There as been a lot of news this past week about the very sad suicide of Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, which was the result of Grantland reporter Caleb Hannan outing her as transgender.
In the wake of this news, Violet Blue wrote an article for ZDNet, which uncovered how Google has also been outing transgender people after upgrading to Android 4.4 aka KitKat.
The TL;DR version of Blue’s article is:
- Some trans people use one name on Google+—we will call this their real name. People on Google+ may or may not know they are transgender. That part is irrelevant. The part that is relevant is that is that their Google+ world is their real self. They may not be ready, for a variety of reasons, for their “in real life” world to know about this real self. But, because they are not “out” at work, with some peers, and/or family members, they use another name on for their Gmail and messaging on their phone—we will call this their assigned name at birth.
- After upgrading to Android 4.4, Google Hangouts became their default SMS app.
- Google Hangouts is tied to their real name listed on Google+.
- Their assigned name at birth—which once appeared as their name in the old messaging app and Gmail—has suddenly been replaced with their real name, thanks to Google’s infinite “wisdom” of integrating all of their services with Google+.
- Now, they’ve been outed without their consent or transparency on the part of Google about what will happen to your ID when you upgrade to Android 4.4.
- Google is saying, to paraphrase, “This isn’t our fault. It’s user error.”
When I read the news last night, my heart sank. I frantically went through all of my accounts associated with my Google+ account to make sure my real name is listed everywhere. My Galaxy Note III is still running Android 4.3, so I didn’t have to worry about the Google Hangouts thing, just yet. But, I wanted to make sure that when the upgrade finally becomes available to me, I won’t have to worry about my assigned name at birth popping up somewhere.
You see, I’m already mostly out. So, that isn’t something I necessarily have to worry about. I’ve legally changed my name, which also means that my assigned name at birth was destroyed and new birth records and a new birth certificate was created. But, I do have a different type of “outing” to worry about.
There are people, including my entire family, who, despite a legal name change, refuse to call me by my real name. New people come into my life who do not know I had an assigned birth name that differs from my legal name. I don’t ever want to give anyone any more “reason” to use my wrong name, or gain knowledge of it without it being on my terms.
After all, this is my life, my name, my identity. I should have control over this very private part of my life. And, so should you.
After my legal name change, I had to update all of my online profiles. It is very easy to miss one, especially if some of your online profiles are throw-away accounts. The Gmail account attached to my Google+ profile is one of my throw-away accounts, because of privacy and personal safety reason.
Missing from Blue’s article are some steps you can take in order to protect your identity. Here are two things you can do, right now, in order to protect yourself:
- If your situation is similar to mine, meaning: you are out; or, have recently legally changed your name, but you don’t want new people to know your past self; and/or you have people who refuse to call you by your real name and you don’t want to give them any more “reason” to be transphobic towards you, then do the following:
- Log into your Gmail account.
- Click the spokes button under your avatar.
- Click “Settings.”
- Click “Accounts.”
- Beside “Send mail as:” make sure it’s the same name as your Google+ account. Make sure your assigned name at birth isn’t listed when you click “Edit info.” After my legal name change, it took quite some time for Google to erase my old name. It’s only quite recent that it was no longer listed in Gmail.
- If your situation is such where you need to use your assigned name at work, with your peers, and with your family, then you’ll have to set up another Gmail account using your real name. It’s not ideal, but it is what a lot of my trans peers have done. Once you setup the new Gmail account, you’ll need to do the following:
- Create a new Google+ account that is attached to the Gmail account that uses your real name.
- Start re-adding people to your circles, rejoin all your communities, notify your Google+ pals of the changed account, etc. Yes, it’s a lot of work.
- Deactivate the Google+ account that is attached to your assigned name at birth. Because, despite your Google+ account using your real name and your Gmail account using your assigned name, soon the Google+ name will overwrite your assigned name. If you need to keep that account as your assigned name, you cannot have it attached to a Google+ account unless you want to change the Google+ account name to your assigned named. I really hope this point makes sense, because it is a little convoluted and it shouldn’t have to be.
- Add the new account which is using your real name to your Android devices. The upside to Android is that you can be logged into different accounts for different apps. I am logged into my throw-away Google account for Google+ (I never check my Gmail and I don’t use Google Hangouts), and my real name account for Google Play.
While the above steps are not ideal, these are some things you can do. The ideal thing would be for Google to wake up and realize that there are valid reasons for using different identities for different products. Not everyone who uses a pseudonym is a troll. Not only could these people be transgender and, for very valid reasons, have to hide this fact. But, they could also be people escaping abusive relationships, who still have to use two sets of names. And the list can go on.
I hope I made sense. If not, please feel free to ask a question in comments, and I’ll do my best to clarify.