Students, GSWS

Safety and Autonomy in Trans Self-Identification: Call for Preferred Names at SFU

October 30, 2014

My account of myself is partial, haunted by that for which I can devise no definitive story. I cannot explain exactly why I have emerged in this way, and my efforts at narrative reconstruction are always undergoing revision…
                                                   ~Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself

When Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies undergraduate student, Nathan Lyndsey, moved to B.C. from Ontario two years ago, he had his Ontario driver’s license and health card as proof of identity.  His identification included gender markers that no longer matched his gender identity and a picture of his 16-year old self with longer long blond hair.  He explains that when asked to give ID he would be filled with apprehension: “I would always have to be thinking ahead…Who am I about to give this account to?  What time of day is it? Who is behind me or around me?  Those kinds of things shouldn’t really be an issue. Even now, I still have my legal name on my ID and it’s not as bad because I have a recent picture, but to watch people look at the name, look at the gender marker and think to themselves, ‘what do I call you?’ or ‘this doesn’t make sense.’ ”

As The Peak reported recently, Lyndsey is one of the main organizers at SFU lobbying for the University to adopt a preferred name policy for SFU students.  As one way to support and provide trans* students at SFU with autonomy and a measure of safety over their identities, the preferred name policy is supported by a number of people in the SFU Community, including SFU’s Out on Campus, SFPIRG, and Dr. Lucas Crawford, GSWS Ruth Wynn Woodward Lecturer and researcher in queer theory, film studies, fat affect and trans architecture.
   *“trans” is the shortened adjective for “transgendered” that is used by activists and researchers in the field. The term includes a variety of gender identities including those who have had sexual reassignment surgery, individuals “transitioning” towards a new sex, and to often those who present themselves as gender diverse without actually undergoing medical procedures.

Crawford points out that while people are often called upon to explain discrepancies on identification like surname changes, weight gain, weight loss, or hair colour changes, these kinds of shifts are more often accepted as “legitimate changes” and the narratives people give are not treated with the same kinds of suspicions that come up with gender identity. “We can never really know ourselves and therefore can never give a full account. I’d like to say that to the powers that be who say, ‘Well, we can’t go changing names because then they won’t be these perfect airtight signs of who we are…’ I’d like to say, ‘But they already aren’t!” 

Lyndsey explains one of the reasons he left Carleton University and came to SFU was specifically because of SFU’s reputation as a progressive campus, and in particular the undergraduate program in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies—one of the most established programs of its kind in Canada.  Considering this stature, Lyndsey says this is all the more reason he and others are calling upon the University to lead the way for B.C. post-secondary schools and adopt a preferred name policy to support trans students.  Lyndsey says part of the campaign’s platform is calling upon SFU to “catch up” to the pace of Vancouver’s local trans-inclusive policies.  Over this past spring and summer, the Vancouver School Board made policy changes to support transgender students, the Vancouver Park Board approved a motion to create inclusive spaces for trans and gender-variant communities, and the Catholic Independent Schools of the Vancouver Archdiocese was the first Catholic school organization in Canada to create progressive school policy regarding gender expression

Universities like McGill, University of Toronto, and University of Saskatchewan are just a few of the universities across Canada that have already adopted a preferred name policy. As a recent article in University Affairs emphasized, trans-inclusive policy changes are crucial to student inclusion and student success beyond university. The article points out that while a student’s gender identity might shift between the start of their degree and graduation, they may not obtain a legal name change before the end of their degree.  And while “university officials say transcripts must contain a student’s legal name” the threat goes beyond the confines of the university where a “prospective employer may react negatively, or at least be confused, if “Mary Smith” applies for a job and her academic records call her “Bill Smith.” Such records “out” the transgendered job applicant and can lead to embarrassing job interviews.”

Nathan Lyndsey and Lucas Crawford

The SFU community, according to Crawford and Lyndsey, has been mostly supportive and responsive to this push for a trans inclusive policy change. Coordinating with Out on Campus, Lyndsey and Crawford organized an ID Modification Party where students were encouraged to modify their names on their current student IDs to reflect their preferred name. Crawford says that Dr. Habiba Zaman of GSWS has been supportive and suggested the policy could have a positive impact on international students, or even indigenous students who have an ancestral name they wish to be called.  Joshua Tng notes in an opinion piece in The Peak, that the policy could have a positive, practical impact on students with foreign names, who often go by westernized names in classrooms where instructors struggle to pronounce or remember students’ given names“in choosing their own names, foreign students would still retain their dignity and identity as individuals.”

Crawford and Lyndsey say they’ve not met with overt resistance to the policy proposal. However, they say there has been an expected bureaucratic slowness and good deal of “red tape” involved in getting the policy in place and slight resistance from those with the power to take the lead on implementing change. Lyndsey says this issue is complex, because—on the one hand—the trans community wants to be consulted and heard in the process, but they also want to see those in power take initiative in implementing progressive change. Crawford concurs, saying they would really like to see trans students who are affected by the policy “at the centre of the campaign but not be putting in all the labour.”  In addition, Crawford notes that it seems the “urgency of the issue has not been grasped yet” and Lyndsey agrees, saying the preferred name policy is truly needed in order to support the “very real safety and risk factors [trans students] risk in identifying themselves.” 

Crawford and Lyndsey suggest that, to demonstrate support, faculty, staff and students write to the VP of Students, Tim Rahilly. The broader commitment to allyship, though, comes from listening to trans students and faculty on this issue.  Lyndsey says, “listening to those folks who are living the experience or who are involved, letting us pave the way, and then coming in and supporting when called upon is one big way that people can support us.” 

While many universities across Canada do have human rights, or equity and diversity offices, and “positive” or “safe space” initiatives, or call for more awareness of the presence and needs of trans students on campus, Lyndsey says he has a more “radical,” and potentially “utopian” vision of inclusive post-secondary spaces: “Imagine—like in high school, kids have to take things like Science, Math, or English—if in university where everyone has to take Academic Writing, or Stats 101, they also had to take things like Social Justice 101, or Gender 101…they could be getting a foundation to the questions, ‘what is gendered violence?’, ‘what is rape?’, or ‘what is violence?’ In my kind of society, kids would have to take that kind of course as early as high school but minimally, say, in university and they could recognize that folks like this exist and these experiences exist.”