A transgender teen is fighting to be called by his chosen name at graduation. Here’s why that’s so important.

A transgender teen requesting he be called to collect his high school diploma by his chosen name has been
A transgender teen requesting he be called to collect his high school diploma by his chosen name has been "refused outright," according to a Change.org petition supporting his request. (Photo: Getty Images) (snvv via Getty Images)

A transgender teen who is graduating from high school on Wednesday evening has made a simple request: He wants to be called by his chosen name when it’s time to head to the stage to collect his diploma. But the school has reportedly refused.

“When asking to have his name read correctly while walking across the stage at graduation, senior Soren Tucker was refused outright,” notes a Change.org petition — so far signed by more than 18,700 people — supporting Tucker, a senior at Alan C. Pope High School in Marietta, Ga. “Admin. is only allowing ‘legal names,’ on diplomas and on the call list for graduation … meaning that Soren and other transgender students will be publicly deadnamed as they walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, a moment they've waited their whole lives for.”

The term "deadname" means "the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning" and, when used as a verb, means “to speak of or address (someone) by their deadname.” Alternative terms include “birth name” or “prior name,” used by GLAAD to mean the same thing, and, according to GLAAD’s media reference guide on covering transgender stories, can be deeply upsetting to the person in question. The issue of deadnaming transgender individuals was covered by various media outlets, including this one, following Elliot Page's coming out as transgender in December 2020.

Pope High School did not respond to Yahoo Life’s request for comment, but an unnamed spokesperson told Fox 5 Atlanta, "For any student, for all official school business, our schools use our students' legal names. If any student or family changes a student's legal name, we update that student's official record which impacts, among other examples, their schedules, transcripts and diplomas."

Tucker, who did not respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment via social media, told the station, "In general, for trans people, the name is something that’s very important because it’s very personal and it’s for many people, the first step towards sort of affirming your identity,” adding that his name, Soren, has already been used at school for quite some time — in the yearbook, on programs for musicals he performed in and on awards he received.

Soren also told local station CBS 46, "I first emailed my counselor just basically asking like I know you can't change it on the diploma, but since the call list is separate, if you could just say my name is Soren? She got back to me and said they couldn't do anything about it because it had to be my legal name."

Affirming the identity of a transgender person by using the individual’s chosen name and pronouns is extremely important when it comes to that person feeling seen, accepted and respected — which is something experts, studies and trans and non-binary individuals can attest to.

"Using a student's chosen name and pronouns is an important sign of respect. Doing so can help improve mental health — while not doing so can put a student at risk for physical violence,” Alexis Diaz, a therapist with the Ackerman Institute for the Family's Gender & Family Project in New York City, tells Yahoo Life. “When transgender students are affirmed at school, the school climate becomes safer for everyone because it's rooted in respect and dignity for every student."

In 2018, a large study of transgender youth by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that when such youth are permitted to use their chosen names in places including work, school and home, their risk of depression and suicide is lessened.

“Many kids who are transgender have chosen a name that is different than the one that they were given at birth,” said the study's Stephen T. Russell at the time of its publication in the Journal of Adolescent Health. “We showed that the more contexts or settings where they were able to use their preferred name, the stronger their mental health was.”

Earlier research by Russell found that transgender youths report having suicidal thoughts at nearly twice the rate of their peers, with about 1 out of 3 transgender youths reporting them. In the newer study, having even one context in which a chosen name is used was associated with a 29 percent decrease in suicidal thoughts. “I’ve been doing research on LGBT youth for almost 20 years now, and even I was surprised by how clear that link was,” Russell said.

The just-released results of the latest Trevor Project's National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health had similar findings, including that 42 percent of LGBTQ youth — and more than half of those who are transgender or nonbinary — had seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

The survey found, however, that transgender and nonbinary youth who reported having pronouns respected by all of the people they lived with attempted suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected by anyone with whom they lived. Similarly, transgender and nonbinary youth who were able to change their name and/or gender marker on legal documents, such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates, reported lower rates of attempting suicide — as did LGBTQ youth who had access to spaces that affirmed their sexual orientation and gender identity reported lower rates of attempting suicide.

As for Tucker, “Please y’all, I just wanna walk,” he commented on the Change.org petition, prompting 299 likes and many supportive comments, including, “Everyone has a fundamental right to be who they are without fear of discrimination or oppression” and “Because no one knows better who they are than the person themselves.”

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