The Transgender Doctor

The Transgender Doctor July 18, 2019

I appreciated this article that Facebook friends drew to my attention in the Chronicle of Higher Education, raising the question of how one should cite the work of transgender academics who have published under different names. The truth is that this is a question that we’ve long faced, given the custom of women changing their names when they marry or divorce. Sometimes a book has been re-released with the name change reflected on the revised or reissued edition. The short answer is that there is no simple answer, and that there are disadvantages to each way of proceeding. One obscures the fact that works cited under two names in a bibliography are by the same individual. The other may make it harder to find works published under a different name. It is a sad commentary on the academy that we haven’t done a better job of discussing that issue and listening to what female scholars say ought to become normative (including perhaps there not being a “norm” but a handling of cases based on individual preference). If we had, we’d surely be much better poised for the discussion regarding citation of transgender scholars.

Robyn Speer’s perspective (quoted in the Chronicle article) is this: “For trans people to be fully included in research, name changes have to be normalized, and there have to be reasonable processes for changing your name in academic publishing without having to be called by your previous name as well. Any other situation creates conflicts that discourage people from coming out and living their best life.”

This would seem to provide a clear way forward – for those who are comfortable with their own trans identity being more public as a result. But given the amount of discrimination that trans individuals face, some might prefer not to have this highlighted, and so we might need to find a way to respect the desire of those individuals as well, lest a system become normative in the academy that makes some people feel they cannot undergo a gender transition because their publishing will draw attention to it and potentially bring them harassment. On the other hand, Deirdre McClosky “thinks that, at least in academe, changing genders can’t be a private act.” (If you subscribe to the Chronicle, there is a great article about McClosky’s gender transition and her Christian faith in addition to her academic work, “The Lives of Deirdre McCloskey.”)

Another challenge related to transgender academics (and other public intellectuals and artists) is whether to refer to a person’s past work using the pronoun they currently identify with, or the one that they were using at the time they published the work. In that instance, it is probably best to use their current pronoun, but better still to ask them their preference if you can. In our era in which most academics have a digital presence, and most bibliographical work involves Googling at some point to check dates, initials, places of publication, and other details, this wouldn’t be at all burdensome. But even if something involves extra work, it should be done if that’s what it takes to treat our peers with respect and dignity.

I found this question came up as a decidedly practical one as I have been writing about Doctor Who. Now that the Doctor is a woman, do I just switch back and forth between pronouns, or use “she” consistently? Perhaps I should try to interview someone involved with the show to ask for their opinion? I’d happily seize that opportunity!

Read the entire article by Grace Elletson in the Chronicle, “How Should Professors Cite Their Transgender Colleagues’ Work Produced Under Past Identities? Academe Is Trying to Figure It Out.” Do also look at the APA style guidelines about this. And then please let me know your thoughts not just about the question of academic usage, but also about what to do when writing about Doctor Who.

This question isn’t limited to academic articles and monographs. Composer Wendy Carlos, perhaps most famous for the Tron soundtrack (or is that just me that thinks of that first?) and Switched-On Bach, released albums earlier as Walter Carlos. I found it difficult to write that last sentence. Did she release albums previously as Walter Carlos? Or did he? Should I just ask? What would we do in the case of individuals who did not express a preference while alive and whom we can no longer ask?

Perhaps we need to take the lead from inclusive theology and use names and titles rather than pronouns, as is done to avoid referring to God using gendered pronouns. I could certainly try to say “the Doctor” rather than use a pronoun whenever possible. But it doesn’t work in all cases, particularly when a reflexive pronoun is called for. If “Godself” is perhaps grammatically bearable for theological reasons, I’m not sure “Doctorself” can be justified in the same way.

To learn more about Wendy Carlos, here’s a great video:

And I can’t mention the soundtrack from the original motion picture Tron without also mentioning one of two songs on the album by Journey. It was never a hit, but it is one of my favorite Journey songs. It is called “Only Solutions”:

Having shared some music and the like, let me repeat again here at the end: I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the main question with which this post began!

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