Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed column. Katriel Paige is a nonbinary professional in the field of web usability, having gone through a M.A. in intercultural communication in international business at the University of Surrey in Great Britain and a B.A. at the University of Delaware. They like Japanese animation and are interested in media studies and folklore.
Thanks to mainstream media, it seems that the sole concern for transgender individuals these days is navigating public restrooms and other public spaces. But far more issues impede upon trans people’s well-being and livelihood.
A major concern for trans people today is the process of legally changing one’s name, as well as one’s gender marker, on official records. People change their names for a multitude of reasons, no matter their gender identity. For transgender and genderqueer people, like anyone else, changing one’s name is an important part of their own recognition of their identity. But because names are often associated with being male- or female-sounding, changing a name to suit one’s gender identification is an important part of the person telling others how they wish to be treated and identified. A transgender woman may be named Lawrence at birth but go by Elle, Elly or Lisa — keeping the initial sound intact, but signaling to others that she is a woman and should be recognized as such.
Changing one’s name in the United States, however, requires money and time. If the change does not coincide with a new legal family status (such as a birth, marriage or divorce), then that means going through the courts for a name change order. That process can take months and cost $500 or even more between court fees, publication fees and associated costs. There are legal aid clinics expressly for LGBTQ people that help in the matter of filing a name change court order in several metropolitan areas, including Chicago and Baltimore. But those clinics often have waiting lists, and it can take a long time to get assistance even if a person qualifies for aid.
I’d like to address two issues in the essay regarding name changes for transgender and genderqueer students. Both come down to legal requirements and the availability of money.
First and most important, trans and genderqueer students may not have the financial means to afford the court order process to change their names legally. Students from poor or working-class families and students of color are probably disproportionately affected by this barrier to transitioning.
Also, depending on the court and locality, the student may have to appear in court in person. That requires taking time to make the court date and appointment, and it also poses the real threat of harassment. Even though the court system is supposed to be impartial, in some instances, clerks and judges have assumed that the person changing their name is doing so to defraud others. In the case of transgender and genderqueer students, that assumption can be unjustly magnified.
At many colleges and universities, students are supposed to be able to use a nickname, but that is not always the case for trans or genderqueer students. Again the assumption is that the student is attempting to trick others — the very motivation cited as the core of “trans panic” murder defenses. The skepticism trans and genderqueer students face is inherently dangerous. Cisgender students are often able to record a nickname at least during lectures, but different higher education institutions have different nickname/alternate name policies. Legal names are also often tied in with official student records, and that can create issues when it comes to recording grades as well as issuing graduation clearances and names on degrees.
The fact that different institutions have different policies regarding names and records is compounded if a student, for example, transfers between a community college and a university. They might be able to go by their nickname and change their records to their preferred name without having to go through a legal name change at the community college, but they may be forced to “deadname” themselves — going by their name assigned at birth — at the university, potentially outing themselves as a different gender than what they identify as.
Colleges and universities should recognize that trans and genderqueer students may not be able to legally change their names; they should respect the name a student goes by while in school, even if not recognized by law. Many universities do have name change procedures for chosen names in place, such as the City University of New York system, the University of Colorado Boulder and others, as seen via the Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse.
My second concern is that many students are assumed to have some amount of family contribution toward their university education. This is evidenced by the FAFSA process, in which undergraduates are assumed to have family support when calculating student aid eligibility, while postgraduates are assumed to be financially independent. Yet because of family rejection or family strain due to relatives’ transphobic bias, many undergraduate trans and genderqueer students may lack such family support. Some students perceive, or have explicitly been warned, that they will lose their family’s support if they come out as trans or begin transitioning.
Further, there may not even be a home to return to during school breaks or after graduation. This means that even if they do manage to go through the legal process of changing their name, the student may run into difficulties with continuing to pay for their education. Scholarships and financial aid might also be awarded to the name at birth and not the name the student goes by, causing financial difficulty and issues with records if nicknames and legal names are not recorded, or if a legal name change is still in process — and therefore in limbo.
Universities should recognize that while some trans and genderqueer students are financially able to attend college, it may be at great personal cost. They should not further punish trans students, especially those who are unable to afford a legal name change, by exclusively recognizing their legal name and gender. A trans student’s chosen name should be honored just as a cisgender student’s nickname is (Liz instead of Elizabeth). They should ensure that students are respected in academe and not force students to decide between wider recognition of their identity or their ability to receive an education in the first place.