Trans citation practices — a quick-and-dirty guideline

Photo by Glen Noble on Unsplash

Now and again, a question keeps popping up on the academic side of my Twitter timeline regarding citation practices by trans authors, about what to do when works are published under different names at different points in a scholar’s career. The most inelegant, but quite illuminating, formulation I’ve seen is this one:

‘Academic Twitter: does anyone know of any firm rules around citing scholars who have undergone sex affirming procedures and subsequent name changes throughout their careers? Do I use the name the scholar uses currently, or the name the work is published under?’

Here I address best practices when citing a trans author who has changed their name during their writing career [these guidelines are also relevant when citing other media, not just written text (e.g. movies by the Wachowski sisters; music by Anohni)]. This guide also addresses what is wrong with this framing of the question (which is a rare, but still important occurrence) and why wrong citation practices are not just poor editorial practice, but are also building on and contributing to oppressive narratives.

I know this guideline is more narrative than prescriptive, but I felt that I could cover more nuance this way rather than setting out a fixed rule. This guideline is therefore not about fixing a rule, but about setting a flexible system. There will always be interesting, disruptive and innovative ways genderqueer (but not exclusively) authors relate to their names and pronouns in their own editorial practice. I saw Paul Preciado recently sign a blog feature with his dead name, for example, and he gives his motives in the text of the blog; Randall McLeod’s publication history is also about authorial citation-breaking.

1. The author will usually help you in some way or another.

Take a look at how the author cites themselves in more recent work. Do they retroactively change their name/initials, even if the books were published under their dead name? Or do they keep their deadname for effectiveness or ‘correctness’ of citation practices? Existing (cis-centric) rules might dictate how they cite themselves, so if you can check in with them. [DEAD NAME: one’s name assigned by one’s parents or legal guardians, but which at one point in an individual’s gender transition is retired from use. Other categories of people also change their given names (such as stage names, pen names) and therefore have dead names (such as historical slave names)].

Researchers themselves can manage some of retrospective citation practices: the website is a database of scholarly works maintained by authors themselves. The author is the only one who can (but not always will, or are aware they can) create and change the author’s name and unique author bibliographic identification number for a past work (published under a dead name) so that the citations in the new name are completely compliant. Take the example of Jack Halberstam, the famous author of ‘Female Masculinity’ (1998) and ‘The queer art of failure’ (2011).

There are three Halberstams on ORCiD, but none of them have any information in the ‘other names’ columns. The only information available for Jack’s entry is that he modified it in December 2016; the nature of this modification is not stated, but it is indicative that Jack himself is actively maintaining this page. Even when a trans author never, verbally or in writing, explicitly expresses their preference in regards to citing their work, their actions like citing their own previous books or updating a formal scholarly database might give you answers as to best practices in citing their work.

Usually, trans authors help their cis audiences by keeping initials the same before and after their name-change. I have been privy to multiple discussions between trans academics and authors regarding their name change and cite-ability and metrics have a major weight on this decision. A lot of trans authors change their name to a gender-switched version of their deadname (eg Jack/Jackie, Stephanie/Stephen), therefore keeping initials intact; others keep or choose anew a gender-neutral name (Jamie, Alex, Chris); or generally try to keep initials (for many other reasons including no/less disruption in signatures/official documents as well). In a way, trans authors already provide you with an answer: use our initials! They are gender-neutral! Universally searchable and cite-able!

Initials have always been used by authors in signing books and in citation preferences; long before trans identity was even acknowledged in medical books and academic discourse, cis people used their initials to protect themselves from sexist and racist biases ingrained in editing, publishing and commercial businesses. Gender and ethic ambiguity helped cis and non-white authors get ahead in a rigged game; stop pretending that citing a trans writer only by initials is a special favour you’re doing them. It is not a favour, it is a fundamental right, and one that doesn’t even game the system. You might know the story of why J.K. Rowlings published under this specific pen name: she feared that expressing the intention to publish a wizard story as Johanne Rowling will 1. put her at the bottom of a publishing agency’s pile and 2. attach specific assumptions (‘non-serious literature’, ‘kid’s books’) to her work. It shows you the power of a name — and I believe ‘ethnic’ versus ‘white’ sounding names influence editors/readers as well.

If you want my personal example, I have carefully weighed and chosen my name (Jonah) because it kept not only my deadname initial, but also the number of letters and syllables. I have considered ease of remembering for my loved ones, acceptance of a new name by family, continuity in documents etc as much as cite-ability. Choosing an appropriate name was a long process that caused me a lot of dysphoria in the interim (while I was still addressed by my dead name/my IDs carried it), but it was a very deliberate and important process. Name change is usually a very important milestone in any trans person’s transition, so disregarding the care, work as well as sensitivity they have put into choosing a name that would be socially recognised by citing them incorrectly is just… an asshole move.

2. Don’t out people by deadnaming.

Some cis people don’t understand the violence that outing and/or deadnaming inflicts upon trans people. Most individuals from the older generation of trans authors have undergone transition at mid-point in their careers, with major publications under their belt, therefore making their transition pretty public and citation practices a contested ground of constant deadnaming and misgendering. Younger academics (like my generation) were mostly able to transition during undergrad or grad school, with only one or two publications or talks in their older name, and for all intents and purposes some trans people in academia are ‘stealth’ [STEALTH: the choice of some transgender (but not only; see also gay, disabled etc) people to not disclose intimate personal information to their employers etc, in order for them not to be Othered, or worse, discriminated against]. The implications of citing a younger/early career academic’s deadname (whether author is out or not) are different than the ones who transitioned late in their career. Not only are ECRs in a precarious position within academia as a publishing and employment field, lacking the prestige and respect the more established academics enjoy, but outing citation practices doxxes and marginalises them further.

A citational practice that encourages or is apathetic towards deadnaming also really stings for the author in question, since when one is cited somewhere, one will want to go and see the context of the citation. So many use the excuse of helping their readers find their sources when exculpating themselves from insensitive citational practices. But keep in mind that your readers (who you are so concerned about helping) are not just cis people; they are also the trans author you are citing, as well as other trans people who will, as I do, always flinch at others’ deadnaming.

This expressed concern about your readers’ ability to retrace a citation when it appears under different names is mostly misguided, and at worst malicious. The availability of quick information-finding technology enabled by the spread of the Internet has made ethically-informed citation practices possible and imperative. I‘m very sure that if you ‘’’incorrectly’’’ cite a book (retroactively replacing the dead name with the new name) it won’t trip up any human readers when trying to find your source; if otherwise cited correctly, title, date, press etc points to same author, without having to resort to deadnaming. If you want to give your readers a further ‘clue’ as to the fact that you’ve cited a work that can be found under an author’s dead name, you can include the initial of the deadname (in lots of cases it is the same, as I said above).

If sensitive and humanising citation of trans authors might be construed as a new thing (hint: it’s not) not yet addressed by official policies and internationally recognised guidelines, it is also not appropriate to compare with and apply the guidelines put in practice for female academics (and more recently male as well) who have changed their surnames following a change in marital status. It is generally prescribed, and always seen as not offensive to refer to someone as “Cooper, née Mackintosh”, but applying the same guidelines to trans authors is hugely offensive; it is not only deadnaming, but also playing into the narrative of ‘born a woman’ etc. that is weaponised against trans individuals.

Katelyn Burns rightly notes in a Twitter conversation:

Respectfully, no one ever notes a married woman’s maiden name unless it’s extremely relevant to the story or discussion. 99% of the time there’s no need to note a deadname…

and @bitchonomics’s answer is also relevant:

[maiden name] seems aggressive and insulting, and I think that it also sounds like somehow the person is threatening doxxing the other person.

3. Never use a dead pronoun.

If deadnaming is implemented under the (as I showed before, avoidable) excuse of following the rules of a strict citation system, there is no excuse for using wrong pronouns whatsoever. NEVER use someone’s dead pronoun, and NEVER use multiplied pronouns like ‘his/hers’ or ‘s/he’ — these indicate instability of gender, which is extremely offensive to binary-gendered trans people. I understand, names are not always reliable indicators — especially non-western, non-Christian or ethnic names. If unsure, use ‘they’; calling an author whose gender you are not sure of, or rather defer discussion of transition (since not relevant) and want to be respectful, they/them does not erase non-binary existence. Using ‘they’ challenges gender expectations: if previously in history people would call the author ‘he’ by default because ‘only men write books’, nowadays we assume that specific types of books/research is done by a specific gender. Using ‘they’ for an unknown author is challenging these default assumptions.

This is my guideline about pronouns only when answering the question ‘what if we don’t know?’. Even though I personally believe in gender neutrality, I am not advocating for ‘they’ as a blanket practice in citing or bibliographical reference systems. You need to be mindful of how historically important calling a (dead or alive) female author as ‘she’ is. It is a little more complicated than any blanket guideline — one person’s inclusiveness is another person’s erasure. Non-binary, genderqueer, gendervariant people and others who might have strong preferences over pronouns attached to their work usually make a point in stating that, as well.

4. No squares [brackets] please, we’re all queer here

Officially and formally, very few to no citation guides consider gendered name changes. When they do, most of them suggest square brackets to signal a name change, bridging between historically ‘correct’ citation practices and the new set of ethically-informed practices (see APA guidelines below, with their downsides explained). When trying to crowdsource a way to cite trans authors, many cisgender, well-intentioned people also offer it as a solution:

current name in square brackets might be an option? Not the same reasoning at all, of course, but that’s what I used to do when citing texts from an early modern author who spelled their name in multiple ways! (Robbie Hand, 14 February 2019, Twitter)

This tweet above is a great answer, since it is informed not by normalised academic transphobia but by the author’s specific experience with handling variant historical names. Nonetheless, it is the wrong answer when it comes to trans-inclusive citation practices.

I would never suggest adding the deadname when citing a trans person, especially if whatever you are quoting was never published in the old name. And if you ever use this kind of solution (other names in brackets) because of institutional/publisher’s requirements, ALWAYS use the new name as the basis and deadname as alternate rather than the other way around. Deadname as default suggests ‘this person is /really/ that gender rather than what they /say/pretend/ they are’. Trans-insensitive citation practices contribute to prevalent normalisation of transphobic discourse through routine academic practices. Citation, something that as scholars we might not give much thought to, and that might have become a rote task for many, have ripple effects into the real world. Also, I would be against nonessential footnotes that explain a name change — again, this telegraphs the message ‘this author is not like a normal human being and we need to make note of that’. Never highlight that name has been changed unless it is of the utmost importance and the stuff you are citing is impossible to find by other contextual clues (title, date, location, initials).

5. Don’t focus on GRS!

The framing of the tweet — focusing on ‘sex confirmation’, which reads like a reference to surgeries — is the product of specific trans narratives which media and society have an unhealthy obsession with. It also medicalises trans people’s existence, throws in question the reality of non-medicalised trans, genderqueer and non-binary individual, and brings back narratives of mental sickness that have been historically and are still used to condemn and even destroy us. Most trans authors don’t discuss surgeries as part of their scholarship, so this is not pertinent to any mention of their purely professional output. The only way one would find such information if not openly offered is digging through personal histories, something extremely intrusive; and after all, some trans people choose never to have ‘sex-affirming procedures’ (SRS = sexual reassignment surgery) since the state of trans medical care is still plagued by gatekeeping through diagnoses, clinics and prohibiting costs, as well as the (sometimes disappointing) results of such surgeries.

Some trans authors (and majority of trans people regardless of their profession, although keep in mind, trans people are not monolithic so it differs case by case) are employing gender affirming procedures, on the other hand, by going by our chosen name, using different pronouns (including the historically-sanctioned singular they/them and neo-pronouns such as ze/xe), presenting within the binary etc. In the framing of the question above, this affirmation of gender is especially important since it mentions the sex-affirming ‘procedures’ before the name-change, therefore putting (whether explicitly intended or not) more emphasis and ‘credibility’ on genitals/bodily configuration than on legal name change.

This latter change is the only issue pertinent to citation and more largely to self-identification; therefore the framing of change in regards to medicalisation rather than legal status normalises (again, surely not intentional) the non-ally obsession with and exclusive legitimization of trans people who have undergone ALL the steps on an imaginary cis checklist for what makes one a woman/man. (As an aside, trans people who are able to do so in their country of origin or residence change their names far before any medical ‘sex-affirming procedures’, since these are usually cheap or free, easy to obtain, and completely reversible.)

6: Bonus round — the problems with APA citation styles, and Dewey decimal classification system

Researching for this guideline, I found a citation style blog that specifically dealt with name-changes by the APA (American Psychological Association). While their recommendation for citing works from a trans author before and after a name-change, when initials don’t match, is pretty much ‘just keep initials’ (‘ If John J. Smith now publishes under the name Rebecca L. Smith, and if you cite works published under both names in your paper, then cite the works in the text as J. J. Smith (2001) and R. L. Smith (2015), respectively’) the APA recommendation on same-initials name change takes a different, problematic, approach:

First name change for a transgender author (same initials):
If Alicia K. Johnson now publishes under the name Adam K. Johnson, and if you cite works published under both names in your paper, then cite the works in the text as Alicia K. Johnson (2004) and Adam K. Johnson (2017), respectively — including the full name of the author because the initials are the same but the names themselves are different. In the reference list, put the author’s first name in brackets to alert the reader that the first names are different. The entries would be as follows:
Johnson, A. [Adam] K. (2017). …
Johnson, A. [Alicia] K. (2004). …

The APA system (hopefully, without any maliciousness) promotes deadnaming and misgendering (you’d have to say she if you cited Adam Johnson’s research as Alicia Johnson’s work) for the sake of consistency. It further disregards the fact that trans authors themselves think about it when choosing new name. By using a citation practice that is flexible and allows you to cite only the initials, A.K. Johnson is not outed OR deadnamed, and you still acknowledges the full scholarship of one person. This duplication of references and bibliography entries because of name-change does not allow continuity of work of an author. For me (and probably for a cis person reading it as well) unless there’s any other hints that the scholar has transitioned/changed name (which, unless utterly pertinent to the scholarship in point, is superfluous and doxxing), your citations looks like two authors. multiple entries in bibliography is — at least for me — extremely confusing since, if you don’t know that the person transitioned/changed their name, it just looks like two authors. An in extremis result of this citation practice, you could even lead one to pit two books of same author in a plagiarism test.

Also as the result of this guideline, I had many interesting discussions with librarians that have pointed the problems with library classification systems, and especially the Dewey decimal system, which encodes binary hegemonies via a gender/sex field (with M/F as the two options) in book metadata, as well as being unable to respond to the ‘challenges’ (ugh, major inconvenience, I’m sorry for existing and creating new knowledge!) posed by trans authors. These conversations unearthed how the Dewey system normalises other hegemonical biases, and revealed a classification system that is by design sexist, collonialist and queerphobic. As Zachary Lesser put it,

technologies of citing, cataloguing, indexing, etc., are never neutral, as much as they are often presented as purely technical.

I’m attaching some interesting reading here:

There’s wonderful work done by historically marginal voices that are finally breaking the ceiling and are able to make a change, like in this article:

There are still problems regarding the ‘sex’ field in this system, as well as continuity of names for trans authors, but we can see signs of change and that matters. [Update 14 December 2018: the newest LGBTQ representative for the Modern Languages Associations (MLA), one of the movers and shakers in citation practices, has announced their agenda in implementing a coherent citation system for trans authors, so things are looking up!]


Literally no other group of people has a mass of assholes insisting on using a name they no longer want to be used. The only purpose of intentional deadnaming is harassment, no matter how “good faith” you think it is. (Katelyn Burns, Nov 29 2018, Twitter)

In the end, the best citation policy for trans authors are sensitivity; if in doubt, ask them. And above all, think about what you are doing when engaging in a specific established practice.