Let students put whatever name they want on their diplomas

January 30, 2023 7:02 am

It's no one else's business what name a student wants on their diploma — only the student's opinion counts. (Rob Kerr / OSU)

What was the name of the guy who wrote “The Great Gatsby”?

If you said F. Scott Fitzgerald, bingo. His full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, though, and friends and family called him Scott. So, does he have one name, or three?

What about the hip-hop legend from East Orange whose first single was “Wrath of My Madness” and who now stars in “The Equalizer” on CBS? If you said Dana Owens, yeah, you’d technically be correct, but if you talked to her, you’d no doubt use her stage name, Queen Latifah, because that’s the name she wants people to call her.

I’ve been reading up on what constitutes a legal name since last week’s hearing of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, when critics blasted lawmakers for a bill that would require colleges to use a student’s preferred name on their diploma, even if they haven’t legally changed their name. Someone should only be able to use their legal name on a diploma, critics said, and anything else would be chaotic, legally dubious, or, even worse, ungodly.

Balderdash. The name on my birth certificate is Terrence Thornton McDonald. If I were graduating from school and wanted my diploma to say that or Terrence or Terry or T. Thornton or T. McD., that’s my business, not anyone else’s, not even the college’s.

Of course, critics object to A1588 not because of me: They object to trans people wanting their diploma to match their preferred name, not the name on their birth certificate. None of the critics said the word trans, but the simmering anti-trans hate was evident.

“If I was forced to change a legal document of any sort, including a diploma or any document, and change it from Steven to Stephanie, or Stephanie to Steven, or Josephine to Joseph, I couldn’t do it. My Christian faith, my deeply held religious faith, would not allow me to do it,” said Victoria Jakelsky, director of New Jersey Parental Rights.

OK, Ms. Jakelsky, go work for a school in a country where it’s legal to discriminate. Otherwise, change the diploma if you’re asked.

Attorney Celeste Fiore called the debate over the diploma bill “ridiculous.”

Celeste Fiore, a nonbinary trans attorney who is founder of the Trans Affirming Alliance, told me that for high school students, this isn’t just about a name on a diploma — it’s about the ceremony where they receive their diplomas and their names are announced in front of colleagues, family members, and friends.

“This is the last bit of compulsory education in the United States,” Fiore said. “It undermines the entire purpose of a diploma and the ceremony if we’re not calling people by their names.”

And what if, as some critics addressed last week, parents want one name on a diploma and their child is still a minor and wants another?

“We’re taking away that 16- and 17-year-old’s agency, which frankly is not developmentally appropriate. They’re supposed to be making their own choices on things that are not disallowed by law,” they said.

Fiore made another good point about names: Judges in New Jersey have already ruled that an adult’s name is what the adult says it is.

In 1991, after a judge would not allow a trans person to change their name, three appellate judges overruled him, saying, “At common law, any adult or emancipated person is free to adopt any name, except for a fraudulent, criminal or other illegitimate purpose.”

Attorney J. Remy Green mentions this case in a 2021 paper they coauthored for Columbia Human Rights Law Review called “There is No Such Thing as a ‘Legal Name’” that argues there is no clear, uniform definition of legal name.

“The name a person uses in their community, generally speaking and in the absence of a specific statute providing otherwise (which most states do not have), is their legal name,” the paper reads.

Green, who is trans and nonbinary, noted that people might seek a name change on their diploma for all sorts of reasons — they were married and now use a different last name, or they changed their religion and now go by a different name. It’s notable, Green said, that critics who never objected in those instances now say schools must legally stick with the name on someone’s birth certificate.

“This is not an issue unique to trans people, it’s so quotidian,” they said. “It’s only when trans people show up that schools make up rules to follow.”



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Terrence T. McDonald
Terrence T. McDonald

Editor Terrence T. McDonald is a native New Jerseyan who has worked for newspapers in the Garden State for more than 15 years. He has covered everything from Trenton politics to the smallest of municipal squabbles, exposing public corruption and general malfeasance at every level of government. Terrence won 23 New Jersey Press Association awards and two Tim O’Brien Awards for Investigative Journalism using the Open Public Records Act from the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. One politician forced to resign in disgrace because of Terrence’s reporting called him a "political poison pen journalist.”