Let's talk about deadnaming trans people and why 'freedom of speech' isn't always the answer

When someone comes out as transgender, they will, in many cases, tell others what first name they would like to be called in the future. From then on, their birth name becomes irrelevant. Their name – the only one that matters – is the one they have chosen for themselves, which reflects their identity. Referring to a transgender person by their birth name, even after they have specified their chosen name, is known as “deadnaming”. The practice is widely considered to be extremely disrespectful, harmful, and, in the words of actress Laverne Cox, “the ultimate insult”.

Yet despite these commonly understood principles, there are some places where transgender people’s birth names continue to be made publicly known. Among them is IMDb, the massive entertainment industry information database.

On Wednesday, GLAAD and other LGBT+ advocacy groups joined a legal push by SAG-AFTRA, the prominent Hollywood union, to prevent the platform from publishing transgender performers’ birth names if they don’t want that information to be known. Their effort is tied with a 2017 law that was initially meant to bar IMDb from listing actors and actresses’ birth dates (in order to avoid age discrimination). That law was struck in 2018 by a judge on the basis that it was unconstitutional because of the First Amendment. Now, SAG-AFTRA, GLAAD, the Transgender Law Center, the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, Transcend Legal, Inc., and Equality Federation are focusing on the publication of performers’ birth names and pushing for the law to be enforced.

Transgender people listed on IMDb (the website is mainly known for its focus on the entertainment industry, but many prominent people are profiled on it) have reportedly struggled to prevent their birth names from appearing on the platform. Representatives for two transgender actors, speaking anonymously, told IndieWire in April that they had failed to get birth names removed from IMDb despite what the website called “extensive lobbying from management, representatives at one of the top three Hollywood agencies, and GLAAD”.

Nick Adams, director of transgender representation at GLAAD, told The New York Times that the organisation has been advocating for years for IMDb not to publicise transgender people’s birth names. A dedicated Reddit thread, apparently started by a transgender person trying to break into the entertainment industry, asked six months ago: “What can we do about IMDb deadnaming us?” “I’ve been trying to get mine sorted out for years and there’s no one to talk to, no help, the process is confusing, the FAQ’s suck,” one person responded. “It’s just a mess all round.”

“GLAAD had direct discussions with IMDb years ago around this issue and several LGBTQ organizations and leaders have since spoken out in public or to IMDb directly. (GLAAD was not alone in trying to make this change). IMDb has refused to make the change,” Rich Ferraro, GLAAD’s chief communications officer, told The Independent.

IMDb told The Independent when contacted for comment that it “is committed to being the most authoritative and complete source of film, TV and celebrity information”. “When we become aware via our standard data contribution methods that an individual has changed their gender and/or name, we use the new gender and/or name on their page and credits,” the IMDb spokesperson added. “For productions they previously worked on, their credited name is also available in parentheses, in order to accurately reflect what was listed on-screen.”

The implication appears to be that if someone transitions before the start of their career, then only their chosen name will be displayed in their IMDb profile – but those who scored work credits before their transition might not be granted the same respect. A section on IMDb’s website warns users that “IMDb will not remove accurate information”, adding: “If you try to delete an item of data which is accurate, your delete will not be processed.”

Right now, the birth names of several prominent transgender people (whom I will not name, since I have no desire to help anyone find their deadnames) are displayed on IMDb in a section titled “birth name”, as is the case for celebrities who are not trans.

Look, I am a journalist. I am, broadly speaking, in favour of letting people print what they want, when they want (with some caveats, but that is a story for another day and another tweetstorm). But we have a saying in my home country of France: “One person's freedom stops where the freedom of another begins”. In other words: sure, platforms such as IMDb, more often than not, should be free to publish what they want – but not when it impedes on people’s freedom to live life on their own terms.

I don’t believe that IDMb (and by extension, Amazon, IMDb’s parent company)’s right to publish (and profit from) other people’s private information trumps transgender people’s right to be called by their chosen name.

It is widely known that referring to a transgender person by their birth name is not to be done. GLAAD’s media guidelines point out that “many people use names they have chosen for themselves, and the media does not mention their birth name when writing about them, (eg, Lady Gaga, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg)”, urging others to extend the same respect to transgender people. And yes, all three women’s birth names are listed on IMDb, since the website’s policy doesn’t differentiate between trans and cis people – which is exactly the problem here. Even Twitter, who doesn’t always nurture the healthiest dialogue on its platform, has formally banned deadnaming as part of its hateful conduct policy.

Transgender people, especially transgender people of colour, are disproportionately affected by hate-motivated violence, as GLAAD points out on its website. A 2018 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed heightened rates of suicidal behaviour among transgender adolescents, especially transgender boys and nonbinary youth.

All this is to say: transgender people already face plenty of hurdles as it stands. There’s no need to create additional ones by denying them basic respect. They deserve to be in control of their identity, online and in the real world; in many cases, those are identities which they have fought huge battles to have recognised.

Companies such as IMDb don’t have to wait until the law forces them to do the right thing. It’s within their power to do it now. Why wait?