Things to do if you think someone has been or may be outed:

2014-08-06 16:37

(CAVEAT: This is a draft. It may get updated. Feel free to suggest improvements.)

In the last month or so, I’ve twice seen conversations in which the following pattern occurred:

1. Person A says something from which a reader might conclude that Person B is trans.
2. Person B does not visibly respond or notice.
3. Person C makes public drama about Person A “outing” the trans person.
4. Persons D through G, who had not noticed the original claim, find out about it through Person C’s public drama.

One of these happened in chat in Rift. In that case, the trans person in question was in fact already “out”, although she did not make a big point of reminding everyone, so not everyone knew, but there was no intent to keep it a secret. She hadn’t been outed, but she found the extra attention of fifteen minutes of discussion of whether she had been “outed” rather unpleasant.

The other involves the D&D 5e flame wars. In these, someone had at one point blogged about having been harassed by a person, and gave several screen names that person had used, plus two names they’d used in publications. Someone accused her of “outing” them. In this case, by contrast, I don’t actually even know, or particularly think it is any of my business, whether the person is trans. What I do care about is that people in the thread accusing the blogger of “outing” someone were reporting that they had not drawn the conclusion that the alleged victim was trans.

Because SCIENCE!! is good even if you can’t do a proper control group, I’ve asked a couple of people I know who were previously unaware of this debacle to look into things which would cause them to encounter the person in question, and gotten feedback. To avoid any bias introduced by the tendency of many people not to even think of someone being trans as an option, I asked only people who were themselves trans.

Responses: So far, all of them have come up with both names and suggested that one appears to be a pseudonym or pen name for the other. None of them have come up with the suggestion that the presence of these two names indicates any particular likelihood that the person with these two names is trans. All have observed that it’s not really possible to “out” someone by referring to the two names under which they currently have works in print and the like.

But it is possible to “out” them by telling everyone that those two names are a result of them being trans, not just publication credits or pen names.

… Assuming they’re trans. They might be, they might not be. I don’t know, and it remains none of my business.

So, where am I going with this?

Don’t Do That.

If you think someone may have been outed, do not make a public scene about them being outed, because you will be exchanging doubt for certainty. Contact the person who made the remarks, privately, to point out why you think this might out someone, and ask them to change it if the medium permits it. Contact the person who may have been outed to alert them. Then… stop. You’re done. You did your part. You acted in a way which could potentially reduce either the probability or the amount of harm.

Unless someone specifically tells you that they are done not-being-out, and are specifically okay with their identity being the primary topic of a discussion, do not start new discussions about how they have been outed. Even if you’re really mad. Especially if you’re really mad; reasoned judgment is not one of the hallmarks of anger. Even if you think it was done on purpose. Because the goal here should not be to maximize harm to someone you’re mad at, it should be to protect someone who might be endangered.

If you think that someone is likely to out other people, then it may make sense to see whether there are people they have outed who are now okay with talking about it, and whether those people want to be used as examples. If they don’t, well. You can make vague assertions and hope for the best, or you can be quiet and hope for the best. But do not take it upon yourself to use someone else’s identity being leaked as a way to attack people.

This is especially true when dealing with Internet drama, where it’s quite common for people to have one or more names of different genders for reasons that have nothing at all to do with being trans.

Thank you.

Peter Seebach