I see from social media that a former colleague "A" (whom I'm not close to and haven't spoken to in years) now has a differently-gendered name, look, and pronouns from what they had when I and other colleagues (B, C and D) worked with them. Because A was an exemplary and memorable co-worker I do sometimes find it useful to refer back to them, their approach and their work when talking with B, C and D. But whereas I just happen to have noticed that A's name and pronouns have changed, I have no idea whether B/C/D know this or to what extent they're still in contact with A.

What's the best way of referring to A in conversation with the others? If this were just the cousin James I grew up with who now prefers Jimmy, I would have no qualms about referring to "James" among family members who still think of him that way. But when it comes to gender identity, I hear that "dead-naming" someone in their presence can be hurtful—from that, I extrapolate that the ethical course is to encourage, with as little fuss as possible, the habit of also using a person's preferred names and pronouns in their absence. This is easily done in the case of famous people: I can say Caitlyn Jenner won an Olympic medal, Chelsea Manning leaked military secrets, or Elliot Page played Ariadne in Inception, and most people will know enough to join the dots. The difference here is that A's identity change may not be known to the people I'm talking to, so they'll possibly not know who I'm talking about. The least-worst formulation I can think of is "that project completed by A (whom we knew at the time as Z) Smith". Is that good? I'm asking this question here because any formulation I can think of, including that one, seems problematic in one way or another: aside from sheer unwieldiness, I'm unsure how to tread the line between dead-naming a person behind their back, and drawing too much attention away from the topic at hand and onto identity issues (possibly even eliciting irrelevant and unwelcome judgments on the latter from B/C/D).

I haven't communicated directly with A in a long time, and I'd say their gender identity is among the least interesting/relevant reasons for breaking radio silence, or topics to talk about if I did. So I don't see it as A's role to advise or educate me on this (though I'm willing to be corrected on that point too). And I don't know anyone else who (to my knowledge) has an inside perspective on this issue.

In response to the comment about goal-setting: my main goal is to communicate as clearly as possible about the work-related topic without getting sidetracked. To that end, if there weren't an ethical problem with using the old name I would simply use it. In analogous situations where there's a last-name change, e.g. due to marriage, I use whichever name I think my interlocutors will recognize most readily, and I feel free to do that because using the old name doesn't hurt anyone (except in rare situations that I'm happy to rely on my own judgment to identify, and where I'm comfortable with the consequences of a well-intentioned error). But name/pronoun changes associated with gender identity strike me as requiring more careful handling, and most people including myself are still uncertain of the rules. Taking that into account, the goal then becomes: with as little fuss/disruption as possible to the conversation, model for others a communication style most likely to foster non-discriminatory collective handling of identity issues.

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    One important aspect to consider is whether the person is "out" with their new identity, but since you saw this on their social profile, it sounds like that's the case. :) – Llewellyn Mar 28 at 20:22
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    @Llewellyn yes, since the new identity is out there on a profile visible to acquaintances as distant as me, I think it’s safe to assume it’s no secret. – jez Mar 29 at 0:06
  • @jez I'm not sure to understand where is the interpersonal issue. You seem torn between deadnaming and facing consequences of bringing the transgender topic at work. I don't understand the problem with your proposed formulation, it's a problem about choosing the goal, and I'd say it's not our job to tell you what's best. – Arthur Hv Mar 30 at 10:25
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    @ArthurHv in the edit, I've tried as best I can to articulate the goal. – jez Mar 30 at 17:43
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    Llewelyn, careful whether it’s out that they are a transgender person. It’s obvious to anyone who knew them under the old name, but many don’t. – gnasher729 Apr 2 at 7:29

If in any way possible, avoid using their deadname. Try to describe your former colleague and connect this to the chosen name, then keep using it, without a need to discuss the chosen name and pronouns. "Do you remember the project lead of the the KERMIT project? She goes by Isobel now. Anyway, she did this thing I just remembered and will keep on talking about for a while."

If someone else uses their deadname, just the same: Correct them without changing the topic of the conversation.

Many trans people will be ok, if you use their deadname once in their absence to inform others, that it shouldn't be used any more, but there really are points for effort.

As I was asked about my background:

A close friend of mine is trans and I helped him in his coming out in a few cases. I stopped using his deadname even when talking to people who he hadn't come out yet. It worked in that way, that people always understood who I was talking about.

My friend being trans lead me to reading up on many individual stories of other trans people and following online discussions among trans people. Two of the take aways of that are: (1) In general, acceptance means never to use the deadname. It's not ok, even if the deadnamed person is not around. It's in certain (but not in all) ways comparable to the N-word. (2) Many trans people are pragmatic about it: There's too much transphobia around, that everyone who makes a genuine effort gets credits.

  • I like this formulation more than the other suggestions, and any I've come up with. Can you give some background that indicates whether this approach has worked for you, and how you are able to be confident of your statements in the last paragraph? – jez Mar 31 at 20:15

I have several friends who have changed name and/or gender while I've known them. I know one who has changed her last name (but not her first name or gender) 5 times in the decades I've known her. I do it this way,

... sort of like the work that Jo NewName was doing here 5 years ago ...

Jo NewName? Who's that? We didn't have anyone like that here then!

Oh, you probably remember her as Jo OldName. Anyway I think the similarity is ...

Now, is that harder to just skate past if it's "you probably remember her as Steve"? Sure it is. But you can try to act like it isn't, and not to get sidetracked into "wait, wat? Steve is a GIRL now?? That's ^%$%#&!" and so on. At least don't encourage it by treating the name or gender as any kind of big deal.

In the case of pronoun changes, I do correct people.

So I was thinking we could ask X if he knew anything,

"They". X uses "they" now.

Oh, ok, anyway if they know anything about this.

(After the first few times, I leave the "now" out of the reminder.)

The key, according to the friends I do this on behalf of, is not making a big deal, not making the update, change, or correction into the subject of the conversation, just dropping the info and keeping right on going.

  • “Keep on going” resonates with my first instincts, but it’s interesting to hear the advice (presumably also proceeding from your friends’ preferences?) to try and get away with the new name alone. I’ll try that I guess. With last-name changes it’s usually less sensitive (no rejection of the old identity). To minimize the risk of the conversation slipping out of my attention-deficient grasp, I would probably just refer to Jo Oldname if I knew that’s the name colleagues would recognize (unless I knew for a fact she changed it because her serial killer brother made Oldname infamous, or similar). – jez Mar 27 at 19:49
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    Imagine a situation where you all know that Steve is now Jo, but keep saying Steve because you don't know the others know, and so on. Use the new name and pronouns if you know them, and don't make a big deal out of connecting the dots if the person you're talking to hasn't heard of the new state of things. Using the old as a first choice, when you know that's not who they are now, is a little unkind. At least in a work context. (with older relatives in a personal context it is sometimes ok to use the old ones a while longer while the relatives deal with the change, that's situation-specific.) – Kate Gregory Mar 28 at 2:18
  • Is there a way to do this that's less... Autstic? This is a Sheldon's seat situation. – tuskiomi Mar 30 at 2:56
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    There's nothing "autistic" about the above. The thing that's being played for laughs in your clip is going into the actual reasoning, which this doesn't do. (Also the show is making fun of someone being genuinely uncomfortable with changing their seats, I don't think using "haha, look, he's in pain, what a weirdo" makes a very good example for use on this site anyway. Sheldon is the only one in the clip who shouldn't need to come here for advice on how to better handle the situation.) – Erik Mar 30 at 7:02
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    @tuskiomi why would you consider it autistic to call someone by their name? Just like someone who changes their name when they marry, or change religions, the people under discussion simply want to be called and referred to by their names. Being gentle and caring enough to do that, in a way that minimizes gossip and drama, is not behaviour that is exclusive to autistic people: anyone can do it. – Kate Gregory Mar 30 at 11:43

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