For quite some time now, members of the Washington and Lee community have gone back and forth over changing the name of our school, but today, I’d like to talk a bit about why it’s perhaps so difficult to change a name. One’s name after all, is the doorway to their identity; from the individual to the institution, your identity is something that’s unique to your existence. We must ask ourselves then, what we want the identity of this school to be. Although it will certainly be difficult to change this name, it is what W&L must do to move forward towards a future of justice and equality.
Changing any part of your identity is tough, especially when you’ve gotten so used to it for most of your life. Picking out a whole new name for yourself is…honestly quite scary. Besides the paperwork, you’re going to be unsure how others will perceive the new you. Initially, it won’t even feel like your own name yet. When I first began my transition, I struggled with picking a name out for myself. It meant casting away the name my parents gave me, along with certain expectations that came with it. I was expected from birth to be masculine, to be a husband and a father, and especially in Chinese culture, to pass down my last name, as well as my bloodline, to the next generation. Coming out as female would upend all those expectations.
Similarly, W&L’s name contains certain values and expectations from the men who brought life into this school all those centuries ago. While this university does have its history of academic and intellectual achievement, it would be detrimental to continue upholding the oppressive side of its history contained within the name, under which this school runs. As our faculty, staff, and student body evolve to reflect the modern era, our identity does not have to keep mirroring that of a Confederate war general from 1800s, but rather an identity of openness and inclusivity. An identity based on welcoming different backgrounds and giving an equal voice to all the groups who tread on this campus. An identity that empowers all the women, minorities, and LGBT folk who never had the chance before, to bring their ideas to the table…to have them heard, listened to, and respected like the human beings they are. Continuing to go by this old name is a display of stubborn loyalty to an outdated identity that does not coincide with all the true values that our school must uphold.
Changing my name meant that I had to leave an old piece of me behind, a piece of masculine identity that no longer reflected what I needed, in order to live out my potential to its fullest. Of course, the backlash from certain people was not easy to endure, but as in any kind of transition, it is when you face resistance and then overcome it, shall you reap the benefits of positive, genuine change. I guarantee there will be that Leap of Faith, that uneasy first step into the fog, with nothing but your sense of right and wrong to guide the way. There will be feelings of doubt, but you can’t let those doubts prevent you from becoming a better you. The journey will be tough, but I stand in front of you now to say, that you won’t regret a single minute of it.