ACS Publications recently announced a new policy that creates an author-friendly method for changing the name used on a previously published article. Though this policy will benefit anyone who changes their name, ACS was originally motivated to create this new policy in response to a call from the transgender scientific community, since the use of a former name (known as a “deadname”) is particularly painful for transgender persons.
One scientist was particularly vocal in calling for academic publishers to implement this change and was a valued partner for the publications team as it developed its new procedure. Irving Rettig, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate at Portland State University and transgender rights in STEM activist, had an integral part in initiating, creating, and advocating for this policy. I recently discussed the new policy with Rettig and why it is so important for transgender scientists.
As a leader in the movement to allow scientists to change names on their previous publications, can you talk about why this change is so necessary and what made you want to advocate for it? When did you start bringing this issue up publicly, and what has been the driving force behind it?
I think that the first major driving force is that I’m personally affected by the lack of trans-inclusive policy, not just in publishing but across STEM, because I’m transgender and because I changed my legal name during my transition period. In addition to that, I know a very small handful of transgender chemists. The harm that is caused by a deadname is something that, for me personally, increases over time, so as I progress further into my transition, the name that I am no longer referred to by is more traumatic to experience.
I was trying to fight everywhere to have the identity I chose for myself be recognized. My deadname just kept popping up, over and over again, in areas of chemistry. At that point, it was really unbearable to me, and that’s when I started fighting more aggressively. I was lucky enough to have a very unique experience, which was that my undergraduate advisor also came out as transgender, and I sought her out as the only other trans chemist who I knew at the time who might be struggling with this. She said, ‘You know, they can’t do anything, this is big. Maybe change will come, but right now, it’s really big, and I’ve just accepted that it’s not going to change.’ And that was just not an answer I was satisfied with.
I first got involved in this because I was loud in our department for a lot of reasons. I’ve helped a lot of LGBTQ undergraduate and graduate students navigate the school system and places where they can report transphobic behavior. I really care. I don’t exclusively exist within this trans rights activist realm. I think that marginalized identities have unique experiences but can get help from anywhere.
This change won’t only benefit trans scientists, but will be a great benefit to anyone who needs to change their name, including women who want to change their last name to reflect a marriage or divorce. Outside of scientific publications, what are these other key areas we need to address in chemistry and STEM to reduce gender bias?
What we’ve seen highlighted so graciously by BIPOC academics over the past few months is [the need for] changes to the root infrastructure of academia. The idea of balancing out the representation of underrepresented minorities in the upper echelons of academia is easy to say but in practice, what it means is tearing it down and rebuilding it in the eyes of the people who need to be represented. Tearing down sounds scary, but the current status quo is not serving so many people.
The current state of affairs is unquestioned, and we’ve become so complacent in following the status quo that, if you are not personally affected, you don’t see it. So then it makes sense that the demographics of academia are so heavily dominated by cis heterosexual white individuals. When you’re trying to address the status quo, you can’t maintain it and simultaneously try to support underrepresented minorities.
It’s huge to think about restructuring academia, but it’s a brave and noble endeavor to look towards individuals who see a future that has never existed and pursue it without fear. It’s those people we should look towards. The identities of these individuals who are fighting to change academia intersect along a number of different areas, and I really think that in tackling some of these changes, the allyship that we need in moving forward is solidarity.
You’re working on your Ph.D. now and have a long career ahead. As you think about the next ten or twenty years of your career, what changes would you like to see in the chemistry field or academia in the future?
I have gravitated towards activism not necessarily out of necessity, but because I really care a lot. I have never been able to ignore other people’s suffering. I think that even in twenty years, if things look better, I’ll still be a support system in some way.
Wherever I am, whatever the new system looks like, [I hope] that it’s flexible, that it can change to serve whoever is there, and that people don’t feel that they are oppressed by the system or that it is unwilling to change. It’s kind of the same idea as the ever-changing perception of gender. As you learn more about the LGBTQ community, you learn so much more about the spectrum that exists in gender and the spectrum that exists in biological sex, and that there are not categories. I think that to develop a system that reflects that nuance and is flexible to change is a system that will serve thousands, if not millions, of people.
You’re very familiar with our new name change policy as you convened groups of other scientists to review it and its language. You’ll also be the first person to have the policy enacted, and change your name on a previously published paper. What do you think about how it works?
The thing I really like in particular about this policy is that the policy is not finite – it will be something that is always changing, that is in motion, that is active. That is kind of a new concept in STEM in general. That adaptability is the thing I like the most about it, because there are problems that are associated with name changes in publishing we haven’t found good answers for yet. We’re all just doing the best we can with the tools we have, and if we find a better solution, this system is built to be able to shift rapidly and shift effectively.
The other thing I like about the policy is that anytime you make trans rights policy or are doing something to help trans people, it needs to be informed by trans people. People with lived experience have more knowledge of that lived experience. Coming from being trans informed, it checks the boxes of the things that need to be done. What ACS has done is decided to be silent and listen, and that’s the first step in making any tangible change that works for the people you support.
I’m working with six trans people throughout academia, not just in STEM [on advancing similar name change policies]. Trans authors pursuing the same endeavor at other major journals continue to encounter barriers to implementing these policies. This is an ongoing source of discrimination against members of our scientific community that must not continue.
When transgender scientists are unable to change a name on their past paper, it presents a cascade of issues, as they are often forced to either leave the paper off their resume or explain to colleagues and potential employers why their name was changed. That’s not a fair position for people to have to be in, and it’s one reason why a policy like this is so important.
It’s not only not fair, but it’s not equitable. People are often shocked to know that the academic excellence of trans people is squelched by the system, and this is an example of how trans academic excellence is silenced. It negatively impacts not only the mental health of transgender folks but also affects their ability to succeed within the system.