What’s in a name? A lot, transgender
By Laura Frank, Michigan Daily Staff Reporter
December 06, 2005
For Sebastián Colón, the first day of class is always terrifying.
Colón, a first year graduate student in the School of Social Work, is a transgender student who prefers to go by his male name, Sebastián, instead of his legal female name — but he never knows by which name he will be called on the first day of class, or whether his professors and classmates will understand.
Even if all goes well on the first day, Colón said he is constantly afraid his classmates will discover his female name and use it, a situation that makes him both uncomfortable and sometimes fearful for his safety.
In the past, students have learned his legal name through the University’s directory or by seeing the name that appears when Colón posts papers and discussion comments on CTools, he said.
While he has appealed to CTools administrators, Colón said he has been told it is not possible to have his preferred, male name appear in public University directories and services instead of his legal, female name.
“The way I privately deal with my name should be that, should be my choice,” Colón said, adding that he understands that private records such as his application and financial aid information must be under his legal name.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said students can change their names on CTools by obtaining a legal name change and notifying the Office of the Registrar of the change.
But for many transgender students, a legal name change is an extremely personal decision with many potentially unwanted consequences, Colón said.
Transgender is a term that encompasses a wide range of individuals who identify, behave or express themselves in ways not traditionally associated with their birth sex.
“There (are) a million reasons for which a transgender person might need to have a chosen name but not change their legal name,” he said.
Some students may have acknowledged their transgender identity at the University but not yet at home. They sometimes use one name with family and another at school, he said. Others may have sentimental or professional reasons for not wanting to change their names legally.
For Colón, his legal name is a link to his roots in Puerto Rico and Austin, Texas and to his long history as an activist, when he identified as female. In those communities, he feels comfortable being addressed by his legal name, he said.
“I don’t feel I’m ready right now (to change my name legally), but I’m ready to use (my chosen name) as a public statement here,” Colón said. “This is a new time in my life,” he added.
At his previous job, Colón said, his employers were able to accommodate his situation by putting his confidential contract and financial information under his legal name but using his preferred male name on all public documents.
At University Health Services and the Office of Financial Aid, the staff has been able to similarly accommodate his request, he added. Since he told them of his desire to be known as Sebastián, the staffs at both offices have made notes in his file and use only that name, although his records are still under his legal name, he said.
“The University is trying,” Colón said. “I want
to trust that. I choose to.”
But the discomfort he experiences from knowing that his legal name is available online and in the directory for classmates and professors to see has made his experience at the University nerve-wracking and stressful at times.
According to a report from the Subcommittee for Name Changes, part of the Provost’s Task Force on the Campus Climate for Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Faculty, Staff and Students, the current computer system is unable to use nonlegal names, but other options are available to work around the problem.
Such solutions include using a nickname on CTools in addition to, not instead of the legal name; creating a “Friend” account on CTools, which requires permission from individual instructors; making a directory listing private so that only the e-mail address is available; and creating an e-mail group under the preferred name.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we can do,”
Cunningham said. “And we’re not finished.”
University members may one day have the option of substituting a preferred or professional name in University databases, but that choice is currently not available because of the technical situation, according to the report.
The subcommittee recommended updating Wolverine Access to allow students and staff to input preferred names that would be used in the online and paper directories. The change would cost an estimated $96,700, the report noted.
The School of Social Work has tried to discuss the possibility of allowing transgender students to use nonlegal names on CTools with University computer technicians, but has not been successful, said Dean Richard Tolman, associate dean of the School of Social Work.
In the meantime, the school tries to limit problems for transgender students by alerting professors before the first day of class about those who wish to use a name different from the one on the class list and encouraging professors to use e-mail discussions instead of CTools, Tolman said.
“It’s not perfect, but that’s the way we try to
work around,” he said.
But even with these measures, problems arise. Because his papers on CTools must be posted under his legal name, Colón said many students in his classes have become confused about how to address him. In one class, students became so confused, Colón said he was forced to make an uncomfortable presentation to the entire class explaining his transgender identity and his desire to be known by his male name.
Colón also said that while his professors this semester have been very supportive and careful about using his chosen name, he fears that one day he may encounter someone who will not be as understanding.
“My professors were cool, but what if not?”
Colón said. “Who am I to call them out?”
Tolman, the Social Work associate dean, said he has tried to lead the way in promoting a positive campus climate for transgender University members.
“(As social workers), that’s what we’re supposed to be brilliant at,” Tolman said. “Social workers are people who are supposed to eliminate barriers”
After the provost’s task force issued its report, the School of Social Work formed its own task force to examine issues facing transgender students. The task force’s report revealed the need for more education for faculty and students about LGBT issues, which the school has been trying to provide, Tolman said. But he added that a truly welcoming climate will take years to achieve.
“It takes a lot of energy and commitment,”
Fighting to have his chosen name used in public University directories has indeed taken a lot of energy, Colón said.
“It’s overwhelming, and it’s scary, and it’s difficult,” he said. “I’m tired. It’s too much. … I’m supposed to be reading, doing papers.”
Colón said he worries that if the process for changing a name in the University system remains so inflexible, it will be an insurmountable obstacle for younger students or for students who are just acknowledging their transgender identities.
If the process is so painful and difficult for him, a graduate student with years of experience in activism, Colón wondered, “What about a first year undergrad? Or what about someone who comes here, and they haven’t come out? … They should have support, not barriers.”
Names are an important part of identity, Colón. While the University is working to make the campus more welcoming for transgender individuals, he said more needs to be done.
His message to administrators: “I know you want to, and I’m telling you it’s urgent.”
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