What’s in a deadname for transgender students?

Hello, my name is not that

Clarion illustration by Ruthie Hatter

Kai Brito, Contributor

Theodore Ouriel Shulman is a high-achieving student at Madison College. He has earned Dean’s List honors, is enrolled in the Honors Program and currently serves as the Vice President-Elect of Public Relations for Madison College Student Senate.
Theo says he owes his success to hard work, but also due to a supportive community to back him. He also says his life can be defined by turkeys, therapy and travel, which as unorthodox as it sounds, led him on the path of self-discovery as a transgender man.
For Theo, he discovered his identity in his preteen years and publicly came out at 13 years old. After experimenting with a few different names, he eventually settled on “Theodore Ouriel” for his first and middle names as an homage to his grandmother and a nod to the comedian Brother Theodore, who is coincidentally also his dad’s best friend.
Even though Theo has been settled on his name for over six years, he was only able to legally change his name last fall in 2022. Since enrolling at Madison College for the High School Equivalency Diploma program and now Liberal Arts Transfer program, Theo has had numerous experiences where his legal name was listed on documentation, not his chosen name that he uses in his day-to-day life. That process is known as “deadnaming.”
Standard resources like the school’s email and OneCard require that students have their legal name listed.
Any official examinations like the College Level Examination Program Testing or Credit for Prior Learning require the student’s legal name to be printed. Theo notes that staff who were administering the test never personally deadnamed him when referencing him.
As expected, when Theo received his diploma printed out by the State of Wisconsin, his legal name was front and center on the document. He was disappointed to see his deadname take up so much space on that document and he wishes that his preferred name, now his legal name, could have a spot on a document that symbolized his personal achievements.
“It sucked to see the [legal] name on the high school diploma because of how disconnected I feel from that name,” Theo said.
As an aspiring legal professional, Theo very much understands that certain documents must have the legal name listed to keep in compliance with Federal Law. However, he still believes that Madison College’s policies need revision in order to better represent the chosen names, and therefore the identity, of students.
“If it’s a necessity to use the legal name for identification purposes, then that’s very different than, ‘Your email is your deadname, sorry.’” Theo said.
And while Theo may have a forgiving perspective of some Madison College policies, other students do not hold high regard for current school policies.

The Transgender Experience in Wisconsin

Lily Weber, a current student at Madison College, saw Madison as a safe haven for her to live out her true self. She hoped the social environment of the capitol city would serve as a sanctuary of sorts from the transphobic experiences of the rural Wisconsin town where she first came out.
As one of just a few transgender individuals and LGBTQ+ persons in that rural town, Lily describes the area as “a hostile environment to queer people” where she said she experienced social discrimination, slurs and even physical assault. Unfortunately, Lily’s personal experiences are not unique.
In 2015, the National Center for Transgender Equality conducted the U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), which is recorded as the largest survey to report the experiences of transgender individuals in the United States. The USTS collected almost 28,000 responses across varying backgrounds, and of those respondents “45% of those who were out or perceived as transgender in K–12 were verbally harassed, 23% were physically attacked and 11% were sexually assaulted in K–12 because of being transgender.”
Outwardly, Lily says students and staff are respectful of her identity and make sure to use her chosen name, instead of her legal name. So, while Madison has certainly been an improvement for Lily, she says the bar for inclusivity can’t be set so low.
“[Madison College] has to do more than just the bare minimum to say they’re inclusive; the school needs to be actively trying to reduce the harm they cause to students,” Lily said.
When Lily first came to Madison College, she immediately changed her preferred name in the system, hoping that would be enough to prevent deadnaming on behalf of the school. But since coming to Madison College, Lily has suffered countless instances where she was deadnamed due to administrative policies.
Under current school policy, Lily’s OneCard and school email listed her legal name and not her preferred name. But when Lily was informed by the school that she had received Dean’s List honors, she didn’t expect to see her legal name printed on that letter.
Lily worked hard to make the Dean’s List, but she said being deadnamed on that letter of achievement overshadowed any accolades or praise that Madison College was trying to celebrate. Eventually, after reaching out to administration, she was able to get a letter printed with her preferred name, but by that point the damage had already been done.
Not only did she have to deal with the mental distress of deadnaming, but Lily was also forced to out her identity to coworkers because the Madison College email system defaulted to the legal name, and not the preferred name that she put into the system.
To a certain extent, Lily also understands the legal name requirement for financial reporting on scholarships, tuition and other billings. But she is skeptical that other services and resources need to have the legal name listed.
“When they don’t use your preferred name and instead opt for your legal name, it feels like Madison College doesn’t actually believe in your identity and personhood,” Lily said.
For Lily, the biggest priority is reducing harm to students, and as things currently stand with the legal name policy, she doesn’t think the school is doing a good enough job.

Administrative Policy

In a written statement, Joshua Cotillier, Risk Manager for Madison College, confirmed that “the name printed on the OneCard must match that which is printed on the individual’s state issued ID, passport or other valid form of identification.” There are multiple services that make use of the OneCard, like Campus Dining, the Campus Bookstore and the Fitness Center, so Cotillier said that this is best way to certify the identity of the student using the ID card.
The policy is not a Wisconsin state-mandated or Student Life policy; it is a Madison College policy that was recently implemented in late 2022 and there is no plan for any changes at this time. However, staff like Marco Torrez-Miranda are co-leading the charge on the administrative side to make large-scale systemic changes for Madison College.
Torrez-Miranda is the former Faculty & Program Director of Human Services at Madison College, but like many staff members at Madison College, his involvement goes beyond a singular role. Currently, he advances Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives in dual positions as Director of the Institute for Equity and Transformational Change (IETC) and Co-Advisor for the Gender-Sexuality Alliance.
The IETC server is mainly for internal-facing policies and procedures related to antiracism, diversity and inclusion within Academic Affairs, and it is not available for public viewing. But the resources that the IETC produces are disseminated collegewide for faculty to use in syllabus and instructional design. In fact, just last year in spring of 2022, the IETC finalized the new DEI recommendations for the plan update and completed Phase 1 of the DEI Curriculum Development Process.
As the leader of IETC, Torrez-Miranda strives to uphold the mission of promoting antiracist educational practices. But he wants to make sure those practices are serving the interests of students, which can be challenging to balance with the notoriously slow-moving administrative rules change process.
“Education should be humanizing, but our structures have made it so that we are not seeing the humanity of people who have valid lived experiences,” Torrez-Miranda said.
Torrez-Miranda reported that the next phase of the plan is to review how the changes align with current technology and programming systems, in order to implement the suggested changes. But students like Lily are frustrated that they have to wait for technology to catch up while they continue to relive the trauma of deadnaming in their daily student lives.

Looking Towards the Future

While administrative staff may be working on long-term solutions for inclusive identity policies, students like Theo and Lily are ready for immediate changes here and now. And the number one way to address personal issues with preferred names is to undergo the legal name change procedure.
Name change procedure is a tedious, costly legal process that differs from state to state. For Wisconsin, the procedure is dictated by Wisconsin Statutes 786.36-.37 Changing names, court procedure.
The Wisconsin Court System has a number of official forms that are required to be submitted during this process, beginning with “Basic Steps to Handling a Name Change” (Form CV-490) outlining the entire process. The Court also requires the publication of the Notice of Hearing and Order for Hearing in a local newspaper to document a public record history.
Because of Theo’s legal acumen, he could easily manage the name change process and was even able to petition for a Confidential Name Change and bypass the publication requirements and extra fees associated with that. Additionally, if certain income thresholds are met, court fees may be waived by filing a Petition for Waiver of Fees and Costs – Affidavit of Indigency (Form CV-410A).
However, not all students have an easy time navigating the process or securing funding. For Lily, the name change process has been a “gigantic, awfully complicated, horrible mess.” Even with the help of the Madison College Legal Clinic, there was much frustration over the many forms that needed to be filled out and submitted to various agencies.
But despite the barriers she has faced, Lily has pledged to herself that she would see the process through to the end. Ultimately, Lily sees the name-change process as a necessary means to solidify her identity that she self-discovered long ago.
Only Lily has the power to make her own decisions about who she is and what she wants to become in the future. And fortunately, she is able to celebrate a major victory with an official legal name change that was recently granted by the Dane County Courthouse.