Our Dignity, Not Our Preference
Trans students on the barriers to a safer CSU
Written by Ben Nichols
Note: The author works as an office assistant for Cleveland State University LGBTQ+ Student Services. This article represents solely the views of the author and interviewees. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of LGBTQ+ Student Services.
“Hi, Professor! I hope that you are well. My name is Benvolio Nichols, and I’m excited to work with you this semester.” Solid start. A little wooden, but maybe that’s because I’m writing this for the two-dozenth time.
“I wanted to notify you in advance that I use CSU’s preferred name policy.” I use the official title, because we don’t have time to explain how it really shouldn’t be “preferred.” My “required, actually” name is already listed in Blackboard. Still, I’m not taking chances.
“I am not sure which name you will see on your course roster, since that varies depending on which roster you use.” My professors tell me my name is correct in CampusNet now. But that wasn’t true in fall 2020, the first time I updated my chosen name. Like I said: no chances.
“But, if you take attendance on our first day of class, I would appreciate it if you could call on me as Benvolio or Ben.” I would appreciate it if you didn’t disclose my legal name to an entire class. I would also appreciate it if I didn’t have to write this email, which amounts to three paragraphs of “I am transgender. Please be nice to me.”
Even when we take excessive precautions, few trans students have avoided being deadnamed in classes. Lee Barden (they/he), a senior English major, used CSU’s chosen name policy from fall 2021 until spring 2022, when they completed their legal name change. He remembered notifying professors of his name during first-day attendance. “It was awkward having to correct them in front of everyone,” Barden said. “But once they knew, there weren't any problems the rest of the semester.”
... trans students are forced to rely on kindness.
Most professors don’t go out of their way to invalidate trans students. But good intentions do not remove the harm — as sophomore psychology major Iris B. Graham (fae/she) reminded me with her story of syllabus-day deadnaming. “My professor didn't mean anything malicious by it, he was completely clueless as to my chosen name,” she said. “However, in the moment, seeing my deadname on the screen and him calling it out made me want to die for a bit.”
Most professors don’t go out of their way to invalidate trans students — but some do. Senior English major Campbell Pratt (they/them) transferred from Lorain County Community College in spring 2022. They immediately updated their name in CampusNet, and did not have to correct any professors — except for one.
“He pulled me aside after class and said, ‘Your name on my class doesn’t match my records. Why?’” The professor interrogated Pratt, demanding to know why he should be expected to use their name in class. The confrontation created a hostile learning environment for Pratt, impacting their course of study. “That professor is why I dropped out of the education program.”
The experience left Pratt disappointed. “He’s a professor of a diversity class. That’s an extra layer of fucked-up that you don’t know how to deal with trans students.” Even if we can’t rely on all faculty to respect our identities, why did a transphobic professor have access to Pratt’s personal information? Pratt confirmed that their previous institution implemented a more robust policy to protect trans students’ privacy. “LCCC was really good about making sure deadnames were under wraps. You shouldn’t even know my legal name.”
In its current implementation, CSU’s chosen name policy offers no tangible guarantee that we will receive the same dignity afforded to cisgender students.
Systems at CSU leave us vulnerable enough by disclosing our legal names to professors and advisors. But for student workers, who are often required to use CSU-affiliated accounts for communication, our legal names are also visible to the broader campus community. Pratt uses their CSU Outlook email account in their internship at the Michael Schwartz Library. Currently, the sender display name in Outlook can only be updated through a legal name change, and the email address — “[first initial].[middle initial].[last name]@vikes.csuohio.edu” — cannot be updated at all.
“All of my coworkers through the library know my deadname,” Pratt said. “Thankfully I don’t have to interact too much with the student body, because I’m mostly working with librarians. But when I do outreach to student groups, there’s been confusion. People think my deadname and my preferred name are two different people.”
I’ve dealt with similar confusion as a tutor at CSU’s Tutoring & Academic Success Center. Students request tutoring through Starfish, which displays legal names. When I email my students and coworkers, I use Outlook, per TASC policy. Like most trans people in the CSU community, I do what I can to mitigate this confusion by including my chosen name in the subject line, opening paragraph and signature of every email I send — but when my legal name appears in central locations, my chosen name is easily overlooked.
"... I don’t think that queer students should have to jump through tons of hoops to be shown basic human decency.”
Before updating my name to Benvolio (Ben for short), I used the chosen name Lynn. During my freshman year, a student I tutored asked me why I went by Lynn instead of my legal name, or multiple shortened versions of my legal name, considering it was a perfectly fine name. In a conversation that went on for ten minutes, I felt powerless to advocate for myself. If the student already expected me to justify my chosen name, I anticipated that identifying myself as trans would prompt more invasive questions. I changed the subject as fast as I could so I could get back to doing my job.
I now share in all emails to new students that I am transgender and the name they see is my legal name. My coworkers at TASC adjusted quickly, and I have felt fully supported by a kind, inclusive team. But trans students are forced to rely on kindness. We are pleasantly surprised by the bare minimum. In its current implementation, CSU’s chosen name policy offers no tangible guarantee that we will receive the same dignity afforded to cisgender students.
In addition to the policy’s limited coverage, nearly all the students I interviewed told me that they felt unsupported while updating their names. Lee Barden and Campbell Pratt both described the name change form available in CampusNet as “simple” and “easy.” This alone represents a welcome change; when I first updated my name in summer/fall 2020, the process consisted of sending an email to CSU’s Office of Institutional Equity and awaiting a response. Still, several students agreed, the process needs to be more accessible. “What I figured out was completely on my own,” Pratt said.
And what do trans students want from CSU? “Do better,” Taliesin Lee said. “Make it easier for us to exist.”
Iris B. Graham was just as frustrated. “I had to do the exact same things over and over again for a chance to get my chosen name updated, and even then, it wasn't everywhere. I don’t think that queer students should have to jump through tons of hoops to be shown basic human decency.”
LGBTQ+ Student Services has published a resource sheet which explains the steps to using CSU’s chosen name policy, as well as its current limitations. The document is available digitally as “Chosen Names (Student Guide)” at csuohio.edu/lgbtq, and a physical printout is available at the LGBTQ+ Student Services Center office in BH 211. But public knowledge that this resource (or the LGBTQ+ Center itself) even exists on campus often hinges on word of mouth. Further outreach, and further funding, is necessary to ensure that students understand exactly what support they can receive.
Taliesin Lee (they/them/he), a third-year English major, told me that while he uses his chosen name on Blackboard, he has not yet updated any other systems. Even recalling multiple uncomfortable occasions correcting professors and students in-person, Lee said that safety concerns were a deciding factor to continue using their legal name in
CampusNet. “I didn’t know whether it was reflected on mail. Like, is this going to out me?”
For commuter students like Lee who are closeted to their parents, the current chosen name policy introduces a double-sided threat: first by exposing their legal names to potentially transphobic professors, and second by exposing their chosen names to potentially transphobic family members. This gap in the policy contributed to a traumatic confrontation for senior English major Kevin Leo (he/him) last spring, when a student organization sent invitations by mail to students’ permanent addresses. The envelope, which displayed Leo’s chosen name, was intercepted by his transphobic mother. This close call threatened his financial security and his housing.
“Thankfully,” he said, “I have a unique relationship with my chosen name and was able to explain the situation in a way that made me look cis. Even though I escaped that situation, I still feel uncomfortable that they know I'm going by a different name on campus. There was a safety to them not knowing and now that's gone forever.” In response to his near-outing, Leo removed his chosen name from CampusNet and considered resetting Blackboard to display his deadname. Ultimately, he decided to keep his chosen name in Blackboard, but the experience left him uneasy. “I'm sure whoever did this had great intentions, but their decision almost ruined my life.”
Dr. Mitch Lieberth (they/them), director of CARE & Student Support and interim director of Disability and Testing Services, has played a role in shaping the chosen name policy for several years. “Phase One was CampusNet. Starfish is on the horizon. The next projects would be email and Zoom. It’s definitely a priority.” Lieberth emphasized the need for visibility. “The policy should be on all course syllabi. Often, students don’t know what faculty know, and it just feels so affirming to see something like that.”
Lieberth has supported the diverse campus members who use the policy — not only trans students, they pointed out, but also staff members, international students and any person who goes by a nickname — while also navigating the difficulties of using a chosen name themself. As the instructor for a history course, Lieberth’s legal name appears on CampusNet’s course schedule, where it is visible to the whole campus community in searches. CSU’s licensed Zoom accounts also display legal names, so Lieberth uses a free Zoom account which reflects their chosen name. This limits the meetings they host to 40 minutes or less, which becomes problematic within Lieberth’s multiple on-campus roles dealing with sensitive situations.
In Lieberth’s previous position as an academic advisor, they updated student’s chosen names in Starfish using the platform’s existing tools. By adding a note dated 2026, for example, to the records of a student graduating in 2024, advisors can ensure that a student’s chosen name is always displayed prominently online. But this workaround does not replace the need to update the system itself. Lieberth hopes these future changes can be created quicker than the changes that have occurred in the past five years.
President Laura Bloomberg has expressed a commitment to closing the gaps in the chosen name policy. Last May, shortly after her presidency was announced, Bloomberg invited a small group of LGBTQ+ students to share our needs in two meetings. As several trans students described our negative experiences with the chosen name policy, Bloomberg was attentive and empathetic. In recent months, the university organized a series of diversity, equity and inclusion-centered focus groups for campus climate, including one geared towards trans, nonbinary and gender nonconforming students.
I remain optimistic that the administration’s drive for positive change is genuine, and I recognize that change takes time. But until these promised changes become a reality, trans students have to go through life knowing that we are not as safe as we deserve to be. Iris B. Graham had one closing thought for CSU leadership: “Listen to the trans students who go to your university. It’s just that simple.” And what do trans students want from CSU? “Do better,” Taliesin Lee said. “Make it easier for us to exist.”
A name a person uses in daily life, which is not their legal name. Anyone, cis or trans, can have a preferred name. If your legal name is Christopher and you introduce yourself as Chris, you use a preferred name.
The name which appears on a person’s legal documentation, such as driver’s license, passport or financial records.
The name a person has chosen for themself, which may be a preferred or legal name. Anyone can have a chosen name. Many trans and gender nonconforming individuals describe their names as “chosen,” not “preferred,” since “preferred” implies that respecting their names is optional.
The name chosen by a person’s parents, guardians or family members. Generally, the name that appears on a person’s original birth certificate.
A name that a trans person no longer uses in their daily life. This is usually a given name, but may include former chosen names. It is also used as a verb: “to deadname” someone is to address them by a name they don’t use. Deadnaming can be accidental or malicious. Some trans people may still answer to their deadname or choose not to correct others who deadname them. Their reasons may include personal safety, fear of conflict or exhaustion from correcting people too much already. Just because the use of a deadname was excused or ignored doesn’t mean that it was acceptable.