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What's in a Name? 

Transgender students start the year with more support

Starting a new school year brings more changes than just the transition from summer into fall. Whether it is the stress of a new teacher, or returning after an awkward summertime growth spurt, or with eyeglasses or braces, the first day can bring butterflies to the stomach of even the most well-adjusted child.

But for transgender youth, those back-to-school jitters resonate with a greater magnitude. Will my teacher use the right name and pronoun? Will classmates figure out my "secret"? Will I get bullied for using the bathroom?

Breaking down barriers

From Brown v. Board of Education mandating racial integration in 1954, to Title IX requiring the fair allocation of educational resources regardless of gender in 1972, to more recently, schools across the country enacting anti-bullying measures, there has been an emerging consensus over the past half-century that for schools to be truly successful, all students need to succeed—which means, in part, to be included.

But until this year, transgender students in Oregon faced a persistent challenge: despite legal protections barring discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, they were unable to update their new name in their school records without a court order.

"We know for a fact it does not take much for a kid to be picked out and isolated from their peers and bullied and harassed," says Jenn Burleton, executive director of TransActive Gender Center, a Portland-based nonprofit. "If you're being perceived as a boy or a girl by peers, and an authority figure misgenders you or uses the wrong name, it can draw a lot of unwanted attention."

In fact, according to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender and gender non-conforming K-12 students experience high rates of harassment (78 percent), physical assault (35 percent) and sexual violence (12 percent). Moreover, mistreatment and bullying has documented negative impacts on educational outcomes, with nearly one-sixth of students leaving school due to harassment.

But over the past summer, the Oregon Department of Education took away this lingering hurdle to inclusion and issued a policy memo advising that students must be allowed to change the first name in their school records to reflect their chosen name and gender, along with instructions on how to do it. Prior to the June decision, parents could input a "nickname" into their child's records, but it did nothing official to prevent the teacher from calling Johnny "Jane" during attendance, or to help students avoid harassment.

"It's a game changer," asserts Burleton.

The 2008 Oregon Equality Act and Federal Title IX laws already protect the rights of students to express their gender identity and access school resources appropriate to that gender—including restrooms and athletics (with some restrictions)—but this new guidance creates an administrative fix for students who have not yet obtained a legal name change.

Announced with little fanfare or media coverage in June, the policy change lays out instructions for school districts to change the first name that gets printed out on roll sheets, standardized tests and other school forms while allowing transgender students to maintain their Statewide Student Identifier (SSID)—and, more broadly, formalizes a growing trend toward promoting inclusion in schools.

Changes in policies like this—whether mandates sent from Congress or policy memos from state education boards—have measurable impacts, with lower rates of victimization and harassment reported in districts with stated policies, and marked increases in faculty and staff interventions when bullying occurs. By way of comparison, according to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) 2011 National School Climate Survey, in South Carolina, a state with no policies protecting LGBT students, 37 percent of LGBT students surveyed were physically harassed due to their gender expression. In Oregon, with clear policies, however, fewer than half as many (16 percent) reported this type of harassment.

Freedom to fit in

A lanky high school senior with curly shoulder-length hair and olive skin, Elle first told her parents she wasn't a boy through a series of letters shortly after her 15th birthday. Her father Ben says the announcement came as a surprise. (To protect the privacy of the families interviewed for this article, the names of the parents and children have been changed.)

"I think we had almost no prior inklings at all," Ben says. "There were a couple times that someone, because of the long hair, would identify her as female and it didn't bug her one bit. It seemed kind of strange to me."

Despite being caught off guard, Ben drew from his background in education and engineering and started researching online and reading books about transgender topics.

Things came to a head during the last week of the ninth grade when, after becoming concerned that Elle might be suicidal, Ben and his wife Karen connected with a local psychiatrist who has experience with transgender patients and started on a path toward getting Elle the gender-affirming mental and physical healthcare she needed.

Between the suicide scare and the challenges of gender transition, the family opted to homeschool Elle the following year. By the 11th grade, Elle was attending her old high school part time, and homeschooling part time. Though her teachers were on board with using a feminine name and pronouns, school administrators said at the time that they couldn't change her name in official records. As a result, Ben says, things got dicey when there was a substitute. When one teacher forgot to print the modified roll sheet for her fill-in, the teacher called out Elle's legal name, effectively outing her to any classmates who didn't know her history. Eventually, Ben says, Elle started skipping classes when substitutes taught. It wasn't worth the stress.

When Ben learned about the policy change this summer, he jumped at the opportunity to make the record changes. About a week before classes started, Ben says administrators updated Elle's records to reflect her preferred name. At home, he and his daughter each logged into the online system to confirm it was there.

"She saw that it had changed to Elle, and she was definitely very happy about that," Ben says. Beyond the name change, though, he says there are other roadblocks. "How do you get perceived? It helps to have hair that's down to your shoulders. That's step one in gender perception. But then there's all the other layers of it. What does the rest of your body look like? What clothes are you wearing? How much makeup are you wearing?"

While the name change may not give Elle the overnight transformation Ben says she seems to wish for, it will make it easier for her to be herself—without asterisks—as she continues her transition into a young, college-bound woman.

A fresh start

Two little girls zip across the school playground, stepping through swings, climbing over monster truck tires and falling down in the dry, dusty dirt as their mothers admonish them from afar to keep their fancy clothes clean, to let them comb their tangled tresses. Jordan, 5, and Christie, 7, became fast friends after their mothers, Jessie and Leah, met in a Facebook group for parents of transgender children. (To wit: the children, aware that two women can now legally wed in Oregon, have decided they will marry each other.)

Christie, clad in multi-colored neon shorts and a pink cartoon-character top that matches her bubblegum-streaked blond locks, started identifying herself as a girl when she was about 5. Her mom Leah says she's never been a stereotypical girlie-girl, but don't call her a "tomboy"—"I'm not a boy!" she shouts when the word comes up in conversation. She has been going by a shortened, feminine version of her full legal name for the past year or so, and her mother says that despite her young age, seeing or hearing her masculine name is deeply upsetting.

"It was very stressful for her," Leah says. "On picture day she got the little slip and it said her full male name and she was in tears."

Now that Christie's name has been updated in her school records, she doesn't have to worry about her transgender status becoming public knowledge on photo day, during standardized testing, or when a new teacher calls attendance. She can walk into the first grade, head held high, and focus on reading, writing and making friends.

Jordan, decked out in black boots, bedazzled leggings, a sparkly tutu and a bright blue sweater with matching bow, first told her mother Jessie that she was a girl at age 3. The preschooler's steadfast assertion was accompanied by repeated, insistent requests for a "princess dress." Her mother, more concerned at the time about wasting precious funds on something her child would never wear than the implication of the request, opted for more subtly feminine offerings—shoes with a pink stripe, skinny jeans, a Dora the Explorer doll. But Jordan didn't give up. When her fourth birthday rolled around some six months later, her mother finally relented. Jordan wore the dress at every opportunity, and continued to assert her girlhood.

Jordan's mom Jessie says she's been lucky. She went from a supportive preschool to an understanding grade school (the same one little Christie will be attending).

"I actually got a phone call. I was worried about that," Jessie says. "The office gal actually called and said, 'I noticed that you marked Jordan as female. We've had other trans students before, would you like to put her in the system as female or male?' And I was like, 'Oh my god. Female, definitely female!'"

And while she still goes by her legal name—for now, though her mom says "Rebecca" has been at the top of her daughter's list of names lately—Jordan is gender neutral enough to not prompt questions. Still, if and when she decides to go by another name, Jessie says she's glad to know the school records will reflect that.

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