Picking Your Own Name

More and more universities are adopting chosen name and preferred pronoun policies, an act that's inclusive of transgender and nonbinary students.

September 17, 2019
 
A transgender student's ID card

Dartmouth College's new Chosen Name and Identity policy allows students to select what name they wish to go by on official documents and what pronouns they prefer. This can also apply to Dartmouth students who prefer to use shortened versions of their full names or their middle names.

Policies like this, while primarily existing to be more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary students, can also serve international students who choose to assume an Americanized name while studying in the States, Dartmouth notes. However, international students may need to consult with visa and immigration services prior to making this change to their records.

Starting this fall, chosen names will appear on Dartmouth’s register, class roster and online directory. Students will also be able to decide which name appears on official certificates, diplomas and transcripts.

Meredith Braz, Dartmouth’s registrar, was one of the individuals who spearheaded this initiative.

“I view this initiative as an issue of inclusivity and respect, as well as a contribution to the learning environment for our students,” Braz said. “Thus far its reception has been universally positive and I have received thank-you emails from students.”

Some students who go through the process of changing campus documents will find that they must leave their legal name in payroll and financial aid systems.

In the past, similar initiatives have struggled with educating the campus community on why moves like these are important and how they can be enacted.

The system of self-selecting pronouns has also been abused by students who use it to misrepresent themselves or mock the issue. In 2016 a conservative activist at the University of Michigan selected the pronoun “His Majesty” to protest the university’s “absurdity” in adopting a preferred pronoun policy (UM pointed out that that is a title and not a pronoun that can be selected).

Dartmouth joins 20 other universities nationwide that give students the option to select their chosen name and pronouns; more than 50 allow for students to change their gender on campus documents without medical intervention; and over 180 permit students to use a name other than their first name on campus records.

The University of Vermont was one of the first universities to implement a system like this. Pronouns are a part of the culture at UVM. The university manages students' preferred pronouns and chosen names through its student information system, Banner, and the only big challenge is making sure all systems are up-to-date across the board.

“It’s been a really long time here, so there’s been a lot of culture change. Not a lot of resistance at this point,” said Kate Jerman, director of the Vermont’s Prism Center for LGBTQ+ and ally students. “I hope that it means that all of our students feel seen, respected and valued. Getting someone’s pronouns right doesn’t seem like an extra -- it seems like a basic thing we can do.”

Jerman said that at this point the ability for students to select their pronouns and chosen name is a built-in feature in Banner and should be accessible to any university that uses the system.

On Monday, Manhattanville College in Harrison, N.Y., issued its first ID cards listing chosen first names that had not yet been legally changed.

Robyn Schlesinger, a student in the doctoral program in education at Manhattanville, began her social transition process around a year ago. Schlesinger has worked in higher education administration for just over 25 years.

Despite not yet legally changing her name, she was able to receive her ID card with her chosen name. After New York’s Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) passed in January of this year, Schlesinger asked Manhattanville’s IT department to change her name on her ID card.

Previously, “when someone is going through a transition or someone wants to make a change in their identity, they have to be proactive about it,” Schlesinger said. This involved going to campus security and informing them of any changes.

As an attorney, Schlesinger said that “from a legal perspective, the only thing that needs to list one's legal name is grades, the transcript.” She thinks a lot of colleges don't understand what needs to be listed under a legal name.

In getting the college to move forward, Schlesinger said she found success in sharing effective best practices from other institutions. This demonstrated that change was possible.

“The only resistance is the normal resistance in higher ed, that kind of bureaucratic ‘this is the way we do things,’” Schlesinger said. “The concept of introducing new things in higher ed is not as easy as you think.”

She emphasized that many different administrative offices were involved and the change took lots of coordination. She said that getting the college’s provost on board was key in moving the initiative forward.

Schlesinger said that now “there’s a greater awareness of trans and nonbinary students” at Manhattanville, in part due to a push from undergraduate students who wanted to list their chosen names.

These changes were important to her personally.

“Already you're part of a very small community that is quite marginalized, and colleges and universities need to be doing everything they can,” Schlesinger said. “College is where people learn empathy.”

Schlesinger plans on advocating for student support groups. She said she’d like to help, even following her graduation this coming May. Already she’s started sharing best practices with the housing office and intramural sports.

Moving forward, Schlesinger envisions expanding the policies to include options to list preferred pronouns.

“I wouldn't be surprised if they created those. I think it's important. The time has come,” she said.

Lilly Rose Valore graduated this year from Boston Conservatory at Berklee, where she was the first openly transgender woman in her program. Valore pioneered the system for changing conservatory documents to students’ chosen names.

“A lot of the experience was experimental,” Valore said. She said that while the dance department was supportive, they still had to figure out how best to provide support. They helped her change her name on casting lists, registration and class lists.

Valore said the least of her issues was the paperwork, and the conservatory updated her documents when she started going by Lilly.

Valore is still working to legalize her name and had to leave her legal name on financial aid documents and for scholarships. Her diploma also includes her chosen name.

“For me it’s such an honor, because I’ve put in so much work to be this person. It means the world to me that my diploma says my real name,” Valore said. “Something as simple as a name, I really appreciate that, because there is so much else we have to worry about.”

For Valore the challenge was less with changing her name on documents and more with getting professors to use her correct name and pronouns. Valore struggled with getting older faculty members to call her what she wanted to be called. She found students tended to be more progressive and had an easier time accepting her transition.

Valore said she gave people a grace period of a year to understand what it meant to her when they used her appropriate pronouns and name before she started being more vocal about the mistakes. When she advocated for herself and reminded professors about the pain their disrespect caused her, they were apologetic but would not really change their ways until they heard from other students.

“I’ve never been a person who backed down from being who I am and being respected for that,” Valore said.

Over time she formed groups and spoke on panels about the issue. She said that at the conservatory they were “in such a traditional space.”

“Institutions can either be really, really progressive or really, really uninformed. I took on the role of an educator, but I know that other people just want to live their truth. Don’t expect other trans [students] to do the work,” Valore said, outlining how allies will educate themselves using the information already available.

Already Valore has helped younger conservatory students go through the process of changing their pronouns and names.

“It’s one of the things that’s going to take time,” she said. “Someone had to start somewhere.”

“I remembered how I felt. I remember not wanting others to feel that way,” Valore said of her role as a pioneer. She said she was “almost happy” to be the first student to go through this process. “My biggest hope is that they [future students] don’t have to go through half of what I went through.”

“In order for them to take us seriously, there is going to have to be a form of resilience,” Valore said. “There are people in my life who don't like me for that, and people who do, and I’m fine with that as long as I am pushing for equality.”

Campus Pride, an educational group for LGBTQ+ and ally students on college campuses, lists 255 universities that enable students to list their chosen name on campus records and documents.

Genny Beemyn, director at the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Campus Pride's trans policy clearinghouse coordinator, has watched this number grow over the past 10 years.

"Without ways for students and staff to be able to indicate the name and pronouns they go by through administrative systems, deadnaming and misgendering are more likely to occur, because many cis people will assume the gender identity of others and not ask what pronouns they use for themselves," Beemyn said of the importance of these updated policies.

"Failing to do so contributes to microaggressions against trans students, which often has a negative effect on their sense of belonging at the college and their sense of the campus climate, which, in turn, can hinder their academic success and increase the likelihood that they will drop out," Beemyn continued.

“Having chosen name and pronoun policies are not enough. Institutional cultures need to change such that gender is not assumed and people are not faced with being misgendered in daily interactions,” Beemyn said. “Colleges must create guidelines for how not to misgender others and enforce these guidelines like they do policies on sexual harassment, as repeatedly misgendering someone is a form of harassment.”

When compared to their peers, gender-nonconforming students are four times more likely to report mental health issues, a study found.

The Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law released a study last year citing the importance of incorporating transgender-inclusive policies at institutions of higher education. They found that these policies give transgender students more of a sense of belonging and improved their perception of the university. They recommended that students should be allowed to list their preferred names on campus records.

The Juilliard School includes a comprehensive list on their website of pronouns, how they can be used and how to have discussions around what pronouns to use -- and it isn't the only institution of higher education to do this. Programs are incorporating trainings and seminars on the gender dialogue, and personal pronouns are more and more frequently listed in the signatures of emails.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

Inside Higher Ed Careres

Search Over 35,000 Jobs

Browse all jobs on Inside Higher Ed Careers »

 
+ -

Expand commentsHide comments  —   Join the conversation!

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top