A minor question about transgender nomenclature and etiquette.
March 21, 2014 9:25 AM   Subscribe

A former distant colleague of mine is a trans woman. I'm pretty clear on the importance of not misgendering people, but I'm running into one or two slightly awkward practical issues in making sure I don't screw that up.

By way of background: I met her once (I'll call her Sarah) about 15 years ago, before she transitioned and she was presenting as male (let's say her name was then Simon). Not surprisingly, I assumed she was a cis man, however incorrect that later turned out to be. Some years later I discovered that Simon was now Sarah, and that Sarah is now quite well known in an unrelated discipline. Her identity as a trans woman is quite relevant to her new work, but it's not especially central to the work she used to do in my field. Or, at least, no more relevant than it is to any other aspect of life.

The main issue...

All of her work in my area is published under the name Simon, and I occasionally have reason to talk about this work (and my opinions about it) to my students. In the absence of any knowledge of what her preferences would be (and I really don't feel that it's appropriate for me -- someone she doesn't know -- to randomly contact her to ask), I'm a little unclear on how best to discuss her work. As I see it, the options are

(a) The first time it comes up with a new student, explicitly mention that Simon is now Sarah, and refer to her by the correct pronoun. It sounds weird to refer to work by "Simon" using the pronoun "her", but that's no big deal. That part doesn't seem all that different with someone's maiden name if they chose to change their name after marriage.

The part that feels frustrating is that I'm calling attention to the fact that she is transgender, in a context in which her gender identity isn't relevant. The quality and consequence of her work in my field is entirely unrelated to her gender identity, but I feel like I unintentionally end up linking the two because I first say something about the fact that she is trans (in order to explain the pronouns), and then immediately go on to comment on aspects of the work that I like and aspects I don't like.

(b) Don't call attention to it. As much as possible, don't use gender pronouns and refer to her using her surname, and don't correct students when they misgender her.

This seems much worse. Yes, it has the advantage of not linking her gender identity to her (now rather old) work in this field, but I feel like I'm contributing to a rather pervasive bias in my field (i.e., ignore everyone who isn't a white middle class cis male like me, and then remain blithely ignorant of the fact we're doing so). This makes me really uncomfortable, because I feel like I'm erasing a trans woman from the field, even if she wasn't publicly identifying as such when she was in our field.

(c) Try to play it both ways. When the topic first comes up, casually mention that Simon is now Sarah, use the correct pronouns but don't make a big deal about it, and try to keep the student on topic.

I sort of like this option. I don't think I'm the best person to be teaching Transgender 101, nor is my office the best place for that conversation. But I want it to be clear from context that even though I don't want to talk about the private lives of other academics, I don't misgender and I implicitly expect the same from my students. Unfortunately, it's something I don't pull off all that well. Option (c) turns into option (a) about 80% of the time, because I'm just not that socially skilled.

An ancillary issue...

As a side note, I find that I tie myself in knots whenever I'm talking anecdotally about my now-very-dated interactions with her. Specifically, I occasionally have reasons to refer to what *I* was thinking when I saw her talk about topic X. When I thought those thoughts at the time, they were of the form "I think he's wrong about X because Y". But now that language feels wrong because even though she presented as male, I have to assume that she almost certainly felt female all along, in which case "she" ought to be the right pronoun regardless of what I knew at that time. I feel like the right thing to do is just retroactively edit out my misgendering (entirely understandable as it was given the lack of any cues) and just say "she", but it does feel weird given that I'm visualising a middle aged cis male when I draw on my memory of those times. But I should just suck it up and use what I now know to be the right pronoun, yes? It's not exactly a terrible burden.

Okay. That felt long. What I'm specifically asking is this... given that I can't reasonably ask her what her preferences are, what should I assume as my default behaviour if and when this comes up next? I *feel* like the right thing to do is: on the main topic, pursue option (c) above, and on the ancillary issue, just edit out the incorrect pronouns. But I'm not exactly convinced that the intuitions of a white cis straight middle class male nerd are the best ones to go by, no matter how well intentioned. To that end I'd appreciate any comments or suggestions as to how I should approach this situation. I'm pretty happy to change my tack if the general consensus from trans folk is that there's a better way to do this.

[The question is anonymous because my MeFi account in theory allows me to be identified, and my field is small enough that she could potentially be identified if you know my field and my nationality. Throwaway email: probablyoverthinkingit@gmail.com]
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
On the contrary, I think that you should absolutely email her and ask her what her preferences are in this regard. It isn't rude at all to ask someone how they would prefer to be addressed. She's probably handled this situation before.
posted by woodvine at 9:33 AM on March 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

If I really didn't want to reach out ans ask her then I would go with (a) with a slight variation. I would just always call he Sarah and refer to her as a her and then mention (or put on the handout or something) that Sarah Smith's work is published under the name Simon Smith.

If anyone asks why her work is published under a different name I would just do a really brief explanation at that time but most people will figure that out just from the changing of the name from male to female.
posted by magnetsphere at 9:34 AM on March 21, 2014 [11 favorites]

While there are some defaults, none of them are as important as the preferences of the person you are dealing with, if they can be known.

I co-authored a book with a man who is transgender. The cover of our book has his former name on it and I refer to it (and him) occasionally professionally. We've spoken about it a bit, not much. What's come out of our conversations is that while I might think I'm doing the polite thing by downplaying or not mentioning the fact that he is trans, he'd much prefer that information be out there even if it means a few awkward questions. So I do something very similar as magnetsphere did above "Published under the name..." if I need to refer to his former name at all.

I should just suck it up and use what I now know to be the right pronoun, yes?

Unless she has told you otherwise, yes. If she's discussing her trans* identity publicly in her work presently, getting in touch to ask is appropriate. Awkward for you, worth it to be able to do the right thing.
posted by jessamyn at 9:37 AM on March 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Since you know this person, can you reach out and pose this question directly? It should be OK to just ask, "How do you prefer your earlier work to be attributed? How do you prefer to be referred to over the broad course of your career? Can you give me any pointers on pronoun use and the likewhen discussing your work in a classroom context?"
posted by Sara C. at 9:41 AM on March 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have to assume that she almost certainly felt female all along

I don't think you can, or should, assume this. That being said, I don't see how you can go wrong with erring on the side of using her currently chosen pronoun even to refer to her past endeavors.

I think that the risk of bringing her personal life into the professional sphere by "outing" her to folks is outweighed by the benefit to society of having her tranness be visible, but also not the reason why she's being discussed. I would probably avoid correcting other people's use of pronouns for her, but if you keep calling her "her", people will catch on.

So I vote (c), but really if this is something that comes up often enough about this person that you feel concerned, I would honestly just reach out and ask. Point her to this AskMe even if you want.
posted by sparklemotion at 9:47 AM on March 21, 2014

I think you should ask. I've seen academics who are super publicly out about being trans, and at the other end of the spectrum, I've seen a trans woman comment about what I'm pretty darn sure is actually her own prior work (published by someone with the same last name) "so-and-so is a distant cousin and I took over his work" or something. From what you describe, I doubt your former colleague takes the latter approach, but asking can't hurt.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:01 AM on March 21, 2014

I would tend to disagree with those who are suggesting you ask her. You met her once 15 years ago--presumably because you were both at the same conference. It's about as tenuous a connection as can be imagined. Are we really to suppose that every single person in her profession who teaches her work should be writing to her pestering her about how her old work should be referred to in class? I mean, if she were specifically a trans activist or a blogger or something that might seem reasonable, but then if she were either of those things her attitudes would also already be public knowledge. In the absence of such a public profile, there's every reason to suppose that she just wants to get on with living her life and not to constantly have the fact of her transition thrown in her face.

I do wonder, though, if you have any closer colleagues who work with her? There's a good chance that she's had this conversation--or some form of it--with her colleagues and if you know any of them well enough for it not to be intrusive to ask that might be a way to find out without potentially troubling her.

That said, in the absence of any clear guidance of that kind, I think your option C sounds pretty reasonable.
posted by yoink at 10:11 AM on March 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just refer to the last name (e.g. McCloskey).
posted by jjmoney at 10:20 AM on March 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

As far as the ancillary issue goes, I think the default desired behavior is to refer to the past events using "her" and "Sarah", even though she was presenting differently at that time. You don't have to report the exact text of the thoughts you had as you had them then. Say you were explaining this in another language -- it wouldn't be wrong to say that you thought she was wrong in the language you were presently speaking in, even though when you had the thought you were not thinking in that language. Same sort of deal. At least IMHO.

If you're dealing with describing encounters that kind of intrinsically out her -- say, "back when she and I were in the US Navy SEALs together" or some such, then it gets a little awkward, but it doesn't sound like your interactions contained much of that. You'd still use the same pronouns in that case, though.
posted by sparktinker at 10:21 AM on March 21, 2014

What I've seen done (in a non-scientific context but regarding a body of published work both before and after transition) is to use the correct pronoun and the last name rather than the first name, with an explanation of the change in the first name if necessary to avoid confusion. This only works if Sarah did not change her last name, of course.

So if Sarah's last name was Smith, then you would say something like "In her 2002 paper, Smith argued in support of the XYZ theory." If students use the wrong pronoun or seem confused, then explain that Smith is a woman and changed her name.

Scientists are usually referred to by their last names anyway, so this seems like an easy solution.
posted by jedicus at 10:25 AM on March 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Are we really to suppose that every single person in her profession who teaches her work should be writing to her pestering her about how her old work should be referred to in class?

Here's a thought -- does Sarah have a website? Is it possible that there's an FAQ of some sort, a note in a "bio" section, or even other writing about herself that will illustrate for you how she prefers to be referred to?

Even if she has a website with a CV or list of publications, it would be illustrative to see exactly how she refers to the Simon stuff.
posted by Sara C. at 10:33 AM on March 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'd ask. Simply because unless someone can Google Simon and know that they are transgender you shouldn't be outing that person at all. It is their choice. There may be reasons the work was purposefully left to represent the author as male regardless of her identity. However it could have just been a pain to change so she left it that way and doesn't mind people knowing at all.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:43 AM on March 21, 2014

It sounds like Sarah is someone you know reasonably well. Ask her.

We probably don't share a subject, but there's a similar situation in my area. I'd just keep aiming for option (c). If you're talking one-on-one with a student (which is what it sounds like, rather than discussing Sarah's work in a lecture), just call her 'she' if you need a pronoun and if the student's all "Huh?" you can say "She's called Sarah now." (That's the script for plan (c).)

I think that the risk of bringing her personal life into the professional sphere by "outing" her to folks is outweighed by the benefit to society of having her tranness be visible, but also not the reason why she's being discussed.

A thousand times, no. This logic assumes that random cis people (sorry anon, but you're a random person here) get to decide when it's "good enough" to out someone. You don't get to decide when someone else is obligated to benefit society.
posted by hoyland at 10:55 AM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, oops, I misread and she isn't someone you know. Anyway, you're in a position of authority. "She's a she" will get the job done. (Actually, contrary to the comment I just wrote, if her current name is irrelevant to your students, you needn't mention it, especially if that's where you feel you get ramblely.)
posted by hoyland at 10:58 AM on March 21, 2014

It sounds like Sarah is someone you know reasonably well.

I'm not sure where people are getting this idea. Sarah is described as "a former distant colleague" whom the OP met "once...about 15 years ago."
posted by yoink at 10:58 AM on March 21, 2014

I'm going to try and clarify my answer, because I've seemingly said two contradictory things (that you mention her current name and move on and that it's not okay to out people 'for the good of society'). The general rule in life is "don't out people". You may inevitably sort of out her via pronouns or using her name, but, for me anyway, leaving open the possibility that she's not trans and changed her name for whatever other reason stays on the other side of that line, at least in situations where you'd have to go to pains to avoid connecting the two names. People will either assume she's trans and you'll have demonstrated it isn't a big deal or people will think "She probably got fed up with people assuming she was a bloke and changed her name." without assuming she's trans.
posted by hoyland at 11:19 AM on March 21, 2014

Hi. I've given a few "trans cultural competency" talks and our advice has been to ask the trans person what their preferences are regarding name and pronoun usage.

If you asked me about what I would prefer when referring to my pre-transition professional activities in a similar situation, my own inclination would be the OP's "Option C" without specifically mentioning that the author is trans and changed her name to Sarah. (Which actually, now that I read it, kind of sounds like "Option B".) But I am one trans woman, whose transgender status is very apparent from my LinkedIn profile (I have my old first name listed as my "maiden" name), and I have no expectation of ever being "stealth".

It seems that Sarah's work isn't the focus of the OP's interaction with the students, so there are ways to talk about her work without specifically broadcasting that she transitioned. But this is all my own personal preference for me (given my own attitudes and transition status), and I can easily think of an example of a friend who would have different attitudes.

Personally, if one of my old colleagues called me up out of the blue and said, "Hey, I'm giving a talk on the old Bardfargle case you and I worked on a decade ago, and I'm passing out the brief you wrote. This is kind of awkward for me, since that's not your current name. How do you want me to handle it?" I'd be tickled to have that email land in my inbox. But again, my trans status is easily discernible from LinkedIn and elsewhere.

Incidentally, regarding OP's side note -- I think the dilemma of what pronouns to use when talking about prior interactions comes up often in the context of ex-spouses and parents. (I very vaguely remember a contentious online discussion about that, which may have been here on the green.) My mom still talks about "things he did when growing up" and it grates me, a bit. I've asked my mom to try to watch the pronouns there, but it's not easy. So, uh...it could be worse? So, yes, definitely -- if you were asking me what I would prefer for myself, I would agree with "suck it up and use the right pronouns".

One last thing -- I have a friend who, in her resume and when citing her previous scientific publications, cites them as "Smith, J (nee W)". I'm pretty sure that's consistent with how articles are cited when an author marries and changes her last name.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 12:31 PM on March 21, 2014

There are women who have names that are usually male names. If I had a teacher who referred to a Simon constantly as "she", I would just assume Simon was a woman with an unusual name. It probably wouldn't have occurred to me that she might be trans, unless you linked her past work with her new work under the name Sarah, and it sounds like you don't need to do that.

So if you aren't comfortable emailing her and asking about her preferences, I'd just go with using her last name and "she", and assuming that students are not going to be confused by the name "Simon" if they see it in a reference list. If a student asks, I think you could either say "Yes, Simon is a woman", or "Simon is trans and is now called Sarah", and that either of those options would be okay.

But I do think it woudl be better to email. Unless she is super famous in her old academic field, she might be flattered to know you are using her work in the classroom, anyway.
posted by lollusc at 7:06 PM on March 21, 2014

Would "S. [Lastname]" work?
posted by vapidave at 8:01 PM on March 21, 2014

Even if she's a total stranger--so what? Ask! Ask ask ask ask ask. If you feel uncomfortable asking, get someone else to email her for you or something. The only really respectful way for a cis person, especially, to handle it is to not assume that anybody other than the individual involved is going to be the authority on how that person wants their earlier life to be regarded. Fifty years from now, there will probably be conventions for this. For the time being, there aren't. Just send an email: Hey, I'm teaching a class on this and we reference your earlier work, but it's all published under your old name. Would you like me to reference your proper name/gender in class?

Trans issues are complicated. Among the reasons they are complicated is that trans women are at an astronomically higher risk of violence for their gender identity. I'm not saying that identifying her in your class is most likely a risky behavior, but please let her be the one to decide how much she wants exposed in that setting. That is not your call to make.
posted by Sequence at 1:01 AM on March 22, 2014

(Speaking as someone who has done some academic editing) Nthing asking, in particular in this situation, and she has probably been asked if she published in her previous field and publishes now, and there is any crossover whatsoever. Particularly as you said "Her identity as a trans woman is quite relevant to her new work...", I would think she has thought about it and might have a canned answer.

That comment also suggests that you would not be "outing" her as trans, but if there's ambiguity there, obviously do not.
posted by sarahkeebs at 10:01 PM on March 25, 2014

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