When I wrote the first book on the Upstairs Lounge fire, one of the survivors I interviewed was a trans woman. I was including childhood stories of the people involved in the fire to help readers see that these were real human beings, not statistics. But the trans woman wouldn’t tell me her birth name. I was confused. Wasn’t that former person still her? Weren’t the first 20 years of her life still part of her history? I’m sorry to say that I had no concept of "deadnaming" at the time. Perhaps it’s the worst analogy possible to advance racial justice, since so many folks who are insensitive to the continuing damage caused by racist naming are those least likely to respect transgender rights. But those of us do want to right wrongs must stop deadnaming our military bases by honoring Civil War leaders and white supremacists.
We’re resistant to name change in general. Some towns in England still bear Celtic names dating back over 2500 years, even though few residents know what the names mean anymore. For decades after St. Petersburg in Russia was renamed Petrograd, folks would often include the previous name when discussing the city: “Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg,…” And as soon as the Soviet Union was dissolved, the name of the city quickly reverted.
In the early 19th century, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hated being called Mormons. But the name persisted, and eventually, both Church leaders and the membership embraced it. There was even an official "I'm a Mormon!" campaign spearheaded by the Prophet and twelve apostles, along with a Church-sponsored video, Meet the Mormons. And then, without warning, a later president of the Church declared “Mormon” a slur and demanded an immediate transition to the “proper” name. Not even “Latter-day Saint” was appropriate any longer. The only acceptable term was “members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” And the T in “The” had to be capitalized.
White people aren’t refusing to remove statues honoring traitors because they’re committed history buffs who value education above all else.
It was a mouthful, and most people, even members themselves, refused to adapt. Others, who for years had gladly embraced the name Mormon, now suddenly started calling people out, saying the “M-word” was every bit as offensive as the N-word. Still, weeks and even months passed before the official Church website, Mormon.org, changed its name and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was renamed Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square.
Many of us remember the tedious way we had to refer to “the artist formerly known as Prince.” Some Hispanics want to be called Latinx. Some want to be called Hispanic. Some African Americans want to be called black. Some black people want to be called African American. It used to be OK to say “colored.” Now it’s not. But it is OK to say “people of color.”
Naming military bases after Confederates and white supremacists isn’t about semantics. It’s not about political correctness. These bases weren’t named before the Civil War. People aren’t resistant to changing the names just because they’re used to them. They’re not opposed because they want to “remember” history. There’s little chance folks in the South are going to forget the Civil War anytime soon. The “honor” of the Confederacy was drilled into me for years by my family in Mississippi.
White people aren’t refusing to remove statues honoring traitors because they’re committed history buffs who value education above all else. We can learn what we need to know about the Confederacy and Civil War from books, classes, museums, and documentaries. The reason so many white folks don’t want to stop deadnaming military bases is because they can’t accept that there is no justification for racism—they don’t want racism to be dead.
The young trans woman I interviewed who’d lost her partner in the Upstairs Lounge fire continued to set out his clothes every morning for weeks, knowing that if she stopped, she’d have to accept that he really wasn’t coming back.
There was immediate white outrage when a Confederate statue in Raleigh was "lynched," a piece of metal that was never alive. Yet many of these same folks refuse to acknowledge the long history of lynching non-white Americans. “Good” people don’t insist on idolizing statues of those who promoted a system of inhumanity and murder. “Good” people find ways to celebrate the good things in their culture, not the bad.
Valiant opposition to renaming our military bases after heroes on the right side of history is a continual endorsement of treason. If our feelings are hurt because we can no longer openly praise those who fought against the U.S., perhaps we’re yelling, “Go back to your country!” at the wrong folks. Americans who love America must not only “allow” but also insist we rename our military bases.