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Calif. bill requires colleges to update trans graduates' names on diplomas

Assemblyman David Chiu said the proposal is intended to combat the barriers that transgender and nonbinary people face at school and in the workplace.

California appears poised to make it easier for transgender and nonbinary graduates of public colleges and universities to change the name on their diploma.

Assemblyman David Chiu, a Democrat from San Francisco, introduced legislation last week that would require public colleges to update the names of former students to reflect their gender identity. He said the bill is intended to combat the “barriers” that trans and nonbinary people face “at school and in the workplace.”

“LGBT rights are all of our civil rights,” he told NBC News. “It's important for all policy makers, whether or not we are from the LGBT community, to do everything we can to protect the rights of LGBT Californians and the equal rights of all.”

"A diploma with a wrong name can have the effect of outing someone who doesn

Assemblyman David Chiu

While schools are legally required to use the chosen names of currently enrolled students under California law, that policy does not extend to alumni who socially or medically transition after graduation. There is no guidance for schools on updating the diplomas or official transcripts of graduates, and while many colleges do update these documents upon request, they can choose not to do so.

Chiu put forward legislation in 2019 to address that problem for K-12 students, and after no opposition in either the Senate or the Assembly, the bill was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat. It went into effect on Jan. 1.

But after that legislation was passed, Chiu said he began to hear from college graduates who had faced the same issues with their diplomas.

“If a student doesn’t have an updated diploma or transcript, they can face challenges applying for graduate school or employment opportunities,” he explained. “Also, a diploma with a wrong name can have the effect of outing someone who doesn't wish to be outed in a workplace or another environment where they may feel unsafe coming out.”

Chiu’s legislation, titled Affirming Transgender and Nonbinary Student's Names in College, has found broad support among LGBTQ advocates and medical professionals in California. In an emailed statement to NBC News, Rick Zbur, the executive director of Equality California, an LGBTQ rights group, called the proposal a “common sense fix” that ensures that “college graduates have documentation that matches their name and gender.”

Aydin Olson-Kennedy, executive director of the Los Angeles Gender Center, said the bill has both a practical and emotional impact, citing studies showing that referring to trans and nonbinary people in a manner consistent with their gender identity is among the “primary protective factors against suicide attempts and completions.”

“Lack of affirmation of self and one’s reality can be catastrophic both in the short term and long term to one’s mental health,” he explained. “Every day, trans and nonbinary individuals are carving out space for themselves in a political, social and legal environment that has little to no desire for them to have any space at all.”

The legislation particularly resonates with Juniperangelica Cordova, who runs the trans youth gender justice program at the Transgender Law Center. Cordova is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and her “dead name,” a term referring to the name a trans person was assigned at birth, was printed on her diploma.

“To have ‘Juniperangelica’ on my diploma is to be honored for the success I’ve accomplished as a scholar; this is all I want, to be seen and respected for my education, like my nontrans peers who sat by my side during graduation,” she told NBC News. “I love my name, and I created it with love. I deserve to hear and read my name in its entirety because it is a part of who I am, as a scholar, organizer, mother and human.”

While Chiu is “very optimistic” that the legislation will be passed this year, trans and nonbinary students will continue to face some additional hurdles to having their gender fully recognized.

In order to have their names changed on college diplomas, graduates are required under Chiu’s bill to submit a state ID, driver’s license, Social Security card, birth certificate, U.S. passport or document indicating a court-ordered name change, but many individuals do not yet have their chosen name listed on those documents. A national survey from the National Center for Trans Equality in 2015 found that 68 percent of respondents hadn’t amended their name or gender on any form of identification.

While the Gender Recognition Act, passed in 2017, was intended to simplify the application process for trans and nonbinary people wishing to update their name and gender on state IDs, the process remains burdensome and time-consuming in a state notorious for long lines at DMV offices.

For now, Chiu’s bill remains a major move for the transgender community — especially as trans people are currently the target of an onslaught of state bills and federal measures. In January alone, a number of states introduced legislation seeking to prevent transgender minors from accessing trans-related health care or ban them from participating in sex-segregated sports that match their gender identity.

Chiu vowed that California would continue to fight for its residents, particularly those in marginalized communities, amid the current political climate.

“It's important during the era of Trump to continue to say we value everyone in our community, and we're not going to allow the hateful targeting of the transgender and nonbinary communities impact what we are doing in California,” he said. “Everyone should have equal rights.”

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