UMass bathroom policy affirms federal transgender protections in education



Last modified: Thursday, July 16, 2015

AMHERST — A recent change to a University of Massachusetts Amherst policy aims to expand protections of transgender people’s rights to choose bathrooms that they feel most comfortable using.

The policy states that in an effort to provide safe, accessible and convenient bathroom facilities, students, faculty and staff “should use the bathroom facilities that correspond to their sex or gender identity, or utilize bathrooms that are designated gender-neutral or gender-inclusive.”

The policy was accepted last fall by the Campus Advisory Council, which is made up of top university officials, and took effect at the start of the spring 2015 semester.

And it was published online in the UMass policies and procedures database earlier this month after the new fiscal year began, according to Genny Beemyn, director of the university’s LGBT resource hub, the Stonewall Center.

“We wanted to make sure a trans woman or trans man could use the women’s or men’s bathroom, respectively, without someone representing the university saying they’re in the wrong bathroom,” Beemyn said.

The UMass policy is an affirmation of a recent interpretation of federal Title IX regulations, which aim to prevent gender discrimination in education.

High school suit

The U.S. Justice Department on June 30 filed a statement of interest in a lawsuit concerning a Virginia school board’s restroom policy.

Transgender high school student Gavin Grimm is suing the Gloucester County, Virginia, school system claiming that he should be allowed to use the men’s bathroom and not “alternative” facilities just for transgender students. The school’s policy is that students may use only communal rest rooms that correspond to their biological sex.

In its memo, the Justice Department sided with Grimm, arguing that the school’s policy could be in violation of Title IX regulations, and that students should be allowed to use rest rooms consistent with their gender identity.

Beemyn said the overlap between state and federal law and university policy makes clear the school’s commitment to transgender protections and that a UMass policy can be more accessible to students than laws.

“The university administration wants to do everything possible to protect our students and this is something they thought would accomplish that goal,” UMass spokesman Patrick Callahan said.

Bathroom-use presents a very real concern for transgender people, Beemyn said. “Trans people face a lot of harassment and sometimes even violence for being in what other people see as the ‘wrong’ bathroom,” Beemyn said. “In other places people have been arrested for being in the ‘wrong’ bathroom.”

Beemyn led the charge for the university to adopt a policy in spring 2014, before the federal government had issued opinions on transgender bathroom access.

Of particular concern were transgender students living in residence halls using male- and female-designated communal bathrooms. The dormitories do not have a large number of single-user, gender-inclusive bathrooms, Beemyn said.

“I wanted to make sure in that scenario that a trans student would not be challenged by housing staff,” Beemyn said. “It wasn’t because of any particular problem that I was trying to address. I was trying to be very proactive — our housing staff is, I think, excellent overall.”

Beemyn acknowledges there are shortcomings in a policy that has to work inside a society with strong gender norms.

“Now of course it doesn’t work to have gendered bathrooms when you have people who don’t identify as male or female, or trans male, trans female,” Beemyn said. “Many people identify as non-binary.”

A person who does not identify as either male or female has to consider which bathroom — male, female or single-user — would work best for them in a given situation and take into consideration how their gender-presentation is perceived by others on a given day, Beemyn said.

The state plumbing code mandates for separate male and female-designated bathrooms in public buildings, although UMass does have gender-inclusive bathrooms on campus.

Dormitories are required to have gender-specific bathrooms with showers.

Only one traditional dormitory at UMass has gender-inclusive bathrooms with showers. The school’s LGBT residential community has bathrooms that are “informally” gender-inclusive. On-campus apartments are open to any student regardless of gender identity and have in-unit bathrooms.

Several academic buildings and most dormitories also have single-user bathrooms, according to the Stonewall Center.

UMass is one of the only universities in the country that has a policy regarding transgender bathroom use, Beemyn said.

Other colleges

Hampshire College has several bathrooms that are designated for all genders, some with privacy locks. Communal rest rooms have signs that indicate the facility is “with urinals” or “without urinals,” to avoid relying on a gender binary, according to college diversity chief Diana Sutton-Fernández.

At Smith College, each dormitory, the campus center and some of the academic buildings have a gender-neutral bathroom, according to college spokeswoman Stacey Schmeidel.

Though the college does not have a written policy regarding transgender bathroom use, Schmeidel said administrators plan to examine the school’s policies to ensure they align with the college’s May policy change to accept transgender students.

Many of Amherst College’s dormitories have gender-inclusive bathrooms and the majority of its housing options are gender-inclusive, according to its website.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.


 

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