What's in a Name? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

News+Features » News

What's in a Name?

by

comment

When Jordan Rubenstein was a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University, her name wasn't Jordan. Born a female, she doesn't identify as either a man or a woman. So she took on a gender-neutral first name.

But her professors weren't always supportive. Her legal name still appeared on class rosters, and when she asked instructors to call her "Jordan," some didn't understand or simply forgot. Rubenstein -- who was the president of ALLIES, the school's organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students -- recalls that "every semester I had to be e-mailing five professors and telling them all this information. It felt disrespectful for students who are transgender or who do not go by their legal name."

The situation could be better for transgender students at CMU, Rubenstein says, if the school had a "preferred name policy" in which university computers would note preferred first names or nicknames and require professors to use them. Such a policy, she believes, would prevent transgender students from self-outing.

For transgender students, they'll be trying to fit into society as their gender but by finding out their legal name, it might give away something people may not want known about them."

Rubenstein has graduated from CMU, and now lives in Potomac, Md. But the school is still discussing a policy she and another former ALLIES member, Jamie Boschan, proposed in November 2008. University databases already allow students to enter a preferred name or nickname for its online directory, but the ALLIES policy would give the preferred name added weight, requiring that it be used for all communications not related to financial data. The policy, supporters say, might also help foreign students who use names other than those they were born with. 

"The university hopes to complete discussions about a preferred student-name option by the end of the spring 2010 semester," spokesman Ken Walters said in a statement. CMU hopes to "phase in appropriate use of the students' preferred names" by 2012.

Around the country, policies sensitive to transgender students are becoming more common, although observers note there is a ways to go.

"Campuses are set up on a gender binary and some students don't fit neatly into that," says Genny Beemyn, who directs the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst. "It's very exclusionary and we're hearing students just don't feel like people respect them because they don't have options."

UMass is among the first schools to adopt a preferred-name policy. The school makes a student's preferred name the only one visible for public consumption in the online phone directory. 

Beemyn says the UMass policy -- enacted in late 2008 -- has had some hiccups. For example, some students have requested nonsensical names as a prank. But the university has implemented an oversight process, and Beemyn says it's too early to judge the program's impact: Transgender students often chose to remain invisible for fear of discrimination anyway.

CMU, which already offers some gender-neutral housing and bathroom facilities, would be among the first of Pittsburgh schools with any kind of preferred-name policy. At Point Park, spokeswoman Mary Ellen Solomon said students can enter a preferred name on their application or submit a name-change request to the university, but it will show only on the class roster with their legal name.

At the University of Pittsburgh, students are able to register a preferred name when they apply, which officials say will, in most cases, be the only name shown on communications, letters and class rosters, unless the student indicates otherwise. A more sweeping name-change, says spokesman John Fedele, would require legal documentation.

Beemyn notes that a legal name-change is costly and cumbersome -- and students may not be ready for that step. Transgender people who plan to undergo surgery, for example, often undergo a "real-life test" recommended under medical guidelines in which they live as their target gender for a year.

"It allows a transgender person to really get a feel for what the target gender is," says Elise Delong, who chairs the city's LGBT Advisory Council.

Even for those who don't intend to have surgery, Delong adds, a preferred-name policy can help students explore their identities.

"It's very helpful for the transgender person to take those positive steps," she says. "It gives them an opportunity to see what it's really like."

Add a comment