BELLEVILLE – A transgender teenager recently won the right to be presented with his diploma in his chosen name rather than his birth name. Sebastian Newell, who attends Belleville High School, was initially told that while he could walk with the male students — Belleville High School separates male students and female students at its graduation ceremony — his diploma would have to be presented to him in the female name he had long left behind.
Newell was crestfallen.
“I didn’t want to walk,” Newell told CBS Detroit. “I didn’t want to participate in commencement. Just walking with that kind of name that is associated with the opposite gender was terrifying. I don’t even feel comfortable when a substitute teacher says it out loud, so I can’t even imagine someone whispering it into a microphone in front of thousands of people.”
Michael Van Tassel, the Van Buren Schools superintendent, said that his decision was not a commentary on gender identity issues, but simply a matter of district policy, which states that a student must use their legal name.
“We have 400 students, and there is just no way that we can just read names off because somebody, for instance, has decided that they want to be called something different,” Van Tassel said in the CBS report.
Amid pressure and with permission from Newell’s parents, however, Van Tassel reversed his initial decision and agreed to let Newell graduate using his chosen name. Rachel Crandall, executive director of Transgender Michigan, said the superintendent made the right decision.
“His gender was never actually female,” Crandall explained. “His gender was always male. Forcing him to graduate as a woman would be forcing him to be something he really is not.” Crandall said that “respecting a person’s chosen name is really respecting them as a human being.”
Another trans activist, Transgender Detroit Executive Director Michelle Fox-Phillips, said the whole matter is really a non-issue. “He identifies as being male, so why should he not march with the boys,” Fox-Phillips said. “That’s what he is, plain and simple.”
For his part, Van Tassel told CBS that maybe the policy of separating boys and girls at the ceremony is a little antiquated.
“The times, they are a changing,” said Van Tassel. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.” Fox, meanwhile, was very pleased with the resolution and happy that the school district was taking such a progressive stance.
“Good for Belleville,” she said. “Good for them.”