Why It Matters That We Call People by Their Names


by Maurice Gattis, PhD, and Archana A. Pathak, PhD

     What’s in a name? More than many of us may consciously realize. Names capture the essence of who we are. They represent our identity or, at least, they do for some people but not everyone. Imagine hearing others call you by a name that is supposed to be “you,” that they may even insist is “you,” but that you know in your heart is not you. The importance of appropriate pronouns is something that is becoming more widely acknowledged, but not everyone may realize that chosen names matter just as much. They matter, moreover, not only for the transgender and nonbinary communities but also for people in a variety of situations for whom a legal name or birth name may not be their true chosen name.

     Unfortunately, because the importance of calling people by their chosen names is not discussed as widely as the importance of correct pronouns, even organizations and individuals who wish to be supportive of chosen names may not know how to go about putting this into practice. This is why it helps to implement organization-wide systems that enhance processes to build more just systems. One example of this has been the Call Me By My Name initiative at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), which offers a pragmatic model for how to put such a system in place wherein the burden is lifted from the shoulders of the most impacted where it usually rests.

The Beginning of a New Movement

     At the center of VCU’s Call Me By My Name initiative is a new functionality added to the school’s existing IT system. Three fields were added to the interface entry point for all users, be they students, staff, or faculty: name/name of use, gender/gender identity, and pronouns. When any VCU student or employee fills in these fields—which is entirely optional and no one is forced to use the feature—the information becomes easily accessible to the entire university community, and it also feeds over into other digital platforms being used at the university.  

     Articulating the vision for this initiative was made possible by the U.S. Department of Education’s clarification, in 2016, of the rights of transgender students under Title IX—namely that they are protected by it and have the right to equal educational opportunities, as well as access to spaces consistent with their gender identity. Those who were working to improve equity at our university wanted to use this as an opportunity to go beyond abstract concepts of equal access and to actually operationalize it. Underpinning this push was the basic, underlying assumption that when you serve those who are systematically excluded, everybody benefits in a way akin to Dean Spade’s idea of “trickle up social justice.” 

The Benefits of Using Correct Names

     The minority stress model posits that sexual and gender minority populations regularly experience certain unique stressors that others do not have to experience (and therefore may not understand). One of the unique stressors that transgender and nonbinary students experience on a daily or near-daily basis is nonaffirmation, or being addressed by deadnames and incorrect pronouns. Added to this is the emotional labor, another unique stressor, of constantly explaining to others why their legal name is not their chosen name, and what their chosen name actually is. Often, this may fall on uncomprehending or even spiteful ears, further adding to the stress. And then to have to repeat this process in every applicable situation, with each person, can amount to a considerable amount of stress which, in an educational environment, can impede learning. This experience is exponentially heightened for trans and nonbinary people of color who also experience racial microaggressions and discriminatory behavior in general. These behaviors have been found to negatively impact learning and job performance.

      A system like this allows people to not have to continuously explain themselves in terms of name, gender, and pronouns. As mentioned, the benefits of serving those systemically excluded trickle upward, and people who are not necessarily trans or nonbinary but whose legal names do not represent their identity either also benefit from the initiative. Among people who might fall under this description are those of non-Western cultures that don’t share the same naming conventions, people whose names have been anglicized and who wish to revert them to their original forms, or people who use names other than their legal names. To date, approximately 41 percent of employees and students have utilized the fields. Of course, no system can be perfect, and thus this initiative continues to evolve in keeping with the conversation. Participants can also offer feedback and suggestions to improve the system itself.

Taking It Beyond Higher Education

     In addition to benefiting diverse populations, the applications of a systematized platform for indicating chosen names and pronouns go far beyond educational settings. Consider the far-reaching benefits for companies, for example, particularly in an age when young people increasingly expect to see companies demonstrate their values, not just talk about them. This would also be very appropriate to implement in any type of organization or field that serves diverse  populations, such as healthcare and social work. It is not even necessary to rely on technology if a system upgrade is currently out of reach. A few simple fields could be added to non-digital forms and paperwork, for instance.  

     Far too often, organizations may vocalize values about equity, inclusion, and non-discrimination that exist only as abstract concepts. Creating usable systems that provide built-in, accessible ways for people to designate their chosen names and pronouns removes a chronic source of stress and emotional labor for systemically excluded  populations, and it also makes day-to-day work easier for the organizations that work with these populations (that is to say, all organizations). Particularly as an increasing number of organizations use DEI-oriented language in their statements and literature, it becomes all the more imperative for them to back up their stated values with action.

Maurice Gattis, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Social Work and Senior Advisor to the Queer Research and Advocacy Center (Q Collective) at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Archana A. Pathak, PhD, is a diasporic feminist scholar-activist who examines issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, and scientific imperialism from a social justice perspective. She currently serves as the Interim Director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Queer Research and Advocacy Center (Q Collective) and as Special Assistant for Programs and Initiatives in the Office of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness, and Success. She is also an associate professor in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies.

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