In the first installment of the Engage! series, we broadly outlined four levels in which student affairs professionals might advocate on campus: institutionally, as faculty and staff, supporting students and civic engagement, and personally. In the second installment, NASPA Policy Analyst Diana Ali took a deeper dive into these forms of advocacy concerning undocumented individuals. This installment of the Engage! series will address the four types of advocacy student affairs professionals might pursue to promote rights for trans individuals on their campus and in their community. NASPA’s Policy and Advocacy team regularly tracks challenges to trans individuals’ rights and protection under both the Student Safety and Wellness and Inclusive Opportunities tenets of the NASPA Public Policy Agenda.
During President Obama’s tenure, the Department of Education (ED) issued a May 2016 Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) instructing institutions clearly and for the first time that under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), “a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity” without “requiring students to produce … identification documents in order to treat them consistent with their gender identity.” The DCL’s open acknowledgement of the rights of trans students was just one of many local, state, and federal actions to protect trans individuals. At the same time, a wave of backlash was also sweeping the country as policy makers introduced policies and legislation that quickly became known as “bathroom bills” designed to restrict access to bathroom and locker room facilities based on the gender an individual was assigned at birth. As is expected when legal guidance is changing, multiple court cases challenging discriminatory bathroom policies were filed (e.g., GG v. Gloucester County School Board; Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District; Evancho, et al. v Pine-Richland School District). The Supreme Court (SCOTUS) agreed to hear arguments in GG v. Gloucester County School Board in March 2017, a move many hoped would bring final clarity.
While cases were making their way through the court system, President Trump was elected and took office. The Trump Administration quickly began to roll-back the federal guidance and protection for trans individuals, issuing a DCL in February 2017 rescinding the May 2016 DCL. In March 2017, SCOTUS reversed their decision to hear GG v. Gloucester County School Board and remanded the case back to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals due to the change in guidance, which the 4th Circuit Court relied on, in part, to reach their ruling in the case. A few months later, however, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld prohibitions against sex discrimination citing both Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District. Additional concerns regarding how the Trump Administration would address civil rights cases were raised during Secretary DeVos’s confirmation hearings, the appointment of Candice Jackson to Acting Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, the decision to bar trans individuals from serving in the armed forces, and the October 2017 reversal of the Department of Justice (DOJ) guidance extending Title VII employment anti-discrimination protection to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
The breadth of attacks, spanning all three branches of the federal government as well as state and local policies and laws, leave numerous ways in which institutions and individuals might effectively advocate for trans individuals rights. Institutions can be powerful voices in local government as well as in statehouses representing not only their students, faculty, and staff, but also through their presence and influence in communities. Letting state legislators know of institutional support for legislation, such as has been passed or recently introduced in many states, that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to anti-discrimination laws or opposition to “bathroom bills” is one possibility. Institutions may also request meetings with staff in state agencies responsible for ensuring anti-discrimination laws are implemented, or federal agencies such as ED, or DOJ to share stories of trans individuals on their campuses and how they benefit from regulations and policies that protect their rights.
Institutions often have autonomy over their own policies and can make public statements addressing non-discrimination in their own admissions, housing, and hiring practices. Campuses can work to ensure the availability of gender-neutral housing options, bathrooms, and locker rooms and maintain and enforce clear policies around the use of chosen names and pronouns. In 2014, the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals Trans* Policy Working Group developed a set of best practice recommendations to assist colleges and universities in developing trans-inclusive policies and programming. The nonprofit organization Campus Pride maintains a clearinghouse of sample institutional policies that are trans-inclusive, including policies that cover transition-related medical expenses for students and employees, changes to official campus records for name and gender, and intramural athletics policies.
Individual faculty and staff on campus can be influential both as direct advocates for the rights of trans individuals on campus and as educators, raising the visibility of trans individuals and fostering learning to reduce the burden on trans individuals of educating their peers. Faculty and staff can serve on campus governance bodies responsible for crafting institutional policies to be sure that trans-inclusive language and policies are intentionally developed. Sharing stories of trans individuals with campus leadership or external stakeholders to demonstrate the importance of trans inclusive policies and practices can help to humanize issues for policymakers. Partnerships with local and national community and advocacy organizations, such as Campus Pride, the Transgender Law Center, or the National Center for Transgender Equality, to provide both awareness raising and services to trans individuals can be a simple but effective means of advocating for trans individuals. Faculty and staff may also consider hosting a study group for colleagues or students using Dr. Z Nicolazzo’s Trans* Studies in Higher Education syllabus as a guide for participants.
Engaging in personal advocacy can take the form of contacting elected officials about specific legislation, engaging with state or federal agency staff, participating in community-based educational or advocacy organizations, or even working through your own social networks to educate and raise awareness of the barriers trans individuals face. Student affairs professionals can use their professional expertise working with trans individuals and use institutionally based examples to add credibility to their personal advocacy with elected officials, but should take care not to identify individuals without their permission. When engaging in personal advocacy, you should be clear that you are not speaking as a representative of your employer or institution, either by including a statement if you're speaking or writing or adding a disclaimer in social media profiles. We cover a few other cautions about engaging in personal advocacy as a campus employee in our NASPActs Policy Basics: Your Role in Our Representative Democracy post from last spring.
Just as student affairs professionals can establish connections with community organizations to provide services and resources, they can also reach out to organizations with campus-based programs to support student advocacy and civic engagement. For example the Southern Poverty Law Center offer options for on-campus programs to help students engage in advocacy around trans issues and the Transgender Law Center, or the National Center for Transgender Equality offer a variety of options for students and youth to become involved. Providing assistance for students who may want to organize letter-writing campaigns or legislative action days in states where bathroom bills are introduced may also be an option, though you should speak with your campus government affairs and leadership team to be sure there are not additional laws or restrictions on your involvement as an employee. NASPA members who are interested in more resources for promoting civic learning and democratic engagement should follow the Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (CLDE) Knowledge Community and the NASPA Lead Initiative on CLDE and consider attending the annual CLDE Meeting in June 2018 in Anaheim, California.
As state legislatures and Congress enter the campaign season for the 2018 elections, the struggle to extend, protect, and maintain trans rights will unfortunately remain contested. Student affairs professionals attending the NASPA Annual Meeting in March 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania should keep an eye out for activities sponsored by NASPActs for more advocacy opportunities.