The Alexandrian

Caverns of ThraAsh McAllan sent me a tweet: “Hey @hexcrawl I keep referring people to [Jaquaying the Dungeon]… but noticed you’re using Jaquays’ deadname? Needs updating.”

(For those unaware, the author of The Caverns of Thracia transitioned in, if I recall correctly, 2012.)

This is something I’ve actually given quite a bit of thought to, both generally and in the specific instance of Jaquaying the Dungeon. And my philosophy is that name changes generally progress forward through time.

First: If Jennell had been Jennell when I wrote the essay, I’d have used Jennell. But what I wrote is what I wrote when I wrote it. Similarly, I don’t think we need to edit this video and dub in Caitlyn Jenner’s name.

I don’t think it’s either practical or necessary for us to revise extant works in order to match people’s changing identities. For example, what if I was dead? Who’d have the authority to decide what needed to be rewritten in my work? And what if I’d written a poem and rhymed a word with the name “Paul”? You can’t just search-and-replace names and necessarily arrive at something true.

Second: For similar reasons, I think it’s accurate to say that Cassius Clay won the Clay-Liston fight. (Because that was his name when it happened.) I also think it can be accurate to write that Muhammad Ali won that fight. It would not, however, be accurate to say that Cassius Clay won the Rumble in the Jungle (because that is not a thing which ever happened).

So, in the future, I may refer to “The Caverns of Thracia by Paul Jaquays”. Because that was her name when she wrote it.

There are archival issues here (i.e., you can’t reasonably track down every extant copy of The Caverns of Thracia and scratch out the author’s name on them; and even if you could, there would be some really significant ethical issues with rewriting cultural history like that). There are also issues of historical accuracy (which can be demonstrated with sentences like “Muhammad Ali then changed his name to Muhammad Ali” — which makes no sense if you’ve succeeded in your hypothetical mission to strike all references to the name Cassius Clay from the historical record).

Important proviso here: All of the above is discussing public figures and publicly known events. Very different standards apply to non-public events and private individuals, many of whom may be living stealth. Even if we ignore the ethical right for someone to control their own identity and privacy (although I can’t honestly think of any reason why we would want to do that), there are very real dangers in outing someone. Arguing that someone should say “that was back when HE graduated from college” because that happened before Jane transitioned is to inherently say that Jane should be outed any time events from her life before transitioning are mentioned.

(Some of you may be thinking that there shouldn’t be a distinction here. Consider a hypothetical scenario where Jennell was living stealth. Therefore, I should refer to past events in her life using only her current name and pronoun, right? Except if I say, “Jennell wrote The Caverns of Thracia.” that combines poorly with the public knowledge that the name “Paul” appears on all those extant copies of the book. I would have just functionally outed Jennell. Private and public information work in fundamentally different ways, and trying to treat them in the same way doesn’t work.)

In my ideal world, the changing of identity for a transexual or transgender person would be no more notable than any other change in name and identity. And we’d be able to treat them all openly and without any significant comment because, honestly, it’s just not that big a deal. Unfortunately, that’s just not the world we live in. In this world it is a big deal — it can literally be a life or death deal. And that needs to be respected.

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7 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Deadnames”

  1. Sarainy says:

    As someone undergoing transition in semi-stealth, this is a subject quite close to my heart.

    While I previously would have said “Go with what the person wants to be called,” you bring up some great points that I previously had not considered.

    Fortunately(?) I am not a figure in the public eye or with notable works to my name. However, if I were and my work was changed to use my new female name, it would definitely ‘out me’ as I am still using my male name with work clients.

    For me the biggest distinction is the intent. Calling Caitlyn Jenner “Bruce Jenner” as a way to describe her now is clearly disrespectful. Documentation that refers to her as Bruce historically in order to more clearly present facts is not the same.

    Your closing statements are wonderful by the way. I hope one day that ideal world and the real world are one and the same.

  2. Alsadius says:

    This is more or less my opinion on the topic as well. E.g., Bradley Manning leaked a bunch of classified material to Wikileaks, and Chelsea Manning is serving time for it. Changing your name(whether due to transgender, religion, marriage, business reasons, or simply wanting a different name) doesn’t change the past, though sometimes for simplicity it’s easiest to elide that name change(e.g., a friend who changed his oddly-spelled name to the more usual version of it is hardly worth mentioning).

  3. Ash says:

    I think these points are salient and valuable. The thing I’d raise is whether or not a blog entry or a webpage is a “living document”. Given that it’s a much more trivial task editing a web based document than, for instance, all occurrences of a piece of print media, it affords us a unique opportunity to practice empathy in this regards where each occurrence of a deadname can be devastating for a transgender person. I can’t speak for Jennell, perhaps she is fine with or numbed to the existence of works with her deadname but we can’t assume that is true for all trans people and we should recognize that a few seconds of compromise on our part can and do regularly, save us from hurting people. As for the article in question I respect your desire for truth and clarity, I just wonder if we can’t have that and kindness at the same time.

  4. Jack V says:

    I agree with most of your reasons.

    But two things make me think the other approach would be better here.

    Firstly, there is a strong pressure to frame transition not as “I changed to be this person” but “I was this person all along and stopped hiding”. And I think that’s partly political, because that approach is somewhat more successful at getting access to medical care for transitioning, and getting people not to blatantly ignore it. But for many reasons, I want to use the description most trans people want to use of themselves.

    Secondly, the article is not just archived — people regularly link and refer to it, because it’s quite relevant now.

    So I don’t think we need to ALWAYS do that. But here it seems like editing the article to use the author’s correct name and pronoun (as of now) would be desirable.

    Because there’s so much published matter and Jaquays is somewhat well known, it is probably necessary to add a comment when you first mention the module “(published under the name Paul Jaquays)” because it might be too misleading otherwise. And people who care can easily check the reason for that, but it doesn’t need to be spelled out.

  5. Justin Alexander says:

    Couple points:

    1. You can’t assume that all trans people want to obliterate all traces of their previous identity. If Jennell herself were to drop me a line and say, “I’d really appreciate it if you could make some changes to this older article you wrote.” that’s something I would probably do (at least in this instance). In the absence of that, however, this really boils down to, at best, a guessing game about what Jennell would want and, at worst, an imposition of someone else’s opinion about what Jennell’s identity should be.

    2. The attribution of a written work, however, does complicate things. As Jack notes, it would be ineffective to say, “You should buy The Caverns of Thracia by Jennell Jaquays,” for the same reason that it would be ineffective to say, “You should buy The Wheel of Time by James Oliver Rigney, Jr.” Because those are not books which actually exist.

    So, barring a point in time where Caverns of Thracia gets reprinted under the name Jennell Jaquays, there will never be a point where Jaquaying the Dungeon appears without the name Paul Jaquays somehow being a part of it. Which I think also needs to be borne in mind when discussing the utility of revising a previously written work.

  6. AveAves says:

    Gosh…I had a bit of a fright there, but the article turned out ok. Yeah when there’s no input from the author this makes a bit of sense, I wonder what goes on with changing content’s credit? Presumably a publisher issue.

    Of course if the trans person says they don’t want their name there then

  7. Yahzi says:

    For the first half of the article I though “transitioned” was some weird euphemism for “died,” and was subsequently quite confused until the middle part.

    But given that we’re talking about a written work, and given that pseudonyms are a thing, this strikes me as non-problematic. Jennell may well choose to publish new work under the name “Paul Jaquays,” for either artistic or commercial reasons, and no one would even blink at it.

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