Black Hat apologizes for erasing ‘they’ pronoun from non-binary speaker’s bio
A technology law expert scheduled to give a talk on August 4 at Black Hat accused conference organizers of transphobia after removing their pronouns from a submitted speaker bio.
Kendra Albert, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, is part of the panel for a Briefing called “Smashing the ML Stack for Fun and Lawsuits”—a deep dive into the legal risks facing researchers who test commercial machine learning systems. Albert is also non-binary and transgender, so they used their normal pronouns, which are they/them, in the bio submitted with their talk.
But, as Albert posted on Twitter Thursday, the version that ended up on the Black Hat website was different, replacing every instance of “they” with their first name.
Intentionally or unintentionally referring to someone with the wrong pronouns is a form of misgendering that can make non-binary, trans, or other people whose gender identity differs from the sex assigned to them at birth feel alienated or stigmatized, Co-Director of the Harvard Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression Health Equity Research Collaborative Dr. Sabra Katz-Wise explained in a recent post for Harvard Medical. This is in part, social science research suggests, because it comes with the additional psychological and social burden of having to weigh how or when it’s safe to correct others about their own authentic selves. Having pro-active affirmations of gender identity removed is also a form of erasure, a type of discriminatory censorship that the queer community has battled throughout history.
Albert also posted a snippet of the apparent initial private response from Black Hat showing an organizer apologizing for the error, but describing it as intended to address a perceived grammar issue rather than a gender issue.
In response to a question on Twitter, Albert explained their frustration with that response, writing “the fact that someone went out of their way to edit my pronouns out (and no other speakers) is transphobic.”
Albert declined to comment on the issue further to The Record other than referring to their public tweets. The bio on the Black Hat website has since been updated to include use of Albert’s correct pronoun, as submitted.
Black Hat provided a statement from General Manager Steve Wylie apologizing for the incident in response to a request for comment from The Record.
“On behalf of Black Hat, we apologize for our mistake in not providing the accurate pronoun for one our of [sic] Briefings speakers in their bio; we have updated the bio to reflect their correct pronouns,” the statement read.
All staff would continue to go through sensitivity training provided by the company and the conference will continue “to strive for diversity and inclusion in our content lineups each year,” Wylie added.
Black Hat, like many cybersecurity industry events, has a spotty record when it comes to diversity. Although the conference’s current Code of Conduct specifically prohibits “any form of harassing, offensive, discriminatory, or threatening speech or behavior” related to gender identity, among many other categories, it was long known as a male-dominated space associated with hard-partying, sexualized signage, and accusations of harassment.
In recent years, Black Hat added a “Community” track aimed at addressing some of these social issues, including diversity and harassment, within the cybersecurity industry—although the conference remains largely focused on business and deal-making. And Albert’s experience shows that for many it’s not just diversity and inclusion, but also the respect and thought that goes into that inclusion, that are key to building a security community where everyone feels welcome.
Andrea Peterson (they/them) is a longtime cybersecurity journalist who cut their teeth covering technology policy at ThinkProgress (RIP) and The Washington Post before doing deep-dive public records investigations at the Project on Government Oversight and American Oversight.