Quick hit: “Microsoft’s ‘Chuck Norris'” thinks trans people are liars

In a blog post from last December on the Microsoft Developer Network web site, Raymond Chen (described on another Microsoft site as “Microsoft’s Chuck Norris”) accuses people who change their names on their birth certificates of “lying”. (Content warning: cissexism and inquiry-resistant dialogue, particularly in the comments section.)

It’d be like asking the church to go update its registry to change your birth name. “Yes, I know that I was born with the name Amélie Bernadette, but please change your files so it says that I was born with the name Chloë Dominique. Thanks.”

The church isn’t going to do that because that would now be lying. You were born with the name Amélie Bernadette. You are welcome to change your name to Chloë Dominique, but that doesn’t change the fact that you were born with the name Amélie Bernadette.

First, in my country, the US, churches aren’t responsible for keeping track of vital records — state governments are.

Second, infants are not born with names; adults (usually their parents) assign them names. If I have a baby today and name hir “Dale”, my act of naming is not a logical proposition that can be true or false. The baby was not born “Dale”; I would be assigning that name to hir. It’s a speech act — it has effects in the world. As we know in the world of programming languages, we can’t apply the same reasoning to programs (or speech acts) that mutate state as we can to purely functional programs (or assertions of truth and falsity).

Third, calling people who amend their birth certificates “liars” disregards the very real burden of administrative confusion that people like me who have different forms of identification bearing different names deal with. This confusion steals time that we could be using to do productive things. Having a consistent name on all of one’s papers makes life easier. It’s easy for people whose lives have always been easy in this regard (which is to say, cis men who don’t face any need to change their names, aren’t expected to marry and take their spouse’s surname, and so on) to sneer at people who lack the privilege of having a single name that others recognize. That denial of one’s own privilege doesn’t change the truth, though, which is that social structures make it difficult to go through life with identification that carries a name that isn’t appropriate for you.

Fourth, I think we would all agree that it’s okay for people to amend their birth certificates to correct errors (for example, if your birth certificate says you were born on January 1, 1980 when it was actually January 1, 1979). Usually, it’s assumed that these errors are administrative. But giving a masculine-coded name to a girl, or a feminine-coded name to a boy, is effectively an error on the parents’ part. So why treat parental errors differently from bureaucratic ones?

Fifth, one can imagine a response to the third and fourth points saying: “I recognize incorrect birth certificates might be inconvenient, but it’s important for birth certificates to reflect the first name that a person was assigned and the first sex that a person was assigned. That’s more important to me than convenience.” Belief in and faith in the concept of an error-free historical record is a privilege. (And anyway, what historical record was ever free from errors? People make records.) The privilege here is the freedom to believe in an abstraction (that is, a certain construct of historical accuracy) so strongly that you put the ostensible purity of that abstraction ahead of the needs of real, living, breathing humans. Some of us don’t have the luxury of sacrificing our dignity and respect for the sake of an abstraction — we’re just trying to survive.

When you call people who amend their birth certificates “liars”, you’re calling those of us who are transsexual, transgender, and/or genderqueer liars, since we are a large percentage of people who need to amend their birth certificates (for reasons other than recording errors). And what you’re really doing when you say that is saying that cis people (people who were assigned the right sex at birth) are more honest and trustworthy than trans people — that the acts of naming that we perform on ourselves are somehow less true than the acts of naming that cis people perform on us without our consent. Thus, what you’re really doing is asserting power, but pretending you’re making a logically true or false statement.

While Chen doesn’t use the example of changing one’s sex marker to illustrate his point, the same reasoning applies, since a sex or gender marker is just another kind of name (one that happens to be shared by many people — but so are the names “John” and “Jane”). Like a person’s name, their sex is assigned; the difference is that no one has an inherent sense of what their name is, but many of us do have an inherent sense of what our sex is. Most people are assigned the correct sex at birth, and never need to think about it again — but sometimes, as with the people who assumed I was a baby girl when I was born, people make a mistake.

Why am I writing about this here? Because it illustrates the kinds of microaggressions that those of us who aren’t cissexual, heterosexual men have to endure every day when working in the tech industry. We can’t even read an innocent-looking technical blog post without being unexpectedly told that our lives are lies.

Thanks to Sumana and Liz for their comments!

Edited to add: I’ll be deleting any comments concerning Chen’s intent. If you’re inclined to make such a comment, consider how you would feel if you were told that somebody didn’t mean to dehumanize you — you just weren’t important enough for them to even bother to think about the effect of their speech on you.

9 thoughts on “Quick hit: “Microsoft’s ‘Chuck Norris'” thinks trans people are liars

    1. Tim Chevalier

      It’s a term coined by my friend Ken Shan (@ccshan on Twitter) that I’m trying to popularize! Basically, it means speech that protects itself at the outset from a countervailing narrative, frequently by taking advantage of the speaker’s social power. So an example is a cis person saying that trans women are biologically male, because this appears to be a scientific (hence potentially falsifiable) statement, but it’s really not, because “biologically male” here is really just a placeholder for “Because of who I am in society, I get to decide who people are.”

      To me, lots of the derailing strategies listed at http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Silencing_tactics are examples of inquiry-resistant dialogue too — for example, “You’re overreacting” is inquiry-resistant because any attempt to prove that one is *not* overreacting will just be taken as further evidence that one is overreacting.

        1. Tim Chevalier

          Huh, I’ll have to read that more carefully. I’d assumed this phrase was original to Ken because there weren’t too many unrelated google hits, but I guess it wasn’t turning up hits for “inquiry resistance”. Interesting!

  1. Tim Chevalier

    A few friends pointed out other examples of people who amend their birth certificate:

    * One friend has a young child whose name was misspelled on her birth certificate when she was born. My friend had to petition to have the name corrected to the one she intended to name her kid.

    * Adoptees often have their birth certificate changed to reflect their adoptive parent or parents’ surname. (And people can undergo adoption as adults, too. I’m not sure how often adult adoptees take their new adoptive parents’ names.)

    * In some countries, when a minor gets a legal name change (due to adoption, parents’ divorce, or any other reason), their birth certificate is automatically changed to reflect the new name.

    I don’t think that Chen, and the commenters agreeing with him, would say that my friend’s child, or adopted children, or minors with divorced and remarried parents, are liars, at least not automatically. So I think what’s at stake here is who is socially valued and worthy enough to get mistakes about their personal information corrected. It’s about who gets considered as in possession of fact and of truth.

  2. Tom L

    I think there’s an appropriate separation to be made here between the deeply offensive language Chen uses – which is to be reviled – and procedural issues about birth certificates and other identifying documents (for example academic transcripts).

    It seems totally appropriate for agencies to amend or reissue identifying documents in a new name or with other changes as requested by their subjects – with the usual caveats on the cost of implementing such a system (usually small processing fees, forms to complete etc).

    But isn’t it also generally fine for them to track and keep a history of all changes that have been made, and maintain systems that respond to searches on former names, and other historical artefacts where reasonable?

    Then this history of personal information needs to be subject to the same principles of privacy, retention, replication and sharing of personal information that generally applies in public databases.

    1. Tim Chevalier

      Yes, but those principles need to be balanced with the unique privacy needs that trans people, particularly trans women, who have changed their names have — disclosure of a previous name can result in unemployment and in violence (physical and otherwise) when you’re trans.

      I’m not saying “throw all principles out the window”, it’s just that I’m in this debate mainly from the perspective of a vulnerable minority group that is under attack from a majority, and I don’t hold much stock in any set of principles that disregards that.

      To give you an example, in many places where a minor who is trans gets a legal name change (this may be true for all minors’ name changes, I’m not sure) and has their birth certificate updated, the old birth certificate is sealed by the courthouse. Basically nobody can get access to it. And I am totally fine with that, and wouldn’t object to that rule being extended to adults who request it.

      1. Tom L

        Sure – I think we agree, but your perspective helps. In general one’s personal information and personal history should be extremely difficult for the general public to access, and carefully controlled for agents of the appropriate state departments.

        There are many other privacy issues that can have a similarly damaging effect on employment or other aspects of life.

        However, sometimes the boot is on the other foot and natural justice can only be supported by agencies finding and assessing historical personal data. To give an example, child support enforcement.

      2. Danielle

        In my state of birth, this is how it is done – a new certificate is issued, bearing no mention of being amended, and the original is impounded.

        That said, I will likely have to take some extra legal action to get that document updated as the state refuse to recognize my name change order from another state (my current state of residence) as legal due to a procedural difference between the two states.

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