How to talk about “Tess”

Guidelines for citing your trans colleague. How to talk about her when she’s not in the room.

CW: deadnaming, discrimination, misgendering

Transitioning has been such a positive experience for me that it makes me regret that it took so long for me to “break my egg” (as the youths are calling it these days). I’m physically and mentally healthier than I’ve ever been, I feel freer in every way, and my clothes are so much more fun than they’ve ever been!

But, there are some aspects of transitioning that are a source of ongoing difficulty, and most of them are centered around my identity in the world. There are many many reasons why I’m happy to be transitioning at this point in my life, rather than when I was younger: I’m more stable and secure in my family and professional lives, I’m more certain of what I need, and more able to advocate for myself. But, I’ve also got so much more inertia behind my pre-transition identity, and so course-correcting this requires so much more labor than it would have at 20, or even 30 years old.

It is with this in mind that I’ve written this essay.

A guide to citing and discussing Theresa Jean Tanenbaum

(Disclaimer #1: this is not meant to be a generic discussion of trans identity issues. There are so many different approaches to transitioning, name and pronoun changes, and online identity maintenance that I don’t dare claim to speak for other people. This is personal. It’s about how I’d like people to treat me, and about how I feel.)

Disclaimer #2: this is not static. I’ve held off on writing this for bit while I’ve let the dust settle from my initial public transition announcement because I wanted to allow my own feelings about this to stabilize a bit before setting them down. Still, it’s possible that I may want to update things here from time to time, as I get deeper down this rabbit hole. For that reason, I’m going to version-control this a bit, and I reserve the right to add updates if needed.)

UPDATED May 14, 2019

Pronouns: she/her/hers please!

Full Name: Theresa Jean Tanenbaum

Names I respond to: Tess, Theresa

Terms of address: Dr. (in professional settings), Ms. (preferred), and Ma’am (sure….I’m a ma’am. I’ll roll with it!)

How to cite previous work: Please cite all of my work, past, present and future with my full name: Theresa Jean Tanenbaum. I’m systematically reaching out to publishers and online scholarship indices to change my name wherever possible, but you can help by not propagating my previous name in any venue, especially publications. Please also use my correct pronouns and please correct any incorrect pronouns you find for me.

How to discuss me with other people: This one is important!

Please do NOT use my previous names and pronouns when discussing me with other people.

Please do NOT disclose that I am trans when discussing me with others, especially people who may not know me.

There are times when my transness will be of material relevance to a conversation (say someone is putting together resources for trans researchers, and is looking for contributors with some understanding of trans issues): in those cases, you may disclose my transness at your discretion, but if you have an opportunity to check-in with me first, please do so.

What to do when someone is confused by this: If you’re discussing me with someone — in particular someone who knows me from before my transition — and they ask for clarification it’s okay to be like: “Yes, she transitioned and goes by Tess now.” Don’t make a big deal about it, and keep going.

Other ways you can help: If you have written about me in the past, or have papers citing me, or mention me on a website, or in a blog post, please consider changing my name and pronouns in them to my new name and pronouns. This extends to .pdfs you have of my work in your syllabus, and the bibliographies in your own .pdfs that cite me. I expect that I’ll be spending hours and hours of my life in the coming years trying to shift my digital footprint into a place where I don’t get deadnamed and misgendered constantly online. However, there’s only so much I can change on my own, so the more people who are helping me to catch and correct this, the better!

Here’s a handy NECRONYM CHECK!

  • Have you updated all of your contacts and email addresses to reflect my current correct name?
  • Have you updated your references in Zotero/EndNote/Mendeley to “Theresa Jean Tanenbaum”?
  • Have you corrected my name in any course materials or websites you maintain where I might appear?
  • Have you corrected my name in any .pdfs you have of either my work, or instances of your work that cite mine?
  • Have you corrected my name in any documents or records you maintain?

If you’re looking for how to be a good ally, this is an essential step.Think of my deadname like a transmissible disease. The only way I can reduce its circulation is if everyone infected takes steps to prevent spreading it to others. An apt metaphor for our times, don’t you think?

UPDATE: Photo Policy!

Current as of May 2020: I’m starting to feel better about myself in pictures, and so I’m relaxing my blanket restriction on photography. I’d still ask you to not ambush me with photos of myself, and to allow me the chance to review pictures that you take of me, but it’s been a while since I’ve spiraled into a deep depression from seeing someone’s picture of me. A lot of this is that as my hair grows in, and the hormones slowly reshape my features, even the less flattering pictures of me still look like my mental image of myself. That helps me immensely!

Previous Policy (September 2019)I’ve always been pretty relaxed about my image — I haven’t had any issues being recorded or photographed. However, one consequence of my transition has been that my relationship with images of me has changed in some intense ways. Right now I experience a significant mismatch between my own sense of what I look like in the world, and pictures that other people take of me. Some of my deepest depressions and most dysphoric episodes of the past few months have been brought on by being shown pictures of myself when I wasn’t aware that the camera was there. And so, if you are going to photograph me, I’d ask you to follow some simple guidelines:

  1. Let me know that I’m being photographed.
  2. Allow me to preview any pictures you take
  3. Agree to delete any photos that I‘m uncomfortable with.

Making this request feels like the height of vanity, but it’s important to me. I experience periods of intense gender dysphoria, often triggered by seeing my self when I’m not prepared for it. Giving me control over my image is a mental health issue, and it’s something I need to do to keep myself healthy and safe right now.

  • Tess

Read more here:

Part 1: Trans Girl Magic

Part 2: How to talk about “Tess”

Part 3: What’s in a (dead) Name?

Part 4: Rail (poem and post)

Part 5: A lifetime of coming out

Part 6: A conspiracy theory (poem)

Part 7: On Authenticity and Artifice (poem)

Part 8: Not Getting Any Younger (poem)

Written by

Digital storyteller, feminist witch, reality blender, pervasive theater artist, steampunk, identity scholar, ADHD, poly & queer, trans woman, she/her

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