From the Daily: In solidarity with transgender students

Sunday, April 3, 2016 - 7:34pm

On March 23, North Carolina legislators passed a law prohibiting transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals from using bathrooms and locker rooms that do not match their birth-certificate-assigned sex. The law has received loud and immediate pushback because it promotes blatant discrimination against transgender people. Republican lawmakers unanimously favored the bill on the basis of safety, claiming females should not be forced to use the same bathroom facilities as biological males. However, its passage in North Carolina is an unacceptable act of discrimination that cannot be tolerated. Legislators in North Carolina — and closer to home, both legislators in Michigan and administrators on campus — must act to protect the rights of transgender people and uphold both Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

On our campus in February 2010, the Michigan Student Assembly passed a resolution changing the language of the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities to be gender-neutral. However, this doesn’t do enough to ensure equality on our campus. Transgender rights deserve continued efforts. One start would be to listen to the voices of signatories to a petition launched by the student group Wolverines for Preferred Pronouns, which advocated for students’ preferred pronouns to appear on class rosters. Though Title IX ensures that students have the right to use the restroom aligning to their gender identity, the Office of Student Life and the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities should explicitly state that transgender students can use any bathroom on campus they feel most comfortable using. The administration must set this precedent to ensure gender-inclusive policies are consistently upheld in our University community. 

If the student petition is approved, Wolverine Access would have a space for students to choose which pronoun they prefer teachers to use on classroom rosters. This would enforce respectful treatment from teachers and classmates for all transgender students and reduce the stress of transgender students having to notify their teachers on their own of their pronoun preference. Other universities, including Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, have already taken steps to provide students with options like these. Specifically, Berkeley provides six different options for students to choose on their application forms: male, female, trans male, trans female, gender queer/gender nonconforming or a different identity.

The University currently offers optional gender-inclusive housing, and East Quad Residence Hall hosts the Gender Inclusive Living Experience. Gender-inclusive bathrooms are located around campus and are featured in some dorms, but not all. In addition, access to these facilities are often restricted — especially in living spaces. As well, inside all dorms (including ones with gender-inclusive bathrooms), students must use a housing key card to access any restroom.

Will Sherry, Director of the Spectrum Center, said the University allows students to self-designate their gender, but each student is assigned bathroom access in residence halls based on their current legal sex. Therefore, you are assigned bathroom access based on this legal sex and granted access to one of two gender-specific restrooms. When neither male nor female restrooms fulfill a student’s needs, the current practice is that the student must contact their hall director to gain access to gender-inclusive restrooms. Amir Baghdadchi, the director of communications for University Housing, said the department works closely with the Spectrum Center to make arrangements like these for students efficient.

Though it’s good University Housing and the Spectrum Center work closely together on matters pertaining to transgender students’ individual dorm experiences, the two must also work together to change the overall issue — granting access to bathrooms based on legal sex — to instead grant bathroom access aligning to self-designated gender.

While gender-inclusive bathrooms should be applauded, they are questionable on the basis that they continue to separate transgender people from the status quo. The current process is problematic because it adds additional stress as students must contact their hall director to gain this access. Additionally, students can misuse gender-inclusive restrooms (using them for sex, smoking, etc.), distracting from their purpose and potentially prompting restrictions on gender-inclusive hall card access.

Requiring a key card to gain bathroom access was meant as a safety precaution against break-ins when first implemented at the University in the 2000s, but the logic that gendered bathroom access is a necessary safety precaution suggests the University assumes students must be protected from one another in private spaces. This logic places disrespect as the expectation and respect as the rule, when instead the University should expect students to be respectful toward one another and punish them when they aren’t. 

Many university campuses, including Berkeley, Brown University and Illinois State University, have all-gender bathrooms, where females and males all use the same facilities. This is a solution to problems that arise when students misuse gender-inclusive bathrooms, the problem of assuming students of different gender orientations will disrespect one another when given the chance to comingle in private spaces and the problem of othering transgender students that all arises from the bathroom distinctions the University currently provides. While we do not expect the University to transition to all-gender bathrooms overnight, it is a goal to aim toward in the future.

The University should ensure the protection of the rights of all students by including more widespread use of all gender-encompassing policies. These policies should not be limited to allowing students to use whichever bathroom they wish to use, but also include the opportunity to share correct pronouns with professors. Administrators should also look to include further policies in the future to ensure gender equality on campus. The approval of the Wolverines for Preferred Pronouns petition, and progress on inclusive bathrooms, will aid in making campus culture more accepting of transgender equality and show that our campus stands in solidarity with transgender people in the wake of the North Carolina law.