No Good Options: When Your Name Change Indicates a Gender Change

Today’s post is the second in a three-part series here at Tenure, She Wrote exploring the complexity of name changes and choices in academia.

When you’re trans, getting your name changed is a huge ordeal. You have to file it with the court, have it published for x amount of time in a local newspaper, hopefully get it approved by the court, then deal with social security, banks, DMVs, the lot. It’s a pain and very bureaucratic, but there are processes to follow. The same isn’t true for an academic publication record, particularly for those of us who transition later in our careers.

Your publication list is a huge part of academic life, and if you transition after having some manuscripts published you have to face a choice on every CV and every grant application from that point forward: Include past publications under an old name and risk discrimination for being trans, or leave out past publications under an old name and risk not getting the job or grant for seeming like you don’t have enough experience. It’s a catch-22, and right now there are no good answers.

Percentage of trans people who have lost their job because they're trans, based on gendered demographics (MTF = trans women, FTM = trans men, GNC = gender non-conforming). Data from the NTDS.

Percentage of trans people who have lost their job because they’re trans, based on gendered demographics (MTF = trans women, FTM = trans men, GNC = gender non-conforming). From the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.

The fear of discrimination is a real concern. Although the numbers don’t exist for academia specifically (sociologist followers, help out with that!), the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that nearly half (47%) of trans people who were outted as trans on the job faced repercussions, including being fired, being denied a promotion, or not being hired. Related to this is that 71% have hidden that they’re trans from their employers, and 57% have delayed transition to remain employed. There’s also a paper that looks at LGB faculty in the STEM fields (the only one I’m aware of) which found that the more out a faculty member is, the more uncomfortable they are, and that nearly half were considering leaving their institutions because of exclusionary behavior. LGB people often have a choice of being out that many trans people don’t get.

Chart of how likely an LGB STEM faculty member is to leave their institution, with the numbers by each arrow indicating how much more likely the consequences will be. From E. Patridge et al, Factors Impacting the Academic Climate for LGBQ STEM Faculty

Chart of how likely an LGB STEM faculty member is to leave their institution, with the numbers by each arrow indicating how much more likely the consequences will be. From E. Patridge et al, Factors Impacting the Academic Climate for LGBQ STEM Faculty.

So what’s a trans person to do?

The best option is the one that doesn’t yet exist: being able to update your name on past publications without linking your current name to your old one. Right now, many journals have policies in place to make it easy for people (especially women who get married) to link their current name with their past one to maintain a comprehensive publication record. That doesn’t work for trans people, though, as it would make it even easier for us to be outted and thus risk the consequences above. As we move into an age where going to the library to pick up a paper is giving way to just downloading and printing them from on-line, we have an opportunity to address this issue. Changing names digitally is easy, and journals need to adopt policies that let us do it. The harder part comes with citations and references, where we need to develop systems that can link references (especially for the few that are still printed) without outting the author. This change isn’t going to happen without academic librarians who are intimately familiar with the process, and who need to be the ones to lead the change.

For now, there are still options, although none of them will work nearly as well as the policy changes that need to take effect. One option, if you’re transitioning but haven’t picked a name yet, is to choose one that has the same first letter as your old name. On your CV and publication lists, you can just use your initials without outting yourself directly in the document. Many of us haven’t been so forward-thinking, though, so we have to consider some other alternatives.

Another option is to be upfront about your past name, including a brief statement along the lines of “Have also published under Old Name.” This carries the risks above, but is also a way to (hopefully) weed out institutions that wouldn’t have you for being trans. This is the option that I personally take, although I am very out in my work life already so it’s not the all-or-nothing that many others would face.

The other option is to leave out your past publications under your old name. This would work well particularly if you’ve been able to build up a number of high-profile publications post-transition and you’re at a point in your career where it’s time to start culling your publication list anyway. If you’re early in your career and are just starting to publish, this likely won’t be the best choice.

You could also entirely leave out first names from your publication lists. Particularly if you’re sharing many first-author papers, your CV will already have your name on it, so it will be clear that your publication lists are talking about you. This option backfires a bit if you’re a part of large collaborations, where multiple people share last names. It also carries the risk of you being outted the moment someone pulls up one of your papers.

So the answer is that there’s no good answer. Not yet. We, as trans academics, need your help to contact your librarians and your journal editors to first alert them of why it is necessary for a name change option to exist that doesn’t link someone’s current name to their old one, and to request that solutions are found.

10 thoughts on “No Good Options: When Your Name Change Indicates a Gender Change

  1. Ben Barres–an awesomely accomplished neuroscientist–transitioned from [another B name (dualitea edit)]. It never really occurred to me until now, but I guess he did choose that name to keep the same initial.

  2. I’m curious why you deleted my reference to Ben’s former name. It’s not something he himself has ever been reticent about referring to, and it is a matter of public record that has been referred to countless times in the press. It’s also the author name that is on all of his scientific publications published before he transitioned.

    • Because it’s poor form to refer to trans people using their previous names, even if (perhaps especially if) they are highly publicized, and is something I won’t have on Tenure, She Wrote.

      I had drafted a previous reply immediately after I made the edit, but it seems to have been gobbled by the kraken and never posted, so I apologize for not addressing the edit sooner. I don’t personally know Ben, so I don’t know all of the reasons that went into his choosing of his current name. There are a huge number of factors that go into changing your name, but it is entirely possible that being able to retain the same first initials was part of it.

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