Trans-inclusive efforts on campus contrast trans-exclusive efforts in the nation

Kathryn Nicolai, Investigative News Editor

The implementation of gender-neutral restrooms at the University is a topical and controversial issue being advanced by students, staff, and faculty on campus. Though specific implementation efforts at the University currently await any concrete decision, the debate has recently resurfaced to national attention as the Trump administration works to reverse previous guidance issued by the Obama administration that declares that denying transgender students the right to use the bathroom of their choice violates federal law regarding sex discrimination.

A two-page “Dear Colleague” letter addressed to the nation’s public schools released by the Trump administration on Feb. 22 states that the Obama administration’s previous guidance did not “contain extensive legal analysis or explain how the position is consistent with the express language of Title IX, nor did they undergo any formal public process.”

Director of the Office of LGBTQ Resources Bill McCoy addressed concerns about the Trump administration’s impending action nullifying previous trans inclusive guidelines.

Action under the Trump administration was proof of the fact that “this is a sensitive and ongoing conversation that can change at any moment,” McCoy said.

McCoy confirmed that a meeting between himself, Associate Dean of Students for Diversity & Inclusion Denelle Brown, and Associate Vice President of Facilities Ken Ogawa about gender-neutral restrooms is pending.

“The University does not have a policy on all gender restrooms, but we have made it a point to include them in recent buildings and renovations, including MacDonald Commons, Carnegie, Roberts Hall, and Graham Building,” Campus planner Amy Smalt said.

The current design plans for the Humanities Center, Academic East, and the affinity houses currently under construction include gender-neutral restrooms, according to Smalt.

The majority of the gender-neutral restrooms coincide with locations where Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) restrooms are, which is separate from gendered restrooms, according to McCoy. He also noted that the MacDonald Commons was the first building with specifically gender-neutral facilities.

“We have restrooms without specific gender signage throughout campus and are currently in the process of updating our inventory of locations. As we renovate spaces, we look for opportunities to include all gender restrooms in our designs,” Smalt said.

The University abides by the International Building Code (IBC), which determines the exact number of required plumbing fixtures in a building based on the building’s use and occupancy. The number of restrooms required by the IBC must be labeled male and female.

“Once these numbers are met, additional restrooms may be provided and labeled as all gender… It can [be] challenging to meet the required number of fixtures and include an all gender restroom in an existing building where space constraints may be limiting,” Smalt said.

Local code officials work with the University on a case-by-case basis for work being done in existing buildings, according to Smalt.

Though progress in gender-neutral restrooms has been slow, the University has immensely expanded its housing policies in the last six years to accommodate the needs of all students on campus. According to McCoy, Gender Neutral Housing began in 2011 after students applied for an affinity house, now known as Fran’s House.

“In the fall of 2011 we also began working on a gender-neutral housing policy and trans accessible housing policy to more broadly meet the needs of our students. As of housing selection for the 2012-2013 year we have had the affinity house, Fran’s House, and the Gender Neutral Housing policy and Transgender Accessible Housing policy,” McCoy said.

Fran’s House is named after the late director of the office LGBT resources, Fran McDaniel. The affinity house serves to provide campus with LGBT-friendly, gender neutral housing, and to sponsor events to enrich the lives of LGBT individuals and allies. The affinity house is the only gender-neutral housing option for sophomores and juniors on campus, according to Laura Poulton ’18, a member the University’s Gender & Sexuality Alliance (GSA) and the affinity leader for Fran’s House.

Poulton explained that Fran’s House hosts several events every semester for both residents as well as the campus community as a whole, including movie nights and faculty discussions.

“We try to partner with other affinity houses to create events that address the intersectionality of our different identities. And every semester we have a House Register, which provides an alternative to the often very cisheteronormative environment of fraternity parties,” Poulton said.

Rebecca Osborne ’17 has lived in Fran’s House for two years and affirms the idea that gender-neutral housing allows all people to live comfortably.

“Those who would opt for gender-neutral housing or to use a gender-neutral bathroom do so for their own health, comfort, and safety,” Osborne said.

“Gender-neutral housing is important because it provides a space for the LGBTQ+ community and its members to have a house where they feel welcome to express who they are when they may otherwise feel confined to societal norms. It is a space to learn and explore the LGBTQ+ community without the worries of society or peers judging them,” a member of Fran’s House, who preferred to remain anonymous, said.

McCoy explained there are many reasons that not all people feel comfortable in gendered spaces and that gender-neutral restrooms give people a place to meet their needs.

“While transgender folks who identify along the binary are able to use restrooms that conform to their gender–those spaces might not meet all of their needs. Likewise, someone who does not have a binary identity–forcing them to choose a binary location is not being supportive of their identity,” McCoy said.

Members of the trans community often do not feel safe using gendered restrooms, “especially if they aren’t perceived as cis[gendered],” Poulton said.

According to a 2013 study conducted by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, “70 percent of [trans people] reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms.” The lack of availability of gender-neutral facilities can impact a person’s daily habits, routines, and health and safety.

“Sometimes trans* people trying to avoid potential harassment will stop drinking or eating when gender-neutral bathrooms aren’t available, and this can lead to serious medical issues,” Poulton said. “I’ve had friends who were hospitalized for dehydration just because they were so afraid to use the bathroom.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released a statement regarding the nation’s responsibility to ensure a safe environment for all students.

“This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate. At my direction, the department’s Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools,” DeVos said.

In a press conference on Feb. 22, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer denied reports that DeVos was not in support of the guidance. However, CNN, The Washington Post, and The New York Times are among the numerous news outlets that reported DeVos did not want to rescind the guidance issued by the Obama administration.

The Trump administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter did not offer any new guidance, but referenced the role of local and state government in education policy.

“The joint decision made today by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education returning power to the states paves the way for an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level with input from parents, students, teachers and administrators,” the White House said in a statement on Feb. 22.

Two pending court cases, one of which was added to the Supreme Court docket on Oct. 28, 2016, are likely part of the impetus behind the Trump administration’s directive. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the arguments of the case on March 28.

“While the Trump administration’s new guidance may not stop the case, it could give the justices an off-ramp to send the matter back to the lower court to consider the new guidance. The court could also decide to send the case back before arguments,” a CNN report said.

Pennsylvania state laws currently exclude any mention of gender-neutral restrooms, but instead emphasizes the ratio of restrooms. McCoy explained that the laws focus on “‘water closets’ or stalls made available to women based on the number available to men.”

In Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, the federal court for the Western District Court of Pennsylvania on March 31, 2015 dismissed a lawsuit by Seamus Johnston, a transgender student who was expelled from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in 2012 due to his use of the University’s male locker room.

The federal Judge Kim R. Gibson “dismissed Johnston’s suit, saying that his transgender status was not covered by either the Constitution’s equal-protection clause or Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sex discrimination by institutions receiving federal funds,” Inside Higher Ed. said.

On May 13, 2016, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights under the Obama administration released a “Dear Colleague” letter that outlined schools’ obligations under Title IX regarding equal rights for transgender students as well as the Department of Education and Department of Justice evaluation of schools’ adherence to these obligations.

“A school may, however, make individual-user options available to all students who voluntarily seek additional privacy,” the letter said.

Days following the Obama administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter, Pennsylvania House State Government Committee Majority Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) and 96 other state lawmakers sent a letter to President Barack Obama in response to the “Dear Colleague” letter, reported Fox43. The response letter expressed “extreme outrage” at the “unconstitutional intrusion” of the “Dear Colleague” letter. The letter claimed that Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education already “found that Title IX’s language did not provide a basis for a transgender status claim.” The state lawmakers who sent the letter argued that the topic of this issue should be handled at a local level by school districts familiar with their communities and should lack interference from the federal government.

Eleven states, not including Pennsylvania, filed a lawsuit on May 25, 2016 against the Obama administration’s guidance. The lawsuit is currently pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

“I think our work is to navigate how the state statutes are interpreted with creating safe, accessible restrooms that are gender inclusive. I think there are multiple pathways to address the cultural, logistical and design needs—we just need the expertise of multiple perspectives in a room together to think through the options,” McCoy said.

Editor’s note: At time of publication, the University had not released an official statement regarding President Trump’s new directive. On the evening of Feb. 23, University President John Bravman sent an email to the campus community “reaffirm[ing] the University’s support of our transgender community.” The email also referenced the multiple policies or laws that the University is in compliance with, including Title IX, a University policy on nondiscrimination pursuant to Title IX law, and a University policy on that seeks to allow students to provide a preferred name than what might be their legal name “out of respect for the identity of our students.” This information is not included in the print version of this article, published Feb. 24.

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