Chosen names are vital to transgender youth, per study

As chosen name use increases, depression and suicidality decrease.

A new study shows that transgender youth who are able to use their chosen name are less likely to commit suicide or experience depression. (CREDIT: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
A new study shows that transgender youth who are able to use their chosen name are less likely to commit suicide or experience depression. (CREDIT: KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)

A new study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health Friday adds to the overwhelming evidence that transgender young people benefit when their gender identities are respected. In particular, their mental health measurably improves when they are addressed by their chosen name throughout their lives.

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin interviewed transgender youths ages 15-21 in three cities in different parts of the country about their chosen name use, depressive symptoms, and suicidal thinking and behavior. Respondents indicated whether they were able to use their chosen name in different contexts, including at home, at school, at work, or with friends.

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The results showed a very clear link. For each additional context in which they could go by their chosen name, there was a 29 percent decrease in suicidal thoughts and a 56 percent decrease in suicidal behavior. That was even after the researchers controlled for factors like personal characteristics (like race/ethnicity, sexual identity, access to free lunch, or the differences between the three cities) and the impact of social support (from parents, friends, classmates, teachers, and their school).

“Depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior were at the lowest levels when chosen names could be used in all four contexts,” the study explains.

Stephen T. Russell, one of the researchers on the study, said the results were impressively demonstrative. “I’ve been doing research on LGBT youth for almost 20 years now, and even I was surprised by how clear that link was,” he said in a statement. “It’s practical to support young people in using the name that they choose. It’s respectful and developmentally appropriate.”

The results of this study support other research showing the importance of respecting transgender identities. For example, one study found that transgender youth identify as consistently and innately with their gender as other kids. When parents are supportive of their children’s gender identities, it virtually eliminates most mental health concerns.

Nevertheless, opponents of trans equality still recommend against respecting transgender people’s identities, arguing instead that they should be discouraged from transitioning at all.

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Moreover, they have tried to change the debate around respecting names and pronouns to claim that “free speech” is under attack. For example, California passed a law last year protecting LGBTQ elders in health care and retirement homes, as well as transgender people who might face discrimination by providers who intentionally and repeatedly refuse to address them by their preferred name or pronouns. Conservatives crowed that the law constituted “compelled speech” and violated the rights of those who reject the legitimacy of trans identities.

Reactions were similar in 2016 when the New York City Commission on Human Rights issued legal guidance indicating that “intentional or repeated refusal” to using a person’s preferred name or pronouns constituted unlawful discrimination under the city’s gender identity protections. UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh was livid about the new rule, protesting in the Washington Post, “I think we should all feel uncomfortable about government regulators forcing people to say things that convey and support the government’s ideology about gender.”

Volokh insisted that using a gender-neutral pronoun like “ze” — as some gender non-binary people use — was akin to being forced “to endorse the political message associated with that term.”