Last semester, a sociology professor at CUNY Staten Island (CSI) read aloud a Blackboard roster: “Alexa?” the professor said, scanning the classroom. Alex, a junior, didn’t raise his hand.
“I left it alone. It was embarrassing,” said Alex, who identifies as a transgender male. “If I did raise my hand people would look at me like; ‘I thought your name was Alex?’ It didn’t feel comfortable at all.”
There is a discrepancy in how CUNY-wide systems list names. While CUNYfirst recognizes students’ preferred names, two of the CUNY-central managed tools, Blackboard and WebCentral Portal, do not. Over the past year, trans and non-binary students have faced potentially triggering experiences in the classroom when professors are unaware of their preferred name change.
“It’s so awkward to explain to a professor,” Alex said. “Even if they don’t use my preferred pronouns, my name is really important because that is what other people call me.”
Alex continued, “Do I out myself? Do I ignore it? At the time, I wasn’t out to everyone.”
In April 2015, Alex, who declined to give his last name, filed a name change with the registrar’s office. After class, Alex approached the professor and he complied with the request.
CSI students Danny Yat and D. Belinsky said they have also felt “humiliated” when their professors read from rosters that did not list their preferred names.
“When people call you by your birth name you die a little inside,” said Yat, a senior.
Belinsky, a transfer student, said their birth name is their “dead” name.
“We didn’t choose to be trans, but we can choose our name,” Belinsky said. “When people don’t respect that, it’s really hurtful.”
The CUNY Staten Island Communication’s office did not respond before press time.
Brooklyn College impacted by technical flaw in detecting preferred name
On Aug. 26, a Brooklyn College student, who wished to be anonymous, reported a similar issue to Alex’s from CSI to Professor David McKay, the founding director of the college’s LGBT Resource Center. McKay tracked the name through Blackboard and WebCentral, and quickly discovered that the portals do not identify students’ preferred names.
“The only way to find out if something’s working is if it’s broken,” McKay said. “Which means very often I have to turn students into guinea pigs [to solve a problem].”
Palma Dellaporta, a liaison for the LGBT Resource Center and the associate director of the Enrollment Advocacy Center, notified the IT Department of the issue on Sept. 13.
Dellaporta said about two percent of Brooklyn College students request a name change.
“It’s not an oversight,” Dellaporta said regarding the rosters. “The more people that have the problem, the more likely we as an institution [will] find out about it.”
According to CUNY policy, colleges have the option of using the preferred name. The director of the Brooklyn College IT Department, Mark Gold, said the team is developing a workable policy
“There was no system error or accident,” Gold said in an email on Sept.15. “It was recently brought to the college’s attention that some of its locally managed tools do not use the CUNYfirst preferred name and that some students prefer that we do.”
McKay said he felt “disappointed” that the issue went unnoticed.
“That’s a shock that nobody should have to experience,” McKay said. “We’ve assured transgender people that they would have a safe way to begin transitioning on campus. Now [with] finding this out we risk having them unintentionally outed.”
In 2014, Brooklyn College initiated a preferred name policy, which allows students to change their legal name on photo I.D. cards and school email addresses without court documents.
Over the past two years, however, legal names instead of preferred names have appeared on student I.D cards, resulting in an often “awkward” exchange when desk clerks issue them to card holders.
“We couldn’t find this problem for years,” McKay said. “We’d first seen the problem coming up with I.D. cards [but] we didn’t think to investigate further back than that.”
Activists say trans and non-binary students risk violence
For local LGBT activists, the safety of trans and non-binary students is their highest concern.
The National LGBT Task Force, a social justice program based in Washington, D.C., reported that “outing” a transgender or non-binary-identified person can be deadly. Students risk discrimination, harassment, and sexual violence, and, in some of the worst cases, transphobic remarks can lead to suicide.
“Even when the person ‘outing’ them does so accidently the problem at large become all the other people who learned about it,” said Task Force advocate, Victoria Rodriguez-Roldan, to the Kingsman.
“They [can] ostracize the person…many people lose their jobs because someone at their workplace learned that they are trans,” she added.
Brooklyn College is an overall safe space for LGBT students. Six years ago, however, students reported frequent microaggressions against their sexuality. While a 2010 survey found there were no reported on-campus hate crimes against LGBT students at Brooklyn College, 34 percent of LGBT identified students said they heard remarks they perceived to be homophobic, according to the Office of Diversity and Equity programs.
The Brooklyn College’s LGBTQIA Alliance, formerly known as Gay People at B.C., in the 1970s, began as a hub for social activism. 50 years ago, college campuses were not a “safe space,” McKay said. Members held off-campus meetings at Spencer Church, which is now an apartment building in Brooklyn Heights.
Nearly 50 years later, the LGBTQIA club continues to protest for LGBT rights.
Students avoid reporting issue to professors
When the preferred name change does not appear in Blackboard or WebCentral, some transgender and non-binary students avoid notifying their professors.
“It was my first semester [At CSI] [and] I didn’t go to professors and correct them,” said CSI senior, Belinsky. “I didn’t know what the culture was like here and I didn’t know if it was okay to correct the professors.”
At Belinsky’s previous school, a professor poked fun at D.’s preference to go only by their first initial
“It was humiliating,” they said. Since transferring to CSI, Belinsky has applied for and received a name change on their unoffical school documents like their email addresses.
Yat still finds it difficult to disclose his gender identity to professors.
“I don’t like to confront teachers because I am afraid of rejection,” Yat said. “I use the peers around me to help hint it. When teachers call me by birthname, they say, ‘No, its Danny.’”
Through classroom cues, Alex recognizes if a professor is “culturally accepting” of the trans community.
Alex knows all too well how gender identity can jeopardize relationships. After coming out to his parents, he said “They know about me but are not accepting and ignore that I ever told them.”
He is not willing to take that risk with his teachers, especially those with whom he has already established a positive relationship.
“I had an old-school professor and she had met me as Alexa and I wasn’t willing to change it on her,” Alex said. “There is fear of her not accepting me. She thought I was this great student, so I didn’t want to change that.”
On the first day of classes, Alex scribbled out the “A” in Alexa when it was on a Blackboard discussion board.
“I don’t identify with the person that people called, ‘Alexa’,” Alex said. “That’s not me. If I started calling someone a random name that had nothing to do with them—it [just doesn’t] make sense.”
“It’s not a preferred [name],” he added. “It’s my name [and] I chose it.”