A Situation Like This

Here’s a cool piece by Finn Enke of University of Wisconsin, Madison, inspired by Chelsea Manning’s coming out as trans.

I Am a ‘Situation Like This:’ Names, Pronouns, and Learning from Chelsea Manning

As a trans person and educator, I am grateful to Chelsea Manning. She is not the only famous person to come out as trans, nor is she the first military person to do so. But because her coming out coincided with her internationally high-profile trial and her impending incarceration, she has provided an opportunity for institutions and communities to recognize transgender existence. As Socrates observed long ago, learning is often painful because learning requires us to change. Manning is making most of us have to work a little harder, finally.

Here’s what’s close to home for me, as an educator:

Julie is a 23 year-old trans woman trying hard to stay in college; she has dropped out of many classes and can’t use most restrooms on campus. Family, health, and economic factors have thus far made substantive steps toward legal or medical transition inaccessible. Julie’s university lacks a preferred name and pronoun policy, so class rosters list her as Robert. Most days, Julie has to decide whether to ask people to call her Julie and use female pronouns, or to try to quietly pass as the man many assume her to be. Many days, Julie stays home instead.

Tomas is a 35 year-old trans male who medically and legally transitioned ten years ago; his identity documents read male, and his appearance conforms to common expectations about that. However, most students enrolled in his classes at University X assume they will be meeting a female instructor by the name of Tessa. Tomas chose not to legally alter the name (Tessa) that his parents gave him at birth, and most workplaces have honored Tomas’s preferred name. University X is an exception, insisting that only people’s legal names may be used. Tomas will have to come out to his students on the first day of classes, to explain that he is Tomas and is as he appears: a man.

Finn is a 49 year-old trans person who has been Finn for a long time but recently spent $350.00 (so far) and 26 hours over a three-month period (so far) making that name legal. They got tired of people assuming their prior legal name was their “real” name and then imposing gender assumptions based on that name. As a professor at a university without a preferred name policy, it wasn’t that Finn minded having to come out as trans to every new group of students or to administrators and colleagues; Finn had cashed in on class, race, and institutional privileges to make coming out possible and pedagogically important, even while knowing that most trans students, staff, and instructors are far more vulnerable to physical and institutional harm. Finn’s birth name—a name that feels like someone else’s—still lingers everywhere, including on books that they authored; it can’t be a secret, and that’s mostly ok.

Are we learning yet? Even after teaching transgender studies for twelve years, Finn received a new dose of trans education when attempting to legally change their name. The privilege it takes: not just the money, but the ability to appear in court and stand before a judge twice; the ability to publish the name change in a newspaper for three weeks; the ability to personally walk the paperwork through every relevant place of employment, health care facility, and ID-granting institution. Finn encountered institutional deer-in-headlights everywhere: not hostility, but fear that this name change could crash the entire system. At the DMV, a clerk looked at the court order of legal name change and asked if Finn also had medical documentation. Finn had to remind the clerk that they were seeking a name change. At their university, a Human Resources clerk told Finn, “we have no protocol for situations like this.” Finn reminded the clerk that they were seeking to update their records due to a name change; after seven more appointments, parts of the system still use the no-longer legal name.

Hi, I’m Finn, and I wrote that bit about Finn in the third person just to exercise the third-person singular “they.” I don’t often get to do that, because even though I am a “situation like this,” I generally speak in the first person. Not long ago, a journalist asked me what pronouns I prefer. I replied, “they.” The journalist claimed the newspaper editor would refuse to print “they,” and insisted that I choose a grammatically correct (translation: gender-imposing) pronoun. I said I had chosen, and explained that English usage guides for the last 200 years have allowed that in certain cases, the “singular they” is appropriate and correct. The journalist “resolved” our conflict by using my name rather than any pronoun, parenthetically explaining that I did not want pronouns used. Whose refusal was it, then?

The point is, our institutions need to change. All people, whether or not we are transgender, deserve to be called by the name and pronouns we prefer. All people, trans or not, also deserve to have our gender identities recognized, believed and supported. For many trans people, this can be a life and death issue. Just when Chelsea Manning’s coming out sent the media into a tizzy, another trans woman of color, Islan Nettles, was murdered in NYC. Honoring people’s names and pronouns is only the first part of ensuring that all people have access to employment, education, appropriate services, facilities, medical care, and general well-being in the world.