Governments and corporations will trust AI to make judgements on people’s identities. If those systems are trained on cis- and hetero-normative data sets, you’ll have AI that consistently misgenders people, and could be locking trans and queer people out of bathrooms, offices, homes, transportation, and medical care. Alyx Baldwin explains the problem and what companies and developers have to do in order to not build machine bias into their systems.
My relationship to my full legal name is complicated. The name I usually go by, Tiara, is the second word in my given name (my culture doesn’t really do middle names; we just have ultra-wordy given names) - and I have gone by Tiara my entire life, even incorporating it into my stage names. The first word of my name only really matters in bureaucratic contexts, where my full legal name is important; because of this, it irks me when cashiers try to be friendly and read off my debit card to greet me (seriously, stop doing this) or websites force me to use my legal name and won’t let me choose my own display name. That being said, I have it easier than most. Being called by the first word in my name is annoying, but it’s not dangerous or even day-ruining. It is not the name of my dead self, it is not a betrayal of my attempts to assimilate, it’s not unsafe (yet). I’m already so used to people overriding my take on my name and identity that it’s not a battle I really want to fight.
So when I approached Harvard Business School, in two different occasions, to use my preferred name instead of my legal given name in communication I wasn’t really expecting anything from it. I’ve had personal experiences and knew of other experiences with universities being inflexible, such as NYU telling a student they shouldn’t bother applying if they can’t afford the application fee. They’re a high-prestige formal institution, they’re probably set in their ways. At the same time, I figured that they may have other students with more pressing needs for name changes, such as trans people and immigrants, for whom the legal name change process is too onerous to pursue and thus they rely on preferred names to survive. At the very least, I could advocate for them.
And to my surprise, Harvard responded quickly to my suggestions for name changes - and responded positively.
The first time was during the application for their MBA program, where the form had a section for Preferred Name as well as Legal First and Last Name. I filled in those fields as desired:
However, on their Success! email - sent after you submit an application - I was greeted by my legal first name rather than my preferred name:
My pleasure at being asked was let down by the feeling that it didn’t seem to make a difference. This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked for my preferred name but was greeted against my wishes, so I figured it was more of the same. I didn’t want to assume bad faith, though, so I tweeted them to ask about it. Can’t hurt to try!
.@HarvardHBS Feedback on "Success!" email: since you asked for my preferred name in the app, itd be useful to have that be used in the email— Creatrix Tiara (@creatrixtiara) January 5, 2016
.@HarvardHBS It wasn't too bad for me but I'd imagine any applicants with significant name changes (e.g. trans ppl) may be taken aback by it— Creatrix Tiara (@creatrixtiara) January 5, 2016
Less than 24 hours after my tweet, they responded:
That was easy.
Their swift reply and willingness to make immediate changes was especially notable given that this was during one of their application deadlines, which meant that their system was busy dealing with thousands of incoming applications. Any changes to the backend could have caused significant technical troubles, and it would have made sense if they decided to change it after the deadline rush. Yet they decided to make that immediate switch anyway - and now a lot of people who submitted applications after me would be greeted by the name they want.
This motivated me to further push for preferred names when the same issue came up on one of Harvard Business School’s other offerings, HBX CORe - their online pre-MBA/business fundamentals program where I’m currently enrolled as a student. I don’t recall if I had been asked for my preferred name on my HBX application, but it still felt awkward to log onto my Course Dashboard and be greeted, both by the site software and by other students responding to my comments, by something other than Tiara.
I emailed HBX Support for help in changing my display name, since there was no option to set a name on my end. At first their support system assumed that I wanted to change my legal name and needed some personally identifying information as a security measure. They also warned me that giving a different name than what’s on my ID would affect my ability to sit for their final exam, an in-person exam at a nearby Pearson VUE center, as well as the name on my certificate.
I didn’t want to change the name on my paperwork, I just wanted the site and my classmates to know what to call me. So I replied to HBX to clarify, and had a little chat regarding display names and legal names, bringing up my prior success with HBS and reiterating points about misgendering and immigrant names (especially since we had a substantial international student base). They soon acknowledged that some students would feel more comfortable with a different display name, and offered to change mine on site.
I wasn’t sure if they meant my official name or my display name, so I became very clear and explicit about which names I wanted for which purposes. They confirmed the changes, and when I checked in to see that the right names were in the right places, they confirmed that it was all set:
And my classmates knew to call me Tiara from then on.
Just like the MBA application, the HBX platform was busy fielding over a couple hundred active users, especially since it had just opened. And yet, like their MBA application counterparts (granted, it could be the same people) their tech team took the time to go into the code and change a detail for my comfort. I didn’t need to show them ID or explain why I preferred the name I chose; they took me at my word. They were very prompt with their responses and were very receptive to feedback.
If Harvard can be so on the ball with preferred names, why can’t anyone else? Why can’t PayPal let me decide what name I want to show on Paypal.Me rather than plastering my full name? Why can’t I have my debit card show the name I’d rather overly-friendly cashiers call me? And why is Facebook still being fussy over names? Just one quick note to the administrators (maybe not even that), and done. Easy.
Many people and organizations look up to Harvard, especially Harvard Business School, for inspiration for best business practices. Hopefully Harvard’s flexibility with names will inspire them to also be more accommodating and open with their name policies.
In an article at the Pacific Standard, Francie Diep reminds everyone that the trans* rights movement in America didn’t start with Jenner or Mock.
Diep’s reporting on Benjamin Cerf Harris’ white paper for the US Census Bureau which crunched the numbers and found that since 1936, at least 135,000 Americans have transitioned and updated their names and/or gender markers with Social Security, and that most likely underestimates the number of trans* Americans since the SSA started.
I’m delighted to have this analysis in hand because it demonstrates that we trans* Americans have always been here.
This is my talk from Open Source Bridge in Portland from earlier this summer. It’s a 45 minute introduction to the problems people face when using software that’s not aware that peoples’ names can change.
Over the weekend, I was at an intersectional, feminist hacker camp up in the woods in Sonoma county. Under the hazy sky (there were several large wildfires in Northern California, but we were not in danger) I had a chance to talk with people about name-related issues for trans and genderqueer folks. A longer document’s underway, but here’s a takeaway from our 30 minute session:
- Facebook should have a ‘flag’ to prevent repeated demands for id.
- Facebook and anyone requiring documentation for names needs consistent policy on retention of copies of identity documents
- Google has free form name field, and then parses it without requesting user correction
- Your service should be asking for as little identifying information as possible
- Stop pushing for singular, cross-site/service identity
- Make a test suite for names, starting from the falsehoods post
Today’s bug in dealing with names and name changes was satisfying because it involved a display name field, in this case, the name on a membership card, so it flagged a case to look out for.
For the past two months my wife Cynthia had been trying to update the name on my AAA membership card, she added me to her account back before my transition. Twice before she called member services, informed them of my name change, and a week later the new card would arrive in the mail with my old name on it.
This morning Cynthia said we were going to the AAA office to escalate. And Cynthia was ready to get in people’s business about this. This is another reason why Cynthia is awesome.
Once we got in, the clerk looked up Cynthia’s account and confirmed that my name was correct on. However, the field in which you set the name you want to have printed on your membership card still had my old name. She fixed the card name field, ordered a new card for me, and printed out a temporary membership card. We thanked her, giddy with the knowledge of a new thing to test for.
What I imagine was happening was when Cynthia added me to the account, a clerk filled in my old name into the first- and last-name fields, and the system copied the values into the name-on-card field. When Cynthia called member services to change my name, the edit to the first name didn’t trigger an update to the name-on-card field, and the system generated a new card with the old name.
A test to verify correct behavior would look like: