AUSTIN, Texas — Kimberly Shappley and her family are new to town and to the school district. Her 7-year-old daughter Kai is transgender.

  • Study says using youth's chosen name reduces risk of suicide
  • Hospitals, financial institutions and schools must play a role

“One of the biggest reasons that we had to leave our old school district was the consistency in which they continued to use her dead name,” Shappley said. “Dead name means that was her name that I gave her at birth.”

That dead name would be seen on all of Kai’s accounts and files. Other students would keep asking her about it. Shappley said Kai would have to constantly explain to her peers what transgender means and felt the adults around her should have done more to protect her. 

“For Kai, being reminded of her old name, she would be sad, she tell me how hard it was for her to have to tell her friends who Joseph was or what the name Joseph means,” said Shappley, who is also the faith outreach coordinator for Equality Texas. The organization works to secure equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Texans. 

A recent study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that if transgender youth choose a new name that is different from the one give at birth, it is important for family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances to use it. Researchers said doing so reduces the risk of  depression and suicide. The rates are high among trans youth.

“Many kids who are transgender have chosen a name that is different than the one that they were given at birth,” said Dr. Stephen Russell in a press release. Russell is the author of the study and a professor and chair of human development and family science at UT. “We showed that the more contexts or settings where they were able to use their preferred name, the stronger their mental health was.”

For almost 30 years, Out Youth has been a second home for many LGBTQ teenagers and young adults. The nonprofit said the data validates their advocacy. 

“One of the most basic, human needs and desires is to be seen as who we are. If a person comes to you and says, this is who I am, we just believe that. We don’t have right to tell them otherwise,” said Kathryn Gonzales, Out Youth’s operations and programs director. “Oftentimes when we talk about using a person’s chosen name, we get a little bit of pushback. I invite folks to examine why that might be.” 

Out Youth supports LGBTQ youth and their allies through its drop-in center, library, individual counseling, facilitated discussion circles, and health and safer sex training among other services and programs. 

“For them to come into a space where we say, ‘not only do we know that you’re exploring who you are, we want to be there on that journey with you,’ is one of the most loving and caring things that we can do. To do otherwise would be cruel and disrespectful,” Gonzales said. 

UT academics said workplaces, hospitals, financial institutions and schools have to role to play when it comes to affirming gender identity. Shappley sees that Kai is starting to becoming her authentic self at her new school district.  

“She came home so excited to tell me about her day,” Shappley said. “Every day is like another milestone that I see her changing and healing.”