by Kevin Mulvey '14
Following a Bennington graduate’s successful online petition, the college administration has reversed its policy of issuing diplomas that disregard transgender students’ preferred names.
The petition, started by Ben Green ’13, and facilitated in part by Queer*, requested that the administration alter its policy to accommodate the identities of trans* students, regardless of the legal status of their names. The move came after more than 10,000 supporters signed the petition and appealed to the administration via the popular advocacy website, Change.org.
“Having carefully considered Ben's experience, we reviewed our policy and felt compelled to join a handful of leading peer institutions in permitting name changes based on gender identity or expression,” read the statement issued by Isabel Roche, Dean of the College, on July 12. "On behalf of Bennington College, we would like to announce that we are changing our policy regarding transgendered students’ names on transcripts and diplomas, effective immediately.”
For Green, the college’s decision was hard-won, arriving after a month of crafting the petition and building a network of support. The impetus for his petition was born from the difficulties he faced in reaching out to the administration to have his declared identity recognized within the Commencement program, on his school email address and mailbox, and, ultimately, on his diploma.
“The administration refused to change my name on my diploma, my email, and on my transcripts. They only allowed me to use my preferred name in the graduation program and to announce my name out loud as Ben Green,” the petition read. “Because of Bennington’s refusal to accommodate my wishes, I not only had to graduate with a diploma that will become void when I do legally change my name, but I had to show my friends and family, all of whom I had just come out to recently, my diploma with the wrong name.”
While the 10,000 signees were not all Bennington community members or alumni, there were many students who signed and testified as to the necessity of the change.
“As a member of both the LGBTQ and Bennington College communities, I am signing this petition to support and protect my transgender peers, as well as their right to present and express their gender identities in any way they wish,” Mica Evans ‘15 wrote. “I hope that the voices on this petition are heard and listened to promptly so that the next class admitted to Bennington might feel fully loved and protected.”
The petition’s success came about through effective online organizing by Green’s network as well as the active advocacy of members of Queer*. At one point, the petition was featured on Change.org’s homepage.
“I wasn't sure what I'd say, so I drafted the petition wording a few times before I actually put it up on the Change.org website,” Green said. “Once it was ready, I put it up and my friends did an amazing job of signal boosting it until it jumped from 600 signatures to over 5,000 in one week.”
While the petition was up, there were some who raised objections to the validity of its premise. Questions ranged from whether a diploma constituted a legal or nonlegal document to whether the college had any authority to issue such documentation regardless of a transgender persons’ legal name.
“I was helping Ben out with the petition and certain people were asking what were and weren’t legally designated documents,” co-President of Queer*, Jayden Sparke ’13, said.
“We were unsure whether the petition should be taken down, but it ended up being that 10,000 people swayed the school to take it seriously either way.”
The petition detailed Green’s story in its entirety and spoke broadly to a feeling that the administration did not comprehend the importance of respecting Green’s presented identity. Green, however, believes the issue was a matter of the college’s ignorance of its own capacity to respect transgender students’ identities in issuing diplomas.
“Their actions were simply ones that lacked information,” Green said. “I don’t think the administration really knew enough about trans people in general or trans legal issues to help out their students properly.”
Green believes the ordeal has enlightened the administration and, further, facilitated a more trans-friendly atmosphere on campus.
“I hope that this step will help students on campus feel safe and properly supported by the administration,” he said. “They have honored their promise and President Silver was very direct about saying she felt it was time Bennington joined other colleges in supporting their trans* students fully.