Institutional failings: universities and trans folk

Universities in North America are, by and large, massively failing to support and create a safe environment for their trans students, at even the most basic level.

Most universities will only register students under their legal names, and while I’m sure there are some that do, I don’t know of a single one that also records students’ preferred names and has a way of communicating those to the professors. I actually know of at least one university that insists that your university email address must directly reflect you legal name as registered in the school, as if that’s an unproblematic thing to require.

As it stands, if a trans student doesn’t want to go through pain and potential humiliation of explaining that yes, that name that was just called on the roster, which is at clear odds to their gender presentation, does represent them, but also, no it is not their name, they are 100% responsible to reaching out to each of their professors, individually, every semester in the hopes that if they ask the professors to call them by their preferred name, that those professors will actually remember and do so. Sometimes even that doesn’t work.

Let me put this another way: trans students who have not yet legally changed their names have to choose between outing themselves to every professor they ever have, being outed to each of their classes on the first day, or being mis-named throughout their entire time at the school. Starting university is stressful enough as it is; imagine having to take the risk of discovering that one of your professors is anti-trans, by having them attack you personally, before you even go to your first day.

This shit needs to be fixed. By failing to have preferred name policies in place, universities are inflicting violence on trans students.

But it doesn’t even stop there.

My spouse-person changed their name at some point before starting grad school last September, but after they had applied for the program. This means they were initially registered under their birth name and had to try to get their records changed, and we got to witness first hand what a shit-show that turned out to be.

Even with a legal name change certificate in hand, they never managed to get their name completely changed in the system. They informed four different offices/departments who all changed their name in various places, and yet their birth name continued to pop up all over the place, like playing whack-a-mole.

Their name was never changed in Blackboard (a system through which online courses are accessed, and where professors sometimes ask students to post reading responses or discussion forums), which meant they couldn’t post there without revealing their birth name. They was fortunate in that their professors were understanding about this and allowed them to submit those assignments directly via email, but this shouldn’t be something that individual students have to negotiate solutions to. This should be something that the university has a procedure for handling.

For them this simply was frustrating and annoying, but for someone else it could just have easily been painful, humiliating, and even triggering. Nothing about it was ok.

Trans people are, more often than not, made solely responsible for making sure we are called by the correct names and pronouns, but it shouldn’t be that way. It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that people are treated with a basic level of respect, and that includes respecting what they want to be called. It is universities’ (and all other institutions’) responsibility to make sure that they have policies and procedures in place to create spaces where their students can attend classes without facing violence from those institutions and the people who work for them.

Universities can’t guarantee that trans students won’t have bigoted classmates, but they sure as shit can make sure that they at least honour those students’ names, consistently and with minimal effort required on the part of the students. All students should be proactively asked if they have a preferred name for class rosters – this would honestly just save time on first roll call, for everyone, but also it takes the burden off of trans students of actively outing themselves at any level or seeking ‘special’ treatment.

This isn’t even difficult. How is it 2015 and this isn’t already standard procedure?

Fuck.

7 comments

  1. University employee here. I 100% agree with this – even if faculty are asking for preferred name – what if a student doesn’t want the professor or the class to know they’re trans? By assuming trans student can just give their preferred name if/when a professor asks, we’re outing students, and that’s not okay. This isn’t just “oh I prefer to go by my middle name” – this could be someone’s overall well-being and safety at stake. Yikes.

    And…I know why this happens. Both universities I’ve worked for have a preferred name/nickname field in their main database that we note how a student prefers to be addressed. So technically, there is something in place. But when those of us on the back end, the analysts and database admins, pull lists, we often just pull first and last instead of preferred. That’s totally cis-gender privilege at play, and a lack of clear communication or policies stating that preferred name must be used – because it’s not required, we just don’t think about it, and that’s a big problem. That’s just wrong.

    Reading this made me realize that I’ve been making this error myself, and so is at least one other member of my team I spoke to this morning. I am totally calling us out on that, and I recognize how infuriating that is for a trans student who did go through the process of telling us…and then we just don’t pull the right field. All I can say is that I feel terrible, I’m truly sorry for any frustrations my oversights have caused our students, and I’m going to fix it in my own work and in the work my unit does.

    I’m a database admin, so I can make changes to policies surrounding this particular database and what it does. The documentation for the database I oversee is going to get a new paragraph explaining that queries have to look for preferred name, and if a preferred name is present, preferred name should always override first name in any query results. My teammates are also on board – I ran to my boss’s office as soon as I read this and admitted that we’re very inconsistent about how we query name fields. We are going to make sure all name field queries have a script that will override first name with preferred name.

    But I’m just one department – there are a lot of people who pull student lists, and multiple systems in which student names are stored. Many universities are highly siloed and the one I work for is no exception. You described it as playing whack-a-mole, and that’s very accurate. It feels that way for the staff as well – even the systems/data analysts don’t always know where the data comes from or who enters it or what the policies are. On a unit level, most units don’t have access to all parts of the database, so telling one unit about a name change doesn’t mean others will be aware. As you noted, even telling 4 units doesn’t always get everything updated, because we may update our part of the db, but there usually aren’t processes in place that say, “If you make this update, you also need to notify the following departments to do the same.” Often, staff doesn’t even know who else needs to be made aware, and it gets put on the student – but if we don’t even know, how the hell can we expect students to know? It’s ridiculous.

    Thank you. We do have a few trans students that we’re aware of, and probably more that we’re not aware of, and I have to admit that we do need to do a better by them. I’ll start with myself. I’m going to fix the policy within my power to fix, and I’m going to do it today. The new policy will then be posted publicly when our new website goes live in a few weeks. I’m also going to be a more vocal advocate for our trans students – particularly how (and if!) their personal data is displayed and shared. My team wants to start some conversations with other units about what the policies are for trans students, because we don’t know – and now I’m particularly curious about how class rosters are pulled. I’m worried now that we might be outing trans students and I don’t want that to happen. So I’ve got some work to do!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing! I mean, I knew that he process of getting a name changed throughput a large system wouldn’t be simple, but I also wonder if it’s not similar to he process of getting someone into the system I the first place? Like, if there’s a working process for that, there should be one for changes – particularly in the case of my spouse, since that wasn’t even a preferred name issue; they legally changed their name!

    2. Also if someone does prefer to go by their middle name, it seems like that is relevant? If someone has a nickname that is drastically different from their legal name, if everyone knows them as Becky and people get confused if they’re called Rebecca, or worse with things like Pepe as a common nickname for José which the average non-Hispanic person might not know… Professors should be calling on people by preferred names if at all possible, IDs should have preferred names, emails, etc. Why are nicknames or preferred names dismissed UNLESS the more serious topic of a trans person’s entire identity being invalidated is raised? I can see why college stuff is so complex in the USA and a very legal process and you must somewhere submit your birth name, BUT… yeah. This post is important, Kasey.

      1. Yes! I totally agree that preferred names are important to everyone! Trans folk just get more focus on account of the potebual consequences of being birthnamed tend toward the more severe (whether because of dysphoria or simply because being outed can endanger us.)

  2. Wack-a-mole is so descriptive. I deal with name and title stuff constantly. For me, it is usually in the medical system. It is bad enough in a waiting room, with a bunch of people I might not meet again. I can’t imagine how bad it would be in a classroom, with a group of people I will be spending the term with.

  3. Thankfully, my university has a preferred name system and it’s used to populate rosters and the site used for class discussion forums and the like. I don’t know what I’d do without it. Still, there are other systems that use legal name for no apparent reason. Consistency would be a huge relief. There’s no reason to use legal name for anything except internal record keeping, but it seems to mostly be oversight that it’s still used in many systems. The preferred name function seems to target the most potentially problematic systems, which is great, but it would be even better if it was always used. But of course the most ridiculous thing is the apparent rarity of even the type of system my university does have. I would say I got lucky but I’ll admit I partially chose this university because of its policies. Like I said, I can’t imagine what I’d do without them.

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