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A trans academic asked her publishers to change her name on her past works. They all refused

Vic Parsons July 27, 2020
One trans academic's mission not to be deadnamed in her own research

Stock image of a female academic. (Envato/poungsaed_eco)

When Theresa Jean Tanenbaum changed her name last summer, she realised she was now deadnamed in two decades worth of professional accomplishments.

A trans woman who transitioned in her 40s, Tanenbaum is a designer and scholar of human-computer interactions who’s been published in dozens of journals.

Not only was her deadname a traumatic reminder of her past, in her own words, but having new work published in her correct name meant she would lose the continuous record of her life’s work.

“I was faced with what felt like an impossible choice: to abandon past work, or accept that I would never escape an identity that for decades had felt like a prison,” Tanenbaum writes for Nature.

So, she decided on a third path: she would contact her past publishers, a total of 15 legal entities that are responsible for 87 different publications, and ask them to update their records.

But Tanenbaum immediately encountered a problem: none of the 83 academic publications she had published research with would agree to change her name in their digital archives.

A year on, and Tanenbaum explains why this refusal is so dangerous.

“Public connections between my name and my deadname put me in the way of other, more concrete harms,” she wrote for Nature – a journal published by Springer Nature, which was one of those that refused to update her name.

“Fifteen countries criminalise the gender identity or expression of trans people — a crime that in some cases carries the death penalty.

“And until the Supreme Court ruling [making it illegal to fire workers for being gay or trans], at least 20 US states did not protect transgender individuals against employment discrimination. Even when the law protects us, de facto discrimination remains real.”

Though she was initially refused, Tanenbaum has been persistent. The Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) Digital Library, which is the largest scholarly repository of computing, is where most of her work is published.

Digging into their name-change policies, Tanenbaum got in touch – and the ACM board agreed to set up a working group, consisting of her, board members and three other trans scholars, to look into tackling the issue of drafting an inclusive name-change policy.

There were more problems ahead. One of these, Tanenbaum writes, is that cis people object to trans people updating their names because of an “insinuation that the request is a form of deceit or fraud”.

But in fact, Tanenbaum says, it’s the opposite.

After 16 months, the working group have an inclusive name-change policy approved by lawyers and voted through by the rest of the ACM board.

“The plan is for the ACM to update all publicly accessible digital materials related to an author whose name has been changed,” Tanenbaum explains, with the caveat that a previous version remains available in a separate repository, in case of legal challenges regarding the work.

Tanenbaum concludes: “When implemented, it will be, to my knowledge, a first in the publishing world: a trans-inclusive approach to retroactively changing author names on public records.

“These changes will not completely solve the problem of being deadnamed, outed and misgendered. However, it could make the often traumatic, frustrating and dehumanising process of transitioning less fraught.

“That will allow people like me to spend more time doing the scholarship that we’re trained to do, and less time fighting to be called by our names.”

More: Association of Computing Machinery, deadname, misgendering, nature journal, springer nature, Theresa Jean Tanenbaum, trans-inclusive policy, transition

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