Several news outlets were met with fierce backlash on Tuesday after news broke that Supreme Court plaintiff Aimee Stephens died at the age of 59. Reports of her death published in The New York Times, The Guardian, Newsday, The Seattle Times, U.S. News and World Report, and The Detroit News, many of which were pulled from an Associated Press wire story, which initially referred to Stephens by her discarded legal name, a practice known as deadnaming.
Deadnaming has been widely discouraged by leading news agencies, even some of those mentioned above.
Stephens made national headlines in 2013 after suing her former employer, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes in Detroit, Michigan for anti-trans discrimination. She was fired after informing her bosses that she intended to begin transitioning at work. After a six-year legal battle, her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments last October. She will not live to see the outcome of her case, experiencing kidney failure after being transferred to in-home hospice care.
Tributes from LGBTQ advocates hailed Stephens as “a hero and a trailblazer.” Chase Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who served on ’ legal team, said the nation owes “her a debt of gratitude for her commitment to justice for all people.”
Brian Bond, executive director of the nationwide youth organization PFLAG, added that Stephens’ fight “will continue” as LGBTQ people “strive for equality for all, inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity.” “Aimee Stephens just wanted to continue to do the job she was hired to do, that she was good at, and that she was prepared to continue while living as her true gender,” he said in a statement.
But as the world gathered to honor a woman who fought tirelessly to be herself, critics accused some of the reporting on her death of undermining that struggle. The faux pas began to attract notice when Eliel Cruz, director of communications for the Anti-Violence Project, expressed frustration with the New York Times story in a tweet.
“There is no plausible explanation as to why her given name at birth needs to be included in this obituary,” he wrote.
Other LGBTQ journalists and advocates joined Cruz in questioning the decision to include Stephens’ deadname, given that it wasn’t relevant to how she lived her life. Zack Ford, press secretary for the Alliance for Justice and former LGBTQ editor at ThinkProgress, tweeted that referring to Stephens by her discarded legal name is “irresponsible and inexcusably offensive to her memory.”
“Why strip that bit of dignity away from her in death?” asked Ken Schenwke, an editor at ProPublica.
Following widespread outcry, the New York Times updated its story to remove Stephens’ deadname, along with an editors’ note at the bottom of the article. In a series of tweets, News Hub Editor Patrick LaForge clarified that the “first published version of the article [its] reporter wrote did not include the name” and it was “added later in an honest mistake by editors trying to interpret what [they] now realize is a confusing style rule for obituaries.”
“The standards desk is reviewing the guidance to make it clearer for editors on deadline,” LaForge wrote.
Although using an individual’s birth name might seem to be common practice in an obituary, style guides have long discouraged the use of deadnames in reporting on trans lives. The Associated Press Stylebook, for instance, recommends that reporters “use the name by which a transgender person now lives,” advising journalists to only use the subject’s former name if it is unavoidable.
Ironically, the deadnaming largely stemmed from the AP's own report on Stephens’s death. The AP told Vice on Thursday that it has since removed her deadname from the story after it was published.
The Society for Professional Journalists refers reporters and editors to the guidance on transgender people to a guide by the NLGJA, the association for LGBTQ journalists. It states: “In general, use the name and personal pronouns that are consistent with how the individual lives publicly. When unsure and if possible, ask what the subject prefers.”
The New York Times is the only outlet at the time of publication that has updated its story to remove Stephens’ deadname, despite multiple requests from LGBTQ advocates. In emails provided to VICE, Vivian Topping, director of advocacy and civic engagement at Equality Federation, reached out to The Detroit News to correct its coverage, and the outlet has not confirmed whether it intends to follow that recommendation. (The publication also did not return request for comment prior to publication time.)
“It is considered bad form to use [an individual’s deadname] without that person's express permission as using that name is an insult to the person's identity,” Topping wrote in the email chain. “I was so disappointed to see it used in a story about such an important woman in our history.”
The recent articles following Stephens’ death weren’t the first time that she has been misidentified in news reporting. Reuters, USA Today, The Associated Press, BBC, The Detroit News, CNN, Newsweek, and The New York Times have all referred to Stephens by her deadname in their prior reporting on her Supreme Court case, which is expected to receive a ruling in the coming days. Those stories have not been corrected.
The Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision will determine whether the estimated 9 million adults who identify as LGBTQ are entitled to job protections under federal civil rights laws. Currently, it’s legal in 28 states to fire someone or deny them employment for being queer or transgender.
UPDATE: The story was updated to reflect that the Associated Press removed Aimee Stephens's deadname from its original story.