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Transgender students fear being ‘deadnamed’ at college

While colleges may let students update their names on records, some require it to match their legal names

Eshe Ukweli, student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. (Eshe Ukweli)

Before the fall semester began, Eshe Ukweli emailed her professors. She wanted to make sure they knew her name.

Ukweli, a journalism student at Howard University, has been in the process of changing her legal name for more than a year. But until that happens, the university’s systems identify Ukweli by her birth name on records, including the class rolls that her professors have.

“Being a trans person, it’s sort of hard to see your deadname all around and people can sort of easily find this information,” she said.

After Ukweli sent an email, her professors used her name. But students shouldn’t have to go through that extra step, she said.

Howard officials said students can update their preferred name on university systems but need to contact its enrollment management team to make the change. The university also is working to create more policies that support the LGBTQ+ community, said Jose Cadiz, director of the intercultural and LGBTQ+ center at Howard.

“The strategic plan for Student Affairs is making sure that students feel a sense of belonging, especially our transgender students here, and then our nonbinary students here as well,” Cadiz said.

Universities across the country have varying policies on how they identify students by name or pronouns, and some have begun to review their rules in recent years. For some students, including those who are transgender and nonbinary, the process to be correctly identified can be daunting.

Campus Pride, an educational group for LGBTQ+ students and allies, said at least 788 colleges and universities allow students to change their names on campus records — class rosters, campus ID cards or directory listings. At least 242 colleges let students indicate their pronouns.

But some colleges say a student’s name on official records such as transcripts must match what appears on a legal document, a requirement that students say may lead to them being “deadnamed.”

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Howard University’s policy, for instance, requires students to show legal documents to initiate a name change in official school records.

Yet the process to change legal names can be time-consuming. Ukweli noted that it can be particularly difficult for students who attend school out-of-state and can’t easily afford to travel to file physical documents in the state where their ID originates.

“It’s just about thinking about [creating] easier pathways” for students, she said.

“For me, personally, once I figured out the name that resonated most with me then I wanted to change my name.”

In a number of states, the process also requires petitioners to publicize their new names, which means printing their names in local newspapers.

The concerns raised by students come as there have been debates across the country over policies surrounding gender identity at schools and beyond. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) recently enacted a policy requiring legal documentation for students to change their name and gender at school, making it difficult to do so. It also requires parent or guardian requests in writing for students to use a different name or pronoun.

The new policy states schools also cannot “encourage or instruct teachers to conceal material information about a student from the student’s parent, including information related to gender.”

Youngkin’s rules for trans students leave many teens fearful, despondent

Some college students also say they are sometimes addressed by the wrong gender.

Elias Varn, a Korean language and literature major at George Washington University, recalls a time when she was misgendered in class after the professor didn’t ask students to give their pronouns during introductions.

“Sometimes it makes me not want to raise my hand in class,” she said.

The shift to virtual learning during the pandemic made the process easier, at least temporarily, some say. On Zoom, students could change their display name and pronouns.

“But now [that] the classes are back in person I would hate to assume that there’s going to be a problem again” with deadnaming students, said Imani Bryant, a graduate student at Howard and former president of Cascade, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization on the campus.

Some university campuses are updating their policies to accommodate student needs and requests. Last November, George Washington University announced that students could update their display names on their student identification cards and on the university’s student portal without requiring a legal name change. According to a GW announcement, the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement and other partners have been mapping ways to improve the process.

“These changes are intended to be affirming to all members of our community by enabling everyone to indicate how they identify and would like to be addressed,” the university said in its announcement. “These changes also allow others to easily access information about how members of our community wish to be addressed, further facilitating respectful discourse.”

Evelyn Andromeda, a student at Temple University, was able to update her name in the university’s public-facing systems in the spring semester without having her legal name changed. She hasn’t faced any teachers or classmates deadnaming her, but said she still runs into issues with updating Temple’s online ID and email systems. Temple University uses digital ID software, where students can show their IDs on their phones as opposed to a printed card.

An official from Temple stated that students wishing to make a change in the ID system need to reach out to the university.

Andromeda said the process is a hassle.

“I’m stuck with a very out-of-date ID with someone who looks nothing like me on it, outing me immediately to every teacher and security guard on campus,” said Andromeda. “It’s especially frustrating because it used to be extremely easy to change” the photos.

According to Temple’s policy, students, faculty and staff are able to update their names without legal documentation for directories, residence hall lists and Canvas learning platforms. But they cannot unilaterally change names for administrative uses, such as library records, transcripts and diplomas, and financial records.

Temple officials said the change to the name policy was to be inclusive of preferred names for all faculty, staff and students.

“I think there’s a mind-set that TGNC [transgender and nonconforming] students will find workarounds and talk with administrators to get the changes they need,” Andromeda said. “That we’re exceptions to their system, and because of that, it’s our responsibility to go the extra mile and jump through hoops to get the small changes we require.”

More on gender identity and education

The latest: Florida plans to strip the licenses of elementary teachers who discuss gender identity or sexuality. Most Maryland voters say elementary school discussion of LGBTQ acceptance is “inappropriate,” a recent poll found.

What has happened? This year, 10 anti-LGBTQ laws went into effect, and they all target schools. Some educators are restricted in teaching about gender identity. A new poll has noted a sharp partisan divide over teaching LGBTQ issues.

What’s on the books? A Maryland judge said that Montgomery County’s guidelines about student gender-identity don’t violate parent’s rights. However, gender transitions at school have spurred debates on when, or if, parents should be told.