How Google Classroom Erases Trans Students
Illustrator: Ebin Lee
There are so many voices right now grieving what we have lost with the school closure — our relationships with students and co-workers, the laughter and energy that echo down hallways, a safe place for young people to eat breakfast and lunch. They have lost a place to question what they thought they knew and push past what they thought they could not do. We fight for a sense of belonging for all students, from seeing themselves in their teacher, to whose story is in the curriculum we teach, to who is present on our classroom walls.
But the “walls” of our Google Classroom are bare, sterile. The “halls” are silent. And at least in my school district, students can attend only with their legal name. Every time they make a contribution in our digital classroom, in 12-point Arial is their legal name, which often does not match their gender identity or a new name they may have chosen. Their legal name frames their words, their responses to other students, even their own poetry or creative writing is shadowed by it — every document they open attaches their legal name to it. If that happened to me this article’s byline would be “Laura Taylor.” Laura Taylor is my birth name, but not the name I prefer to use or be addressed as, and certainly not to have plastered all over my writing. I would not participate in a room where every time I spoke I was interrupted with my legal name, emblazoned in 12-point bold font on my forehead. The words I have to share come from all parts of me, and all that I have survived, not just the name I was assigned at birth.
In the trans community, our legal name is often called our “deadname,” because the name we are given at birth represents a part of ourselves we either grieve in transition or want to leave behind because it did not allow us to be our full selves. Misgendering trans people, as so often happens in reporting on violence against, especially, trans women of color, brings “deadnaming” in as a noun. The force behind it implies a decision not to recognize the trans person’s identity, which wounds emotionally, erases identity, and can be used to bully trans people, especially in our schools. According to an American Academy of Pediatrics report, more than half of transgender teens, and 41 percent of non-binary youth, attempt suicide in their lives.
And now, the only platform we have to reach our students, to create that hub of thinking and activity and laughter and creativity that we all desperately miss, deadnames our trans students — drives parts of them from the room, erasing their voices.
Even in our Google Classroom meet-up for students in our LGBTQ student club, called the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, students have to go by their legal names, or deadnames, because their families do not support them using their preferred name. Without family support, students cannot change their legal name to their preferred name and the legal name gets dumped into Google Classroom. Three of the 19 students who attend that “class” cannot feel seen, or welcomed, in the only space we have left to provide them that support. One of my students, who is also in my English class, wrote me an email saying, “I am having a hard time participating in class on Google because only my legal name shows up.”
Every time he tries to speak in the room, he is saddled with the weight of a name he did not choose. And the acceptance he had fought for among his peers is directly challenged by this. “People just finally started calling me _____,” he says, stating his preferred name. For any student who did not know his legal name or assigned gender, Google Classroom has just outed him.
I messaged “Google Classroom support” to ask them to make a preferred name field that teachers could access, but not before seeing a thread from other teachers that included the message “good luck getting anyone to respond on here.” Google “experts” on these forums say they have the power only to input the data sent to them by the school. I know that Google has the power to change and make online learning more accessible to trans students. But I also know this reveals whose safety and comfort are prioritized in the district where I teach.
In our district information system, the preferred name field does not connect to any important documents in the daily life of a student. It does not transfer to rosters teachers use daily or maybe project on the board as seating charts, rosters that substitute teachers often read aloud in front of the entire class. The preferred name does not even transfer to a student’s own copy of their schedule. To our student information system, trans students do not exist, there is no path for them to be seen or protected, no path for important information about their identities to be communicated to the adults they see every day.
In 2016, the Oregon Department of Education released a document outlining guidance on supporting transgender students, stating “school districts should balance the goal of supporting the student with the requirement that parents be kept informed about their children. The paramount consideration in such situations should be the health and safety of the student, while also making sure that the student’s gender identity is affirmed in a manner that maintains privacy and confidentiality” [emphasis added].
Unfortunately, it is in striking this balance that a chasm erupts under the feet of our queer and trans kids. In conservative districts, the balance often teeters in favor of parents’ fear for their students or a community’s fear of trans people. When schools don’t give students the opportunity to use their chosen name in our new world of distance learning, those students are immediately outed. The welcome we tried to provide at the beginning of the school year evaporates.
Oregon Department of Education guidelines spell out the importance of using students’ preferred names: “ODE recommends that school districts enter the name the student is currently using (the name that corresponds to the student’s self-identified gender) into the ‘Preferred name’ field and retain the legal name in the school electronic record and generally in the student records. However, in some student information systems, the ‘preferred name’ does not appear throughout the system . . .”
This is exactly where we need to fight: for who is not showing up in our Google Classrooms. Too many students are already missing. Students without computers, or consistent internet access, or those babysitting siblings all day while parents are at work. Those battling depression alone in their houses. Those without houses. We grieve all of them and need to fight for them all. When we finally cheer a student’s arrival in our virtual classroom, we want them to feel welcome and whole. We are all adjusting and learning, tweaking our curriculum to better meet student needs for online learning, and this is an adjustment we need from Google Classroom and from school district student information systems. Dig deeper with your programming wizardry. Do it now. Do it for the trans students who are not included in “distance learning for all.”
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