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LGBTQ Issues on Campus: What's Changing?

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Gender and Sexuality
April 8, 2015 Angela Zippin

Regardless of the institution you work for, whether it’s public or private, a 4-year school or community college, you have probably heard of or seen some policy changes in higher education around LGBTQ issues. The Campus Pride Index monitors the friendliness of colleges and universities to LGBTQ students and rates schools on a 1 to 5 star scale. The index considers a variety of aspects of campus culture and life, such as housing, curriculum, campus safety, and recruitment/retention. As future-college-goers come out at younger and younger ages, LGBTQ rights progress generally in the US, and advocates become increasingly vocal about making positive changes on-campus, assessments such as the Campus Pride Index encourage colleges and universities to make strides in this area. Here is a round-up of some of the more common policy initiatives you may encounter on your campus*:

GENDER-NEUTRAL BATHROOMS/LOCKER ROOMS

So-called “bathroom bills” have been getting a lot of attention in the news these days. States like Kentucky and Texas are currently considering legislation that would criminalize use of the “wrong” bathroom, locker room, and other facilities. Watching legislators attempt to define what is the “right” bathroom would be a somewhat amusing affair, if it weren’t just so sad. This is the language in the Texas bill:

A male is an individual with at least one X chromosome and at least one Y chromosome, and a female is an individual with at least one X chromosome and no Y chromosomes.  If an individual's gender established at the individual's birth is not the same as the individual's gender established by the individual's chromosomes, the individual's gender established by the individual's chromosomes controls under this section.

I’m not sure who will be paying for all this chromosomal testing, but it sounds like an exceptionally inefficient way of discriminating against an already marginalized community. Well done, Texas Representative Debbie Riddle!

In higher education, debates about gender-neutral facilities can get just as complicated and frustrating. However, the momentum seems to be behind inclusivity. Increasingly, colleges and university are seeing the benefit of gender-neutral facilities, including multi-stall facilities intended for people of all genders and single-stall facilities. It’s a win for the LGBTQ community and lots of other people, including families. If a man wants to bring his young daughter to campus, finding appropriate facilities can be challenging. More gender-neutral facility options are friendly to families, gender-variant people, and anyone who has ever had a haircut that confuses fellow restroom-users (been there).

Bonus points go to those campuses featuring gender-neutral facility maps on their websites! It’s a great way to make sure your campus community is informed of their options.

PREFERRED NAME CHANGES

On an individual level, it is very meaningful to use an individual’s preferred name and pronoun. But what does this look like at the institutional level? The Ohio State University has a great model for how educational institutions can address name changes. As their Office of Student Life FAQ on preferred names explains, changing your name within the institution is as simple as logging into their SIS Student Center and entering a name in the Preferred Name section. That’s it. No documentation needed. No questions asked.

“But,” you say, “how can we just let people change their legal name on campus, if they don’t need to change it legally? It will be anarchy!” OSU’s simple system, however, does not change an individual’s legal name. Legal name changes must go through the university registrar and still require court documentation. This system allows members of the campus community to alert the university to their preferred name with ease, ensuring the name will be provided on class rosters, to advisors, and the university’s Learning Management System. The simplicity of this allows for students to move through campus a little easier and a lot more comfortable.

While major, university-wide changes in this area are a reason to celebrate, there is no reason to wait on your entire campus to get hip to the program. You can institute changes that have a similar impact, such as updating forms used in your office to ask for preferred names and pronouns. These small acts can make big (and affirming) waves. 

GENDER-NEUTRAL HOUSING

More and more, on-campus housing is leaning toward this option. According to Campus Pride, almost 160 institutions in the US have gender-neutral housing options. Generally, this practice involves assigning same-sex roommates when randomly selecting who will share a residence, but permitting students to make requests that do not discriminate based on gender or sex. Many campuses currently permitting students to select roommates without regard to gender or sex have restrictions on these residence halls, most commonly denying residence to first-year students.

Occasionally, these housing options are themed spaces, such as Montclair State University’s “Stonewall Suites” or UC Davis’ “Rainbow House”, but they are often one of many options available to students, without explicit ties to the campus’ LGBTQ community. Some schools have found ways to incorporate these living communities into the academic experience. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s “Open Houses: Gender Learning Community” is one example of how inclusivity within on-campus residences can contribute to students’ educational experience.

HEALTH INSURANCE & OTHER BENEFITS

Generally, the relationship between LGBTQ-related policies and health insurance has revolved around domestic partner benefits for employees, but the landscape of these policy decisions is changing. As more and more states begin recognizing same-sex marriages, colleges and universities must figure out what to do with their policies: scrap them altogether or provide them as an alternative to marriage? It seems the trend in higher education is to keep domestic partner benefits as an option, especially during this time of changing legal opinions and uncertain status. Of course, this only applies to those schools that provide such benefits. Many institutions have not yet offered spousal or partner benefits and may not choose to do so before marriage equality becomes the law in their state.

In addition to employee benefits, students have started pushing for more inclusive health care coverage through their universities. Campus Pride lists 62 institutions that provide student health insurance which covers (to varying degrees) hormone replacement therapy and gender confirmation surgeries. Interestingly enough, only 32 institutions provide such coverage for employees. As higher ed policies evolve to become more trans* inclusive, health care will certainly be on the short list of priorities.

*I have decided to intentionally leave out single-sex institutions and Title IX because they each deserve their own blog posts. Needless to say, there is a lot to say about each.

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Angela Zippin is a Program Coordinator in the Testing Services Department at the University of Cincinnati where she received her Master of Arts in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She also serves as on the UC's Student Affairs Diversity Steering Committee and as the Membership Chair for the Ohio College Testing Association. 

If you are interested in contributing to the GLBT KC's blog, please contact Kaitlin Winters at kwinters@berkeley.edu or Bryan McKinney at bjmckinn@syr.edu.