4 min

What’s in a name?

Trans students want their chosen names used on post-secondary documents

Ben Boudreau has been trying to get Concordia University to use his chosen name on all official documents. Credit: Sophia Loffreda
Ben Boudreau would simply like to have his professors call him by his name, but this is proving to be far more difficult than he envisioned.
Boudreau is a transgender student at Montreal’s Concordia University. He’s been fighting with the registrar’s office and ombudsperson there to have his preferred name used on official university documents.
For now, the legal name he is trying hard to distance himself from still appears on his transcript and on attendance sheets distributed to his professors.
The second-year sciences student was recently offered a compromise by the university. He was told his legal name would have to remain on official documents, but the registrar would contact Boudreau’s professors to explain his situation, so they would not call out his legal name in class. They also told him they would print the letter “B” next to his legal name on his student ID card.
“The thing with the card was useless, because my legal name is still on it, and as for the registrar, I’m not sure if they ever followed up with all of my professors, because there are still slip-ups in class,” Boudreau says, noting that it takes time for a legal name change to be processed. This is why he is trying to get Concordia to modify its policy on preferred names.
Services Quebec’s website indicates it can take up to four months to study an application to change a resident’s legal name. It takes even longer for trans individuals wishing to have their genders legally modified.
“A person wishing to legally change their gender must . . . include a certificate from their personal physician and an attestation from a surgeon confirming the successful completion of the surgical procedures,” says Services Quebec spokesperson Marie Godbout.
Boudreau says these requirements add more time to an already onerous bureaucratic process. It also costs as much as $300 or more.
As Boudreau awaits the final okay from the province for his legal name and gender change, he’s hoping officials at Concordia change their minds and allow him to use the name he’s been using elsewhere for several years.
But a Concordia University spokesperson says this is impossible. Chris Mota says the Ministry of Education requires legal documentation with a student’s legal name.
It’s unlikely Boudreau’s plight is an isolated incident. Universities across the country have varying rules and practices around this issue. While trans people have been fighting for years for gender-neutral washrooms in many post-secondary institutions, Boudreau’s struggle with Concordia highlights a new and emerging issue.
The University of Toronto is recognized as having one of the strongest policies around trans issues, including for students who want to use another name while at school. Since 2009, students have been allowed to change their names on university documents, even if they have not legally changed them. It simply involves sending a letter to the registrar.
“A lot of trans students, for whatever reasons, aren’t ready to change their legal name, so this policy allows them to change it [on university documents] without making this big life-changing decision,” says Sara-Marni Hubbard, program coordinator at the U of T’s Sexual and Gender Diversity Office. “With this policy in place, trans students don’t have to go through the trauma of hearing their professors always calling them by their legal name.”
Several other universities are on the same page. Similar to U of T, Toronto’s York University requires only a letter, while at Victoria’s Royal Roads University, an email to the registrar’s office will suffice. At McGill, students can change their preferred names through their online student accounts, but the name change will not appear on official documents.
At Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, assistant registrar Pam Dimock says the university is “beginning to collect and use preferred names on a more regular basis. Most of the use at this point is for the Canadian names of international students.”
Meanwhile, Ryerson University and the University of Ottawa say they operate on a case-by-case basis. But nearly all universities, with the exception of U of T, still require a legal name change in order to replace a student’s name on a transcript.
Where clear rules do exist, it is thanks to campus queer organizations. There is no national organization that deals with trans issues at post-secondary institutions.
“I certainly know of people who have had difficulties in having their names changed on their university documents,” says Egale Canada’s Ryan Dyck, noting that while Egale has lobbied the federal government about name changes on legal documents, it hasn’t been active on campuses. “It’s probably fair to say that trans students are often pushed aside. Being called by your legal name when it is a name you no longer identify with has a huge impact. It completely invalidates who you are.”
At Concordia, Boudreau has teamed up with the 2110 Centre for Gender Advocacy, a student-funded organization, and the Concordia Student Union, to push the university to facilitate students’ requests for the right to use preferred names, and also to have gender removed from university documents.
Their work has produced some results but not exactly what Boudreau was hoping for.
In a recent press release, Concordia staff confirmed that as a result of Ben’s complaint, they will allow students to use a preferred name on certain unofficial documents beginning next fall term. The statement notes, “The university will allow for further accommodations by allowing the use of the legal initial rather than the full legal given name on university ID cards.”
However, Concordia staff maintain that Quebec’s Ministry of Education requires them to use a student’s legal name on transcripts.
Yet ministry spokesperson Esther Chouinard says this is not the case. “It is up to the universities to make their own rules,” she says, indicating that the ministry does not require that students’ legal names appear on their transcript. She says the ministry asks only that it be possible to match a student’s grades with a legal name in its database.
Gabrielle Bouchard, the trans advocacy and peer support coordinator at the 2110 Centre, says she is frustrated that the administration did not consult with the centre before proceeding with its decision.
“That’s not good for the ID cards. Why an initial? It’s still from the legal name; it doesn’t change anything,” she says. “So far every professor and [university] senator we’ve been talking to about our cause has been saying, ‘What’s the big deal? Why aren’t we already doing this?’ Yet there is a resistance from the administration that I do not understand.”
Boudreau simply wants to get on with his math homework. He says that even if he loses his fight with the administration, he’s hoping he can at least change a few people’s minds along the way.
“Spreading the word and educating people is the oldest trick in the book to help movements get going,” he says. “Slowly but surely, trans people won’t be as freaky or misunderstood as they are today, and what better place to start teaching people that than at universities.”