All in a Name: New Software Benefits Transgender Students
- By Jeffrey R. Wakefield
In addition to buying books, making last minute changes to his course schedule, and stocking up on three-ring binders, senior art history major Davin Sokup's pre-semester to-do list always included one more task: emailing his professors to tell them that, when classes started, he preferred not to be called the name on their class rosters or the pronouns it implied.
Sokup, a transgender student female at birth, asked professors to address him as Davin, not the feminine name on the class list, and to use the pronouns "he" and "his."
The effect of these communiqués was mixed at best. While only one professor outright refused to comply — Sokup dropped his class — many bumbled through with well meaning intent that was nevertheless embarrassing and ultimately threatened his safety.
"When I was in class, the professor would look down the roster and be calling roll and say the wrong name and then correct themselves in front of the whole class," Sokup says. Pronoun mistakes — followed by corrections — were also a problem.
"I'm 'out' on campus, but it's still very uncomfortable to walk around the next day and wonder who's seeing me and telling their friend, 'Oh, like, that's the kid.'"
Dot Brauer, UVM's director of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Questioning, and Ally (LGBTQA) Services, puts it more starkly. "They look around the room and think, OK, which of these 40 to 60 people might be the kind of person who will decide to get a gang of people to beat me up one day?"
Thanks to innovative new software developed by the university last fall that is being hailed by colleges and universities around the country, the classroom embarrassment and potentially threatening consequences experienced by Sokup and other transgender students at UVM, a steadily growing community here and at other schools, have been greatly alleviated.
The new software, created as an adjunct to the Banner student information system, allows students to fill out a form specifying their preferred name and pronoun. The information appears on all paperwork seen by faculty, so petitioning professors individually, a process that gave students no choice but to out themselves, is a thing of the past.
But the program also allows students to retain their legal names, so financial aid checks keep coming and health insurance doesn't lapse — a key feature.
The software's dual nature — preferred name for internal purposes and legal name for external ones — proved devilishly complicated to create and program and has been met with jubilation by LGBT directors across the country.
"I'm frankly in awe of it," says Nancy Jean Tubbs, director of the LGBT Resource Center at the University of California, Riverside, one of a number of schools considering using the software or a variant of it.
There's no doubt that, today, UVM is a best-practices institution for students who are transgender, a loose term covering a spectrum of identities and expression, from those who develop a psychological and emotional gender identity different from their biological sex to those whose internal experience of gender doesn't fit neatly into the either of the traditional gender roles. Transgender people may or may not take hormones or undergo surgery.
Since the new software was introduced, the university's campus climate score has risen from 4.5 stars to elite 5-star status on the LGBT website Campus Pride, a distinction it shares with schools like Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, Oberlin College, and Carlton College. UVM also hosts the annual Translating Identity Conference, organized by trans activist students on campus like Sokup, which attracts participants from around the country.
But things were considerably less rosy seven years ago.
At that time a transgender graduate student in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program named Ed Garton devoted his comprehensive exam for his masters degree to outlining the specific issues facing marginalized trans students at UVM and recommending a series of solutions.
With encouragement from UVM's then new president, Daniel Mark Fogel, UVM began a program of reform. The university added more than 40 gender neutral bathrooms to campus, addressing one of the key issues raised in Garton's paper, expanded LGBTQ-friendly housing, and allowed students to use a preferred name on their campus ID cards.
Garton reserved special criticism for Banner — the computerized repository of all student-related academic and financial aid information, which generates class rosters, advisee lists, and hundreds of other reports. So the university sought to address that issue, too.
In a change of policy, UVM began allowing students to use a preferred name in Banner. But it clearly advertised that the new name would be used both internally and externally, so financial aid and health insurance would be jeopardized if students didn't devote the significant time and expense needed for a legal name change.
Not surprisingly, few trans students chose that option.
Meanwhile, reports of experiences like the ones Sokup describes continued to reach Brauer, who reached out to senior administrators for help with the problem.
Within a year, the budgetary stars were aligned, and a comprehensive Banner fix was underway.
What seems to the untutored eye to be a relatively simple project — activating an already existing but non-functional preferred-name field in Banner — proved to be anything but.
Creating and programming a user-friendly form that allowed students to input information required deliberation and skill. But it was clearing software pathways to the hundreds of reports on campus where the preferred name would appear — from academic warning letters to a student's degree audit — and considering the consequences of each change that made the project so time-consuming.
"You don't know how much your name touches everything you do; it was like peeling off onion layers," says Emma Kennedy, a transgender student member of the working group that took on the project, which also included Brauer, registrar Keith Williams, associate registrar Gail Starks, faculty member Kathy Manning, Kennedy's sister Georgia, who worked in the registrar's office, her father, Keith, a manager in ETS, and programmers Warren Van Wyck and Judi Schwartz.
The group slogged through countless decisions — whether preferred or legal names would be listed in the online directory, for example, or how email addresses and aliases would be handled.
A topic it debated at length was whether to give students the option of requesting gender-neutral pronouns — "ze" for "he" and "she;" "hir" for "his" and "her" — on the preferred name form because their unfamiliarity risked alienating faculty.
The group ultimately decided it was better to offer the choices rather than exclude students whose identity didn't conform to what the transgender community calls the "gender binary."
"Here we were trying to be inclusive," Brauer says, "and we were going to work with assimilative folks but not the gender variant ones, for whom neither one of the gender boxes fit."
But all the "maddening detail," as Brauer described it, had a paradoxical effect: the group bonded tightly.
The software went live for the spring semester, with a positive response from trans students — there have been 348 requests for a preferred name to date (although the vast majority were requests from students asking be called by a nickname — Bob for Robert, for example) and no negative feedback from faculty, who appreciate being spared the embarrassment of using the wrong name and pronoun almost as much as students, Manning says.
While a software solution similar to UVM's was recently developed by the University of Michigan for PeopleSoft, the other major student information system used in higher education, no like software fix existed for the 1,100 schools using Banner.
Recognizing a clear need, UVM decided to design its software in such a way that any of the Banner schools could adopt it — and to give the software away at no cost.
"We wanted to make sure that, while there might be political barriers to adopting the software, there wouldn't be financial ones," says Williams, who served as project manager for the initiative.
In March both UVM's software and the PeopleSoft version were touted during a conference call hosted by the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resources Centers that drew about 40 participants. Brauer received a flurry of emails from schools seeking more information.
One of them, Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass., is currently examining UVM's software code and hopes to have its own system in place for the fall of 2010. Williams expects more schools to follow. SunGard, Banner's parent company, is also considering folding UVM's software into the basic package it offers schools, Williams says.
The software solutions could be arriving just in time; students who identify as transgender are growing in number on campuses across the country.
Part of the impetus for the rise is that more students feel comfortable being openly transgender as social norms change, says UC Riverside's Tubbs, "particularly at those schools with established LGBT Centers," where they feel "safer making a connection with their peers or with staff in the center." Some 150 schools have LGBT centers, she said.
It also helps that many institutions have broadened their non-discrimination policies to include gender identity/expression — 267 to date, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute.
But it's not simply a matter of more trans people being willing to come out, says Brett-Genny Janiczek Beemyn, director of LGBT services at UMass Amherst, outgoing co-chair of the Consortium of Higher Education LBGT Resources Centers, and a board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, who has published extensively on the topic.
"I think more people are identifying as transgender because they see it as an option" at a younger age, Janiczek Beemyn says, rather than coming to terms with their gender identify in midlife, as ze did, after years of denial.
Consequently, "you have a sort of first generation of people coming to college who identify as being transgender who are open about that and want to have services." Janiczek Beemyn says peers at LGBT resource centers around the country all report seeing "more students coming to college identifying as transgender."
Colleges have much more to do to meet the needs of these students, Janiczek Beemyn says, from offering better healthcare access and care, to providing gender neutral bathrooms and housing, to educating faculty and staff, to wrestling with thorny issues created by gender-segregated activities and organizations like athletics and sororities and fraternities.
But there's no disputing the contribution UVM has made or the leadership role it is taking.
"It's one thing for a department chair to say, 'We really want you to support transgender students,'" says Manning, who describes the activism of the trans community as a civil rights movement. "But to actually have it institutionalized speaks to the commitment of UVM to create a safe environment."
Sokup, for one, is grateful.
"I'd go to class on the first day and apprehensively wait for my name to be called, and if there was a mistake, I'd know my classmates were putting a face to the name, and that never felt completely safe," he said in an email. "That awkward and anxiety-filled experience isn't one that has to be felt by trans students anymore."