How google contacts (and basically all other electronic contact lists) makes life harder for trans folks

This post is written to cis folks, because most trans people (particularly those people who have changed their names) are already familiar with what is in it and, honestly, it’s pretty upsetting. 

Many people I love are trans. Some of them have changed or are changing their names. This is a huge and emotional step for many people. It can be exciting, sad, scary, affirming, or just kinda neutral. Family, friends and colleagues will often have emotional reactions to the change too. I certainly know folks who have been disowned, and others that have been celebrated. However you slice and dice it, it is a big moment. But here is the thing. Even the most supportive of cis folks who want to affirm the new name of their loved one can easily fail to do so, because the technology makes it so damn hard. 

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From universities to large corporations, trans people have been fighting to have the correct name appear on computer systems for years. We know that trans people experience discrimination in the labour market, and this is one aspect of that. Of course it causes an unsafe work environment when you’re constantly faced with being called a name that no longer belongs to you, no longer fits you, and sometimes outs you as trans. Not at all cool. 

So, what does this have to do with Google contacts? Quite a lot! When you email someone from your Google account (and from other providers too), the name that you call that person is attached to the email address, usually in your contacts folder. This means that when you type the first part of their email, it will also include the name that you call that person. This can be funny sometimes (at least in retrospect) – for example, my ex was in my contact list as Carrie OKC for the whole of our relationship – a name I’d given her because I wanted to remember that she is the person I met on OK Cupid. You know, in case I forgot when we were first in contact. I had no idea that it sent that name out until one day, several months into our relationship, she asked me about it, and then WOW did she get upset. Lesson learned! 

For trans folks the problem is way worse than a moment of relationship upset. Their deadname appearing attached to their email address can ‘out’ them to whole groups of people. Just think about it, you send an email CCing all of your friends about your birthday party. Now your entire list can see the name you have in google contacts for every single person on that list. You’d never think to check, because what you were likely typing wasn’t the deadname, but the start of the email address. Or maybe you were using a list you’d already created. But that doesn’t matter. Google still attaches that email address to the name you have in contacts so that is what is displayed. That person is outed to all of your friends, and you didn’t even know it was happening. It SUCKS. It is a bit embarrassing for you, but potentially dangerous for the trans person. 

What sucks the most is that a person that changes their name can’t just make Google refer to them differently in other people’s address books. They can’t even identify the folks that have an incorrect name for them by some electronic filter and auto-send a reply asking the person to update their own contacts. Even if they tell folks their new name and it is updated in their phone contacts, emails can still come out from Google or Outlook contacts which reference their deadname. Emotionally, some folks feel OK about this, but most people find it devastating. Especially if it has been years since they transitioned and they are having their deadname disclosed left, right, and centre to people they don’t know, people that had forgotten it, and people they do know that they don’t want to be reminded of the deadname. It can affect how folks are perceived, whether the correct pronoun is used for them, and can even put them at risk of violence in some circumstances. 

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There is a fix, but it relies on everyone actually going into their Google and iPhone and Outlook contacts and manually updating contact details. That is pretty intuitive when you’re just changing a contact on your phone, but it doesn’t always flow through. You need to do it on your computer, and specifically in the contacts area for Google and Outlook. Make sure that you consolidate all their email addresses if they have more than one. Make sure you save it once you’re done. Making sure it’s the same on your phone and computer is also a good plan, because sometimes things mysteriously don’t feed through. 

Finally, there are things that suck about being a trans person in a world that is so often invalidating. A big one is being deadnamed. If you, a cis person, notice this happening in an email chain PLEASE let the person who has done it know if you are SURE that the trans person is using their new name in that context. Sometimes it is best to check first, other times you’ll already have this information. Ask the sender directly to change the contact. To make it easy, I’ve even got a suggestion for how you might do that:

Dear lovely person

I’m just replying to this email because I noticed that X person is incorrectly named in your contacts. I know it is a pain that they can’t just update their details on Google and have it come into our contacts for them, but as long as this name is appearing in your contact details for them, it will be visible to everyone you CC your email to. Could you go into your contacts to change the name to X? These are the instructions on how to do it on Google and Outlook, just in case you didn’t already know.  I know you really care about making people feel safe and comfortable, and I think updating your contact information will make life just a little easier for X. 

Thanks in advance!

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