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A Name of One’s Own

Trans students struggle to be called by their preferred names at university. Samantha Jonscher looked into why.

“I thought university would be a lot more accessible and accommodating and I’ve found it to be both isolating and unhelpful,” says Harry, a first year studying a Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney.

Harry is Harry’s preferred name. His legal name—his ‘dead’ name—refers to a person that doesn’t exist. Harry is a trans man and one of many trans students at the University of Sydney who faces being outed when the roll is called in the first class of every course he takes, every semester.

In his very first class at university he was used as a teaching example, “for other students to assess their own privilege at the cost of my own privacy”. At the end of the day, trans identities are still largely misunderstood, ignored and dismissed by those unfamiliar with what it means to be trans. Harry says that when he contacted the head of department, he was told that the tutor in question would apologise for his behaviour. The tutor ignored Harry during the next two classes and in the end he dropped the subject.   

“This issue may seem trite and unimportant to people who can’t understand it, but using my preferred name legitimises my experiences and existence at university. To deny that right is to disregard the safety and rights of students, it makes this university unsafe and intimidating.” 

When you enrol at university, your legal name is attached to your unikey and your student number. This collection of facts is bundled together and follows you through university until you graduate. For many students, this isn’t a problem, but for students like Harry who use a preferred name, it represents a serious barrier to inclusion, equity and general comfort at university. “Calling me Harry removes the stress and genuine horror of being reminded of an identity that doesn’t correlate to my current one.” 

Students facing issues like Harry’s have very little room for movement. Sydney Student lets you change your preferred name, however, public sites like eLearning do not.

Bec Plumbe is an eLearning educational designer in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. She does a lot of work with the SOPHI school (which looks after Archaeology, Classics and Ancient History, History, Philosophy and Gender and Cultural Studies). It was through her work with the gender studies department that this failure on the part of eLearning to accommodate trans students came to her attention.

“It was around 2011, 2012 that I started to hear from unit coordinators saying that they had a student whose legal name did not match their preferred name. More and more tasks are moving online and growing out of this, this is becoming more of a problem,” Plumbe says. Since then, she has been leading the charge to make changes to how preferred names are dealt with at the university.

“It’s becoming a human rights issue, an equity and participation issue. We need to accommodate people so that we can make uni accessible for everyone. I’m prepared to fight this battle if I have to.”

Plumbe has worked out a fix of sorts, but says it’s a bad solution that doesn’t work in the long run.

Charlie was one of the first students that Plumbe tried to help. When faced with engaging in an eLearning discussion under his legal name, Charlie reached out to his gender studies tutor. “I told them that I felt incredibly uncomfortable posting anything online under my legal name. I don’t want to deal with it, I don’t want to have that part of my life on display. Also it’s gender studies, that shouldn’t be a problem.” Plumbe was able to help to an extent, but it was limited to that course alone. “That was a really great thing that happened, but had a very limited impact, I don’t feel comfortable asking every tutor to work with me,” Charlie said.

For a casual observer, changing the name that is attached to a student’s UniKey and student number might seem easy. Apparently this is not the case, “there is quite a bit of programming required, and re-mapping” she says. Basically, your details are linked across the various programs that the university uses to keep track of your learning online, and different sets of data are matched with, ‘mapped to’, equivalent data on other platforms. At the moment, the preferred name you can use on Sydney Student is mapped to nothing else.

There is another issue though. It’s easy enough to address this in the Arts faculty, but for students in social work, health sciences, medicine and education, for instance, your legal name is required for official registrations, safety checks and other legal requirements that these degrees demand.

For those who might cavalierly suggest that trans students change their names legally, this is not as easy as it sounds. Andrea has recently legally changed her name. “It’s not a very nice process. If you’re a cisgender person and you want to change your name, you walk in there and give them money and give them the form and they say, “Yep! Awesome.” If you’re a trans person they want to know: “You’re not going to regret this, are you? You’re not going to change your mind are you? This won’t be one of those things that will be a phase.’  It took months of convincing Births, Deaths and Marriages.” 

Plumbe is optimistic about the future for trans students on campus. “We are getting a new eLearning system in the next two years, and when we do we can definitely take this into account. There are other solutions though, like changing the emphasis on how we identify students.”

“I’m not the reason this is happening, but one of the reasons it has taken so long is that it’s not anyone’s job at the moment, so I’m trying to make it someone’s job. At some point I hope it will turn into a working group with students and people from around the uni for that kind of consultation.” 

Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Education, Professor Pip Pattison, assured Honi that this “is an issue which I am committed to resolving as soon as possible and we are exploring possible solutions”. The students that I spoke to though didn’t feel that this was the case.

Harry told me he felt “this university has honestly not dealt with the issue of my preferred name well at all—whilst certain individuals have made certain to respect my name, the institution as a whole seems to treat it with blatant disregard”.

Charlie agreed, “People need to start saying, ‘No, this is really shit.’ I think definitely steps have been taken but we unnecessarily applaud them when we should be like okay, what’s next.”

At the end of the day, making statements about trying to accommodate students does not solve the problem. Andrea recently organised a rally in support of trans students on campus and no one from the university’s Ally network was in attendance. “The people doing the work are not the people in the Ally network. [People involved in the Ally network] pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves and think everything is so open and wonderful, yet when we ask them to do things its like, ‘Sorry! My hands are tied.’ Makes me sad.”