Choosing a new name is a big step for transgender or gender nonconforming students going to college, but Derrick Wegner did not anticipate that changing names on university rosters and email addresses would be a difficult process.
At Stony Brook University, one can change preferred names through the “Preferred Name Policy,” which allows students to change the name listed on Blackboard, the final grade roster, photo roster and class roster. Even with this policy in place, data systems may still be left unchanged.
For Wegner, a sophomore biology major, this issue meant almost failing a math course. Some math courses use an online application known as WebAssign for homework assignments, which is accessed through Blackboard, a system used by professors and students to communicate. Although Blackboard is part of the preferred name policy, WebAssign did not update Wegner’s name.
Wegner could not access his math homework with his new name. He fell behind in the class as a result and had to use the “Grade, Pass or No Credit” option for his course grade.
“Essentially what happened was they made me a new Blackboard,” Wegner said. “The WebAssign was attached to the old [Blackboard account] directly. For almost an entire semester I couldn’t do any of my homework.”
According to the coordinator of LGBTQ* Services Chris Tanaka, who works in the Dean of Students Office, changing names is one of the most fulfilling steps of transitioning. But the different information systems at the university are not updated alike. For example, if a student is employed at the university, the student’s old name might resurface because there is a divide between the student and staff data systems.
Legally changing a name requires a New York state resident to go to the state Supreme Court and make an appeal to the judge. In Suffolk County, the charge to change names is $210. In many cases, the person will apply for a Poor Person’s Affidavit to avoid the fee. The person then needs to take out an ad in a newspaper saying that the person has changed names, but judges might choose to waive this requirement as it can be deemed antiquated.
“Even anyone who changes their name for marriage goes through this process,” Tanaka said. “But generally people who change their name for marriage don’t mind if their previous name shows up.”
Tanaka, who has worked as the first LGBTQ services coordinator in the Dean of Students Office for roughly a year now, started out at the Center for Prevention and Outreach. Tanaka was moved out of CPO because “prevention” made it sound like transitioning people should not embrace their identities, she said.
A new data collection tool unveiled by the State University of New York Board of Trustees in the fall of 2015 will ask students about their gender identities and sexual orientations upon acceptance to their respective campuses.
The announcement of SUNY’s new tool came just two months before an ordinance that would have offered protection against discrimination based on gender identity failed to pass in Houston, Texas this past Election Day. Opponents of the ordinance in the city carried signs that read “No men in women’s bathrooms.”
There are plenty of gender neutral bathrooms on the Stony Brook campus, but they are just not visible to the naked eye, sophomore sociology major Luna Vasquez said.
“What happens a lot is I’m at the sink with a crew cut in the women’s bathroom, someone will come in the door behind me and then turn around and leave…and I always wonder what happens to them,” sophomore biochemistry major Jasmine Ayers said, laughing.
Ayers uses the pronouns they, them and theirs, as they are gender nonbinary. Ayers, who has researched human papillomavirus at Yale University, has been told by their colleagues in the lab that they cannot be open about their pronouns in a future professional setting.
“The biggest problem I have in my day-to-day life is just faculty and [teaching assistants] who are refusing to acknowledge my pronouns,” Ayers said.
Dealing with public opinion is only part of the issue; another part consists of dealing with the healthcare system. It has become increasingly popular for forms in medical offices and beyond to list three options: female, male and transgender.
However, transgender is not a gender. Transgender means not correlating with the sex assigned at birth and cisgender means correlating with the assigned sex.
“In doing that wrong, they’re miseducating,” Wegner said. “It’s not a gender. Although I appreciate you thinking about it, you’re misinforming all these people.”
When Wegner goes to the Student Health Service to have his testosterone administered by a nurse, he is only allowed to bring in unopened vials of hormones and required to leave the vials with the center. If a student who needs hormones goes home for a break, he or she cannot bring back a used vial.
All prescriptions that enter the pharmacy or are kept with the center must be unopened, Medical Director of Student Health Service Rachel Ann Bergeson, MD, said.
When a student who needs hormones returns to the university, they will need to order another unopened vial, creating a pricey and complicated system that often forces students to administer the prescription themselves or to have their friends administer it for them, which can turn a seemingly simple task into a dangerous one.
The Student Health Service invited Tanaka to give a presentation to the SHS staff. They also took part in a “webinar” by the American College Health Association to inform the staff about the medical changes regarding the transgender population, which has led to a more open minded staff, according to Bergeson.
“It’s been an issue that has been brought up at [ACHA] meetings,” Bergeson said.
According to Bergeson, the staff looks forward to working with Tanaka and her staff at the Dean of Students office to create a better experience for transgender students.
Before any student can take hormones, they must consider the financial burden.
For Vasquez, getting hormones comes with dollar signs. For a student who is financially responsible for her own expenses, hormones are too expensive to buy. She knows people in her situation who have gone down the illegal route, although she has not gone down this route herself.
In order to properly obtain hormones, she would first have to go see a therapist who would then send her to an endocrinologist. The standard procedure requires a year to two years in therapy, but specialized therapists might write a recommendation in less time. In some instances, informed consent can be used to get hormones on the spot.
“I don’t have that autonomy [to get hormones],” Vasquez said. “When your parents oppose that sort of thing it’s not easy for me to go out and get it.”
Reactions from family members like this are common for transgender students. At first, Ayers tested the waters by coming out to their loved ones as queer, before ultimately came out as nonbinary, or not identifying as male or female.
“I remember when I was a lesbian,” Wegner said, referring to when he too used coming out as gay to assess the reactions of his family and friends before coming out as another gender.
“I was so deeply in the closet with liking guys that I wouldn’t even think about it to myself,” Wegner said. “I just accepted the fact that I liked females, because guys don’t like guys and I wanted to be as masculine as possible.”
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance, or LGBTA, a student-run club was originally named the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, or GALA, and its name was later changed to LGBA to include bisexuals in the organization. In February of 1996, however, a visit from famous transgender activist Leslie Feinberg inspired the change from LGBA to LGBTA, SBU alumni Robbi Samuels said.
“The conversation is more out there now,” Tanaka said. “So it’s not that transgender people are new; they’re not. It’s that people are more willing to talk about it now.”
While the transgender population has become more open about the transgender identity, they have also become victims of assault. A study conducted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law found that 68 percent of transgender survey participants who reported being physically assaulted in college had also attempted suicide. The study also found that 78 percent of transgender survey participants who reported being sexually assaulted in college had attempted suicide.
Despite these statistics, things are looking up for transfer student Ashley Smith. Smith, whose name has been changed in this story to protect her privacy, came to Stony Brook only a few months after she decided to transition. She said “people are good here” despite the slurs and profanity that are thrown at her, like “tranny” or “slut.”
“Life is amazing,” Smith said. “I was never able to picture myself five or 10 years in the future. The past few months have been the only stretch of a few months that I haven’t had a suicidal ideation.”
For Wegner—who eventually finished his math class—the moment everything sunk in was when he wanted to continue his hobbies, like martial arts and singing. At his martial arts classes, where there were changing rooms and reminders of his old name, he did not come out as transgender because the instructors were conservative.
Similarly, Ayers, an avid horseback rider, loved competing back home in Connecticut. For horseback riding, there are regulations on how a rider presents themselves, and women need their hair either in braids or a bun. When Ayers decided to cut their hair, they had to start dressing in drag to keep competing.
“I sing and I dance all the time,” Wegner said. “I remember being younger and loving to sing and dance, but voice is something that gives [gender] away. I didn’t want to dance because it shows off [the feminine parts] of your body.”
Despite all this, Wegner continues to sing and dance wherever he goes.
“I love dancing and singing more than I care what somebody else thinks about me,” he said.