What’s in a Name? A Lot. Just Ask Transgender Youth

5 min read  |  April 26, 2018  | 

How important is hearing your preferred name when being addressed? It can be “the sweetest and most important sound in any language,” said noted trainer, author, and presenter Dale Carnegie.

And that holds true with the name that young transgender individuals prefer to be called, according to new research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Study participants included 129 transgender and gender-nonconforming youth ages 15 to 21 from three U.S. cities. Researchers assessed chosen name use and acceptance in multiple settings, and its effect, if any, on risks for depression, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior. Respondents who reported using their chosen name in all settings reported 71 percent fewer severe depression symptoms, 34 percent fewer thoughts of suicide, and 65 percent fewer suicide attempts.

“This research is important because it confirms to some people what common sense should already tell us,” says Lauren Foster, director of LGBTQ Concierge Services, part of the University of Miami Health System. “We all, no matter our sexual or gender identity, want to be recognized by the name we associate with and are proud of.”

The Harm of “Deadnaming”

Foster explains that for transgender individuals, use of a preferred name goes beyond that, however. Selecting a new name is a pronouncement and affirmation of one’s gender identity. It is an often pivotal step in the transition process. It is also a step rife with potential friction.

“When a person’s ‘dead name’ is used, the birth name one has publicly chosen to change, it can be accidental. Too often, though, it is done with intent.”

“It is the equivalent for some of hearing, ‘We don’t support your transition, and we are not going to go along with it.’ And that can be a demeaning and depressing time. Especially if it is coming from people close to you. It is also a type of  harassment if the intent to harm is clearly there.”

Suicide Risks Highlighted

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also reported increased suicide trends in a widely recognized 2014 study. The researchers found that 41 percent of transgender individuals attempt to take their own lives at some point, compared with 4.6 percent of the general public. Attempts were highest among transgender young adults aged 18 to 24. Respondents thought about suicide 14 times more than their peers in the general population.

This March, the suicide of 17-year-old Eric Peter Verbeeck in Key Biscayne, Florida, made the issue hit home again. Verbeeck was planning to use the name Hope after her transition. She was an honors student, accepted at 11 colleges (many with scholarships) and a patient of UHealth’s LGBTQ Center for Wellness, Gender and Sexual Health.

Verbeeck left a note, according to the Miami Herald story on March 14, with instructions on how she wanted to be remembered: “I would like to be remembered as a transgender pansexual teenage girl named Hope. Being transgender is my gender identity. My sexual orientation, or sexual identity, is being pansexual, meaning that I do not care about what the person is; I care about who they are. Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with and gender identity is who you go to bed as.”

Support Leads to Affirmation and Prevention

Foster reflects on the incident, having spent time with Verbeeck and so many other young adults and adolescents.

“Most of us realize at age 4 or 5 who we are. We may not know ‘what’ this feeling is yet at a young age, but we know we feel different from our friends. So it can be very scary,” she says.

How can friends, co-workers and others help?

“The best approach is to be supportive,” explains Foster.

“Transgender youth and young adults with a solid, accepting and loving network behind them have the least risk for considering or attempting suicide.”

Serving Medical and Psychological Needs

UHealth’s LGBTQ Center for Wellness, Gender and Sexual Health offers supportive, comprehensive care for body and mind, too. Patients receive individualized care, including routine physicals, mental health and psychosocial support. The medical team includes adolescent medicine physicians, urologists, gynecologists, and a range of plastic surgeons.

“On the medical side, the care provided is above and beyond the norm for those seeking out transgender reassignment options,” adds Foster. “We are in a university hospital, with the most experienced professionals. We looked at the unfortunate ‘one night ambulatory surgery’ option and said, let’s do it right. So our patients receive care for 10 days, plus all follow-up assistance.”

One of the other important efforts in her kit? Providing transgender sensitivity training sessions for new medical residents.

“All doctors, regardless of discipline, will treat patients including transgender individuals,” says Foster. “This includes a spectrum of people, in different stages of this process. By talking about these associated issues, and how best to support their patients on all sides of care, we know we are making a difference now and for the future. Others are following our lead, and we’re making progress each day.”

To find out more, or to set up an appointment at the LGBTQ Center for Wellness, Gender and Sexual Health, call 305-243-4500 or e-mail [email protected].

John Senall is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog. He is a former hospital and comprehensive cancer center communications director.

Tags: gender, Gender and Sexual Health, Lauren Foster, LGBTQ Center for Wellness, LGBTQ Concierge Services, transgender reassignment

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