis Bailey, as part of his study ‘Who Were They? Trans Identities and Memorialisation’. More information about the study can be found here.



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