Should students be able to choose what name is on their diplomas? (Photo Credit: Venya Pak via Pexels)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) announced to graduating seniors this past month that preferred names may now be specified for their diplomas. This process was five years in the making; spearheaded largely by the school’s LGBTQ Center. 

But the question arose: Why was this such an uphill battle? Had there not been a precedent for this action, the lengthy process would make perfect sense. However, both the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) have been offering preferred name changes on diplomas for quite some time. The answer largely comes down to the difference between legal and ceremonial documents. 

For the transgender, non-binary and otherwise gender-expansive community, name changes are extremely important. Deadnames can be triggering for many members of the LGBTQ community and, having to display these names on their college diplomas can cause psychological and emotional distress. 

Marshall Pritchard, a current student at UNCC, says, “Having my dead name shown would be incredibly disheartening to have to go through, not to mention it would out me to others. I don’t want people to know my dead name and use that against me, and I don’t want the reminder.” 

Even without malicious intent, the showcasing of alumni’s incorrect names could have negative impacts as mentioned earlier in this article. This applies to student ID cards, online course pages and classroom settings, as well as diplomas. But the protocol for name changes differs depending on the university policies. 

At UNCC and UNCG, all of the previously mentioned identifications can be altered in lieu of one’s preferred name. UNC, on the other hand, is unable, or unwilling, to offer changes to student IDs because the school recognizes these cards as legal forms of identification. In order for the diplomas to be altered, the UNC staff, faculty and Board of Governors had to come to the consensus that the diplomas are merely a ceremonial document with no legal baring. 

Says Dr. Terri Phoenix, Director of the LGBTQ Center at UNC: “They [the students] have worked hard to get those diplomas, for people with multiple marginalized identities in particular, it is not an easy journey.” 

 “I think having the ability to have your preferred name on documents and ID cards should always be allowed,” says Pritchard, “It’s a small thing that can mean the world to a transgender person.” 

This process, however seemingly simple, involved long hours and lots of conversation behind the scenes.

“I worked with the Registrar’s Office, including the former and current Registrar, the former and current Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, IT technicians, the Provost’s Committee on LGBTQ Life, the Provost and many others in order to allow the process now used to put preferred names on diplomas,” Phoenix recalls. 

The National Center for Transgender Equality does mention that there are different processes for altering one’s birth certificate and driver’s license as well as legally changing one’s name before a court of law. These legal processes take time and funds that many college students may not have. Without a legally recognized transition, students may not have the opportunity to change names on their diplomas. 

“In the worst case scenario, it [the diplomas] can also unintentionally out someone, which can be very physically dangerous [and] academically dangerous because of the prejudice and discrimination that exists,” Phoenix explains. 

In contrast, not every gender-expansive person wants name changes implemented. 

One such student is Pritchard. Despite altering all of his other school documents, he does not want to alter his diploma. “I asked for it to be my birth name since it hasn’t been changed legally, and I don’t want that to cause confusion,” says Pritchard, “I also [want] to avoid any potential issues with long distance family who I haven’t come out to yet.”

As with all LGBTQ-inclusionary practices, the preferred name changes at universities are not a requirement, but an opportunity. It is about having the option to do so. At UNC, students may also retroactively change their names and receive a “replacement diploma.” 

According to Phoenix, the UNC name change option will not only benefit LGBTQ students, but all students. “This change will allow for students to display their diplomas proudly. It does not just apply to transgender or nonbinary people, but to others who may not go by their legal names.”

Correcting people on one’s name is not exclusive to the LGBTQ community. However, it is much more common. “The only issues [relating to name and pronouns] I’ve ever had was with other students,” Pritchard explains.

Speaking to the importance of all university staff being well-versed in LGBTQ issues, Pritchard adds, “The faculty has been great about sharing and getting everyone’s preferred pronouns. They were always fantastic about handling that [transphobia from other students] when I brought it up to them.” 

Sensitivity training is one area in which all colleges should be investing. According to recent developments, many North Carolina-based schools house an LGBTQ Resource Center or faculty-lead LGBTQ group. Outside of the previously mentioned institutions, NC State University, Wake Forest University and North Carolina State University are some other colleges that have made way for their transgender, nonbinary, gay, lesbian and bisexual students. 

Offers Phoenix: “Chosen names on one’s diploma is a great step forward. However, there are many other things to be done within the UNC system to make it a more affirming space for students, staff and faculty,”

Pritchard also voiced his opinion on the LGBTQ-centered modifications that could be made to all colleges. “I’ve found that having gender neutral bathrooms or family bathrooms in buildings is incredibly useful for people who are still early in their transition, or for nonbinary people.

“I think housing can also be very difficult to navigate when transitioning, and I’d say it would be beneficial to have some way for trans people to either choose what gender they’re rooming with, or avoid roommates entirely,” Pritchard adds.

These accommodations, including preferred name changes to diplomas, could be pivotal to a gender-expansive student’s college experience, level of achievement and psychological well-being.

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