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Philadelphia schools to ensure transgender students’ chosen names and pronouns are used in remote learning

The school board in Philly met Thursday night to expand its policy on trans inclusion in school sports to protect identities in online classrooms.

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A teacher uses Zoom to instruct her class.
Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

High school is hard. Online learning is harder still, because of this coronavirus pandemic. But when you’re a transgender, non-binary or gender non-conforming high school student, it also can be cruel, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Especially when the name you’ve worked so hard to lose appears next to your face on the computer screen, for all your classmates to see, and hear.

“My whole class, who knew me as Eli, suddenly heard my birth name, and I would start having an anxiety attack and crying,” said Elias Musselman, a junior at Philadelphia’s Central High who identifies as transgender.

He wasn’t alone. Other trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students suddenly found themselves referred to by their “deadname,” as many trans people call their birth name. It happened because Google Classroom, the district’s preferred online platform, was not updated with these students’ chosen names.

Musselman said he had his name changed in the school district computer system last year, as a sophomore. But that was before the lockdown, before that terrible day when a substitute teacher called roll using his deadname. He told the Inquirer he was devastated.

“To be called a name you don’t want to be called really affects you,” said Musselman.

At first, school officials told teachers, students and their families that they didn’t know how to correct the problem, claiming they lacked the technical know-how.

Maddie Luebbert, a district teacher who identifies as non-binary, told the school board last month they had a potentially life or death problem on their hands. “This public display can become a serious threat to a student’s physical, emotional, or mental well-being,” they said. “I hope I do not need to explain how vulnerable queer youth are — more likely to be homeless, more likely to face abuse, more likely to be dealing with mental illness, more likely to attempt suicide.”

After hearing the horror stories, one school board member, Mallory Fix Lopez, publicly called on the schools’ superintendent to get this glitch fixed. She said students already faced enough trauma involving remote learning; this would only aggravate the situation for marginalized youth, who look to their schools to be affirmed, and protected.

“We’re at a time where so much is out of our control,” Fix Lopez said. “But this is something that is in our control. To me, it’s not so much about a name, but an identity.”

Thanks to Fix Lopez, public pressure, and teachers like Luebbert, the Inquirer reports the district notified Philadelphia’s principals via email of an expansion of its 2016 policy on gender identity and expression.

That landmark policy was aimed at ensuring “safety, equity, and justice for all students regardless of their gender identity or gender expression so that they can reach their fullest human and intellectual potential.” Students do not need parental approval, a court order, or evidence of medical transition to change their name and pronouns on record. Since 2016, this policy has also applied to the school bathrooms students are permitted to use and the sports teams aligned with their gender identity, for which they can play.

According to the paper, the district was to formally present the updated policy to the school board Thursday night. It planned to assure all trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming students that they will be referred to by their chosen names and pronouns in the virtual classrooms as well as on school grounds, whenever that day comes.

It’s not known how many students in the district identify as trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming, since the district told the paper it does not track that kind of student data.

Musselman’s issue has also since been fixed and his name now registers correctly in Google Classroom, he told the Inquirer.

“Some students don’t get support from their families,” he said, “and to have support from school is such a big thing.”