My move from Colorado to upstate New York was supposed to be a time of empowerment for me. I came out as transgender and began socially and medically transitioning during my freshman year of college, so I had never been in a space where I wasn’t visibly or openly transgender. Never had I possessed the autonomy to decide who would know of my transgender status. Moving across the country presented a new opportunity to define myself and disclose my identity on my own terms.
The summer before I arrived at Cornell Law School, I received an email with instructions on how to upload my preferred name to the school’s system. The email thanked OutLaw — Cornell Law School’s LGBTQ+ affinity group — for their advocacy in making preferred names possible. At the time, I hadn’t gotten around to changing my legal name, so I followed the instructions as soon as the email arrived in my inbox.
I moved across the country to Ithaca a few weeks before the school year started so I could participate in the law school’s Academic Orientation Program, a pipeline program for underrepresented first year law students. The program chooses participants based on the diversity statements they wrote when applying to law school. In my diversity statement, I wrote about the importance of my name in maintaining my identity as transgender, Black and Vietnamese. Yet, despite the raw honesty that granted me access to the Academic Orientation Program, this program was where the administrative incompetence began. As soon as I arrived, the program facilitators handed me an envelope with my deadname on it.
During the program, I entered a mock class. The professor cold-called me using my deadname. In front of the class, like a deer in the headlights, I said “actually, it’s Sawyer.” The professor asked why the roster listed a different name. Later that day, I emailed the Law School Registrar to confirm whether they’d processed my preferred name. They told me that my preferred name was listed on all rosters, which directly conflicted with what had transpired earlier.
The Academic Orientation Program concluded. The rest of the Class of 2024 arrived, and Orientation week began. The law school TVs displayed a congratulatory “Welcome to Cornell Law School” message while the names of the 1L class scrolled across the monitors. My deadname lit up the screen for all to see. When my classmates and I took professional headshots, I was handed a piece of paper with my deadname on it so the school could identify the photo that belonged to me. My welcome was conditional — I was welcome at Cornell Law School as long as I existed on their terms.
My second year arrived. The Cornell Black Law Students’ Association sent me to compete in the Thurgood Marshall Moot Court competition. When the time came to register for oral arguments, my teammates and I needed certificates of attendance from the Law School Registrar. The Registrar gave me a certificate listing my deadname. I asked for a new copy listing my (now legal) name: Sawyer. They told me they could only issue a certificate under my legal name. I told them my legal name is Sawyer. After a few back-and-forth emails, the Law School Dean of Students’ office got involved, telling me that they would talk to the Law School Registrar about fixing the issue. I did not receive a corrected certificate by the deadline promulgated by the competition. The BLSA president explained the mistake to the moot court organizers, who thankfully still allowed our team to compete. At that point, though, the damage had been done. Administrative incompetence once again outed me as transgender, now with a uniquely anti-Black flavor.
I often reflect on the vast difference between my undergraduate institution, the University of Denver, and Cornell Law School. DU was far from perfect, but each year we made a bit of progress. Rosters were permanently fixed. Queer students tapped into university resources for support. In contrast, the relative isolation of Cornell Law School from the rest of the University means that aggrieved law students cycle out every three years upon graduation, allowing the law school administration to effectively wait out the demands of its student body. OutLaw is stretched so thin trying to put out administrative fires and provide support to its members that it often struggles to push for affirmative change.
My experience stems from an institutional disregard for both transgender law students and LGBTQ+ students in general. I have noticed that one to two openly transgender students enter each class year. Although a fair number of students and faculty are supportive towards these students, many are not. This means that support for institutional change is often small, and given the dearth of transgender law students themselves, the law school administration can ignore or de-prioritize the changes that transgender students need with minimal pushback.
Additionally, Cornell Law School sorely lags behind its peers in terms of hiring and retaining LGBTQ+ professors. Currently, the Law School has only one openly LGBTQ+ tenured professor, and she is about to retire. The Law School has never had a tenured openly gay man. These student-side and faculty-side deficiencies result in a lack of meaningful institutional support for transgender students.
Despite these issues, I know Cornell Law School can improve. I owe it to future Queer law students to enact some type of positive change on campus. The first step is speaking out and telling our stories, because it’s convenient to the law school for law students to remain complacent and bide their time until graduation. To that end, I encourage my fellow Queer students to speak truth to power and recognize that our biggest asset is our stories. And to Cornell Law School: I encourage critical reflection on how your administrative incompetence harms your most marginalized students.
Sawyer Nash is a J.D. candidate at Cornell Law School. They are currently a Complainants’ Codes Counselor for the Cornell Office of the Complainants’ Codes Counselors. They previously served as co-president of Cornell Law School’s OutLaw affinity group. They can be reached at [email protected].
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