Invisible and Dangerous: Students Who Were ‘Unknown’ Explain Why New California Law Matters

By Oden Taylor, CalMatters

Jamie Marquis can’t count the number of times they’ve been called by the wrong name.

A junior psychology graduate at the University of California, Davis, who identifies as non-binary, they changed their names several years ago. But since then, they’ve struggled to get that name even on basic school records, instead of their assigned birth name that they don’t identify with, commonly referred to as the dead name.

“I wish there was a way to really explain to cisgender people what it feels like to have a dead name,” Marquis said. ” It’s humiliating. It makes you feel inappropriate and unwanted, because of all things about your identity, even your name is ignored.

A new state law could make a huge difference for people like them, said Marquis. Not only could this relieve anxiety, but it could also provide important protections against discrimination and harm.

The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires public colleges across the state to update the records of students who have legally changed their names. It also allows graduates to request an updated copy of their diploma at no cost to them.

Then, from class 2023-24, it will be necessary for institutions to allow students to identify themselves on diplomas, even without legal documentation of a name change. (The legislation does not specifically require colleges to allow students to identify themselves on academic records in addition to diplomas without legally changing their names. It also does not affect the way people are. identified on legal documents used for tax, immigration status and other purposes.)

California is the first state to adopt such a law. A previous version failed the legislature in 2020.

The right to self-identify one’s name on a college degree helps protect transgender and gender non-conforming students, advocates say. Research shows transgender people are at higher risk of discrimination and violence.

More … than one in four trans people have experienced a “prejudice-motivated assaultWith even higher rates for trans women and trans people of color, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Academic records listing a student’s name and gender as assigned at birth could potentially “unmask” that student’s identity, which can put him at a considerable disadvantage when seeking accommodation and employment. said David Chiu, who drafted the bill while representing San Francisco in the state. Assembly. Chiu, now a San Francisco city attorney, said he was invited by California Equality and other transgender activist groups to draft the bill.

“A college degree represents years of hard work and academic achievement,” Chiu said in an interview. “It shouldn’t cause stress or harm by carrying someone’s name on death due to outdated school policies. ”

No statewide policy

In California, public colleges used a series of policies regarding the names they register on degrees and other records because no statewide policies existed. In November 2020, the University of California system implemented a policy – the Presidential Policy on Gender Recognition and Family Name – which ensures that all people are identified by their exact gender identity and preferred name on documents issued by the university and in UC information systems.

At California State University and California Community Colleges, there have been no system-wide policies, spokespersons said. But both systems support the new state law, they said.

Jamie Marquis and their cat Cleo in their backyard in Sacramento on December 4, 2021. Photo by Karlos Rene Ayala for CalMatters

Some campuses have their own policies in place. American River College in Sacramento County, for example, adopted an assertive name policy in 2019, which allows students to change their names in campus computer systems, and in early 2020, identify themselves. same name on their diplomas.

The change, university officials said, has been powerful and moving for the students. Emilie Mitchell, acting dean of social and behavioral sciences at American River College, described her experience helping a former student change his name in the college’s computer system.

“This person was just crying when they talked about going to class, and the teachers would often read the list aloud, and that was their dead name,” Mitchell said. She said she could hear the new trauma they suffered.

Within five minutes, Mitchell was able to change the student’s name in the system.

“I thought it was such a small thing, didn’t I?” Mitchell said. “All I did was click a few boxes, literally, but this person’s experience, his educational experience, his feeling of being validated in his identity, was so deep.”

Eli Fox, a psychology student at California State University at Monterey Bay, changed his name during his early months at college but said he faced a lot of stress due to the presence of his dead name on high school documents.

“It was really hard to get it all lined up,” Fox said. “There are a lot of school administration people who are not really educated, and it was really hard trying to educate them and defend myself. “

High school teachers, college professors and administrators have often refused to respect their names or help them change their school documents, Fox said. They often asked Fox invasive questions about their transition that made them feel like they were just curious.

“No one should have to explain their identity or justify what they are to anyone,” Fox said.

Fox said they were relieved to see the law passed as it would make the process easier for prospective students like them. Fox aspires to use his psychology degree to work in data collection and research, and wishes to further his education in biopsychology and integrate social theory into science.

Fox says they’ve learned so much just from being queer and hanging out with queer people. They hope to help show future LGBTQ + youth that they are proud of who they are while looking or feeling different.

Reduce anxiety

Michelle Haggerty, a psychology professor who advises the Queer Student Union at the College of the Redwoods in Eureka, said the new state law would help reduce anxiety among students and faculty and create a more welcoming environment on the job. campus. If students are able to update their names on school records before the semester begins, it will erase any awkward scenarios in which the professor might accidentally name a student, Haggerty said.

She also said the new policy would help students after graduation, reducing the amount of homework they might have to explain their name or who they are to future employers. Haggerty has known students who quit their jobs due to discrimination and overwhelming questions about their transitions, she said.

“Depending on where you are, people feel unsafe,” Haggerty said of being transgender or gender nonconforming. “Different industries and different communities will see these things differently… I think it’s hard to pass judgment on ‘Am I safe or not? And “Who can I reveal these aspects of myself to?” “”

The new law could also help protect cisgender university students.

Linda Johnson – a sophomore student at College of the Redwoods who earned a bachelor’s degree from Pomona College and a master’s degree from Fuller Theological Seminary – said she was unable to get her maiden name printed on her degree. At a time when she was going through a divorce from an abusive partner, she was not able to feel happy or excited when she graduated. Instead, she didn’t even want to look at him.

“It would have been so much easier if I could have gone out there and said ‘this is what I want’ without having to wait for all the legalities to catch up,” Johnson said.

Marquis, Davis’ student who also graduated from American River College, recalls the anxiety of one day when they went to the counter in the community college’s admissions and records office to update their academic records. Did they forget a document? Would they be greeted with help or obstacles?

“It’s so embarrassing and uncomfortable having to go to every teacher, every front desk staff, every doctor and explain the situation,” they said. “And it’s exhausting being constantly polite to people who want to tell you everything about how hard it is for them to remember.” “

When the process went smoothly, they felt a bewildered sense of relief. But their renaming journey was still not over. When transferred to UC, they had to present high school records that still used their death name.

Now, Marquis is hoping the new law will remove some of those hurdles – and that it might help them finally get comfortable.

As a beacon of hope, Marquis aspires to live this experience with them as they enter the field of psychology after college and work with mentally ill gay children, letting them know that it is okay to be themselves, whoever it is.

Taylor is a member of CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverages are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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