“I'm scared sometimes,” says local activist Basil Soper, an A-B Tech student who, more than a year ago, began challenging the school’s requirement that students use their legal name in email, online courses, public forums and learning platforms like Moodle. “I was outed on Moodle, but my physical [appearance] didn't match [the name displayed].”
For transgender students, that can raise significant concerns about discrimination and personal safety. Multiple studies have shown that transgender people are far more likely than the general population to suffer violence and discrimination, particularly once they've been outed (see sidebar, “Serious Consequences”). After seeing his birth name on Moodle, Soper reveals, a male classmate confronted him about using the men's restroom. Use of the online learning platform is mandatory for many courses at A-B Tech.
UNC Asheville and most other schools in the state system allow transgender students to use a different name in their public records, though this is less true for the community colleges. At A-B Tech, sympathetic instructors worked with Soper and fellow student Ben Baechler to find ways around the problem, such as not using birth names when calling roll; some teachers, notes Soper, have “been amazing allies.” But administrators, citing school policy, stuck to their guns.
Soper says he first became aware of the issue several years ago, when he asked to use a shortened version of his birth name on Moodle and was repeatedly refused. Last December, he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, which has helped transgender students across the country lobby to get such policies changed.
“It really started becoming an issue at that point,” Soper recalls. “After 12 to 14 months on hormones, I started to pass as male. Everyone around me knows I'm male, so it's a glaring issue when my birth name pops up on Moodle.”
In January, after talking to other trans students, a frustrated Soper posted an online petition that quickly gathered hundreds of signatures and triggered a heated debate. A few weeks later, the policy was changed.
Kerri Glover, the school’s director of community relations and marketing, says changes were already in the works before Soper launched his petition.
“We had already changed [Soper's publicly visible name] and were in the process of trying to accommodate other requests,” she said on Feb. 4, adding, “We have accommodated transgender students a number of times in the past.”
“I know, in some ways, this is an unforeseen issue” for the school, Soper concedes. “If you're not transgender, then this isn't something you think about.”
Changing one's legal name, he notes, can be costly and time-consuming.
“Many people can't even get legal name changes after they transition,” Soper explains, “for a number of reasons: bad credit history, owing the IRS, being sued at some point, or even just because it’s early in the transition, and you aren't sure what you want to be called for the rest of your life.”
Meanwhile, something as simple as having roll called or contributing to an online discussion can effectively mean transgender students are outed.
Baechler says he’s faced similar issues during his year-and-a-half at the community college.
“A lot of trans students at A-B Tech can't afford to change their name,” he notes. When he first enrolled, Baechler recalls, “I contacted them to point out that this is outing me.” Initially, administrators seemed receptive, even setting up a new email account for him. Later, however, they shut it down, saying their policy allowed only legal names to be used. Instructors, says Baechler, allowed him to email his responses instead of using Moodle, but while this avoided outing him to classmates, it also meant he couldn't participate in online discussions, among other problems.
“There's a class roster button on Moodle,” Baechler explains. “Anyone could go on there, click on my class, and realize my name appears differently. If someone saw that, they could confront me anywhere, at any time. I've had it happen before.”
“If someone wanted to push physical harm on me, it would be really easy for them to find out that I'm trans,” he adds.
Soper hoped these behind-the-scenes efforts would solve the problem. “I talked to the school for quite some time: to faculty, to staff.” But “I was shut down every time,” he maintains. “I'd have to out myself to them to even talk about it. I'd get weird looks or eye rolls; it was really uncomfortable.”
Terry Brasier, the school's vice president of student services, says: "We're always open for feedback from students. Our goal and mission is to create an environment where students feel safe and nurtured and get a sense of belonging." A-B Tech, he says, has a strict nondiscrimination policy. "We work hard to make that a reality on a daily basis."
The ACLU steps in
On Dec. 3, the ACLU of North Carolina sent a letter to A-B Tech about the issue, beginning what Legal Director Chris Brook calls "an ongoing, productive conversation" about the issue and transgender students’ needs. Brook says his organization has helped other colleges, including N.C. State and UNC Charlotte, deal with similar issues in recent years.
Often, he notes, it’s more a question of educating administrators than of overcoming opposition. Legally, he emphasizes, colleges can use students’ preferred names in publicly available information, though they do have to have the legal names on file.
After that, says Soper, the administration agreed to use a shortened version of his birth name. “But it's not my name. I didn't get why this had to match [the birth name]: I mean, my Social Security number hasn't changed.”
Baechler, meanwhile, says that in January, a teacher displayed the Moodle roster where the whole class could see it. “She realized that she just let the entire class see my birth name,” he relates. “It's not something she should have to think about. That shouldn't be a teacher's responsibility.”
Brasier says he first became aware of the issue "a couple of months ago," after several students asked to change their names in Moodle. "To support our mission and values, we need to research this and make it happen," says Brasier, noting that though he consulted with officials at other schools on how to implement such a policy, "Very few community colleges have gone this route."
On Jan. 13, Soper launched his online petition.
“Putting students in an unsafe position is not okay,” it stated. “Expecting students to pay for classes or absorb their material in an unsafe or uncomfortable atmosphere is not okay. Other colleges have allowed trans students to have preferred names in Moodle, such as UNC Charlotte, a university in our own state. Please sign this and share this to urge A-B Technical College to change their online learning name policy.”
The petition quickly gathered more than 200 signatures, as alumni, students and other local activists weighed in.
“The policy … is discriminatory,” Eric Seydon wrote after signing the petition. “As an A-B Tech alumni I am ashamed of the college's actions.”
“The petition wasn't the way I wanted to go about it,” Soper says now, but after other efforts failed, he felt it was necessary.
A-B Tech responds
The petition was originally addressed to Joe Bace, the school’s director of facilities and operations. But a few days later, Glover posted the following comment:
“I am not Joe Bace, who is A-B Tech's director of facilities and has nothing whatsoever to do with the college's policy on Moodle or name changes. I am Kerri Glover, A-B Tech's director of community relations and marketing, who is responding on his behalf and requesting that you please remove Mr. Bace as a ‘decision maker’ for this petition. He has no control over the policy addressed here. In fact, the other person receiving these petitions [Terry Brasier] has done everything possible within our guidelines to be accommodating. A-B Tech also has a transgender student group, a college diversity committee that explores transgender issues, and has revised college policy to favorably address transgender issues. Because we do support our transgender students, we have tried to address your request for a name change in Moodle within our guidelines. Our policy requires us to use given, legal names for ALL students. We don't use nicknames unless they are derivative of the given legal name. If there is a wholesale change to any student's name, regardless of the reason, we are required to have proof of a legal name change. For instance, if a student is divorced or married, he or she also is required to submit a legal name change. This policy is intended to protect the privacy of every A-B Tech student. That said, we are sensitive to your concerns and will be happy to discuss this issue further with you. It also may be an issue our diversity committee would have interest in exploring. But I respectfully submit that it is not fair to A-B Tech to create a petition of this nature when our support of transgender students is evident.”
“That's really a kind of offensive thing to say to a trans person,” says Baechler. “It's not a nickname: It's my name. It's really frustrating, because we can't get anyone to pay attention to this.”
In a Feb. 4 interview, Glover spoke about school policy and her response to the petition: “Like every other community college in the state, we use the official name of a student. … That is a legal requirement.”
Glover also said she never intended to offend anyone. “When I replied publicly, it was to request they [remove Bace's] name; we never meant to imply it was unfair to the college, just to him,” since Bace had no control over the issue.
“I was not referring to transgender students' preferred names as nicknames. I was saying that we can't even use nicknames,” she explained. “We get other requests that are not necessarily from transgender students … and we've had to use the given name.”
The school, said Glover, wants “to be open and accommodating to our diverse student population. We're looking, but we can't make some of the changes overnight.”
A new policy
Meanwhile, the petition kept attracting social media traffic and started getting attention on LGBT websites, including Qnotes.
And on Feb. 5, the day after Glover’s interview, A-B Tech's department heads and administrators met to discuss changing the name policy. That same day, Glover emailed the following statement:
“The college has authorized the use of preferred names in public-facing communications channels such as Moodle and email. In addition, we will educate our faculty on the use of preferred names. These requests will be handled through Records and Registration in our Student Services Division. As a third step, we also are investigating the possibility of providing free legal services on campus once a semester, to help students with legal name changes.”
Beginning next term, says Brasier, students will be able to fill out a form requesting that preferred names be used in the class roster, email and Moodle. The college, he says, is also looking into other ways to better accommodate transgender students, including gender-neutral restrooms.
Soper says he’s pleased with the college's response, though many larger issues remain for all transgender people, not just students.
“I hope this sheds a little bit of light on some of the less visible issues trans people face,” he observes. “Your name is everything: You carry it around with you everywhere you go. It can change people's perceptions of you instantly.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.