i dream of being possible

my letter to u of t about inequities in the application process

Dear x,

Thank you very much for the quick reply and information. I was left with one question though… You write, “The final decision on who you use as a reference is up to you”, is this statement true regardless of when I apply? As long as I take into account the bias against non-academic references?

I did notice, however, that your reply didn’t address the true substance of my query. While I understand that you (and even anyone you discussed this with) aren’t responsible for the policies themselves, my real question had a lot more to do with the inherent inequities in the application process, particularly for a person in my situation. It’s possible I wasn’t clear enough in this regards.

The situation I find myself in is that I am trans. Within the past five years, I’ve legally changed my name and gender. All of my previous degrees (BA, MA, MLIS) were obtained under my original name. That is easy enough to update and I have, so my transcripts will reflect my true identity.

However, in asking for academic references from professors I studied with, I’m placed in a very uncomfortable position. I either must approach them under my old name or approach them as I am today.

If I want my academic references to refer to me by my real name, I am forced to disclose personal, confidential information that might influence their reference in a negative way. Or they might simply refuse to write me a letter. I have no way of knowing until I disclose that information. This possibility is the one that causes me the most emotional distress and anxiety.

The other possibility, approaching them under my old name, would require that I disclose my trans status to the selection committee. And, yes, as you can tell from the content of this email, this is the easier option. To an extent. However, having had experience with this, I also know that sometimes when people learn my old name and gender, they use those instead of the ones I currently have. While I don’t mind you or the iSchool in general knowing that I’m trans, I’m not comfortable with disclosing my old name. In the trans community we call this our ‘dead name’. It too is a site of emotional distress for me.

The third option is that I use non-academic references, which according to your previous email, aren’t considered as meaningful as academic ones. Which means that this puts me at an immediate disavantage if I chose the option that doesn’t cause emotional distress and allows me to maintain my dignity as a human.

In essence, the current policies and procedures for admittance unfairly disadvantage trans people like me. It’s possible that you may not think that emotional distress is a sufficient reason not to want to do something, but I could also show you the evidence that trans women of colour, like myself, face discrimination and prejudice in many areas of our lives. I would also like to think that the University of Toronto and the iSchool would want to have an environment where all students feel safe and secure, and not experience undue emotional distress.

Last, I realize that you cannot give me any kind of assessment regarding how good of an applicant I am. You don’t know me or what I’ve done. This entire discussion is happening in the absence of any knowledge about my capabilities as a scholar and researcher. I have faith and confidence in my accomplishments.

However, I have gone through the PhD application process before – even got accepted, I’m very aware of how important the letters of reference are. As you said in your response, it is the key way for the committee to assess whether or not I’ll be successful in a high-level academic environment.

All things being equal, I have no doubt that I would be a strong applicant. Except that all things aren’t equal and I’m worried about how this could impact my chances for acceptance. There is a saying amongst Black people, “you have to work twice as hard, to go half as far [as white people]”. I’ve dealt with racial discrimination all my life and I know the truth of this. I’ve worked very hard. Unfurling my cape for all to see me as the trans pinay that I am compounds this.

But there are limits to how hard I can work and how far that’ll take me before I can go no further. I’m currently standing in front of that wall professionally. It’s quite possible I might be in front of that wall academically as well. Every year since finishing my MLIS I have thought about doing a PhD. Every year I look at the application requirements and am forced to stop cold at the reference letter issue. So I walk away from the idea feeling dehumanized and demoralized.

This year I decided to try something different and reach out to a school to see if there were any for me to pursue my goal of getting a PhD in a way that would allow me to preserve my dignity and not cause me unwarranted emotional distress.

I hope this email clarifies what I was asking about and what my concerns are.

I look forward to your response.