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Colleges should modify policies and practices to create an environment more friendly towards transgender students

At Central Piedmont Community College, a transgender student was questioned by security officers on her way into the women’s bathroom and subsequently escorted off the campus. The incident has prompted the Freedom Center for Social Justice to threaten to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education if the college does not change its policies regarding use of gendered facilities.

Jeff Lowrance, a spokesman for the college, said the school’s current policy is that students can use bathrooms which match their gender identity at their time of enrollment or use a gender neutral bathroom, but there are few of these available. Lowrance also defended the college’s handling of this particular situation, claiming it was “simply a case of our security officer who didn’t want to allow a male into the female bathroom,” as cited in Inside Higher Ed.

But both the college’s policy and its handling of the situation do not create an accepting and safe atmosphere for transgender students. The policy that students must use a bathroom consistent with their gender identity when they enroll ignores the possibility that students may decide to transition after they enroll in college. To mandate that these students continue to use facilities which now do not fit their gender identity denies them a significant degree of personal autonomy.

Ideally, universities should have as many gender neutral facilities as possible. Some students may not feel comfortable identifying as either gender, and institutions should be structured so that they accept this decision not to identify, as well as the decision to change identifiers. As an example of an initiative to accommodate transgender students, Coordinator of LGBTQ Student Services at the University Scott Rheinheimer has campaigned to make a list of gender neutral bathrooms around Grounds, and post the list the online so students know where they can find them. Additionally, on Monday the 31st of March, the LGBTQ Center hosted a panel on Trans* Visibility.

Central Piedmont Community College’s handling of this particular incident exacerbates their policies which already do not accommodate the needs of transgender or gender fluid students. Lowrance portrayed the security officer’s acts as appropriate, like she was responding to a potential threat — a man dressed in women’s clothing entering a women’s bathroom. But simply not conforming to gender norms is not grounds for this kind of suspicion, and escorting the student completely off the campus was a gross overreaction to what should be a mundane, routine act — using a restroom.

Many transgender students already face bullying and harassment. A 2010 study found that 38 percent of transgender students, faculty and staff have thought about leaving their institutions “because of the challenging climate.” Being escorted off a campus by security officers, which occurred in this case, may amplify these concerns, as anyone who witnessed the event may associate the student with deviant, shameful or even dangerous behavior.

All students should be able to feel safe on their college campuses. But profiling students like the security officers did in this case will only instill fear in transgender students. The same 2010 study found 43 percent of transgender students, faculty and staff “feared for their physical safety.” Colleges should attend to the needs of transgender students by changing their policies to allow for gender fluidity and flexibility with identification, and by training their staff to respond appropriately to situations like these. In this particular case, the right response would have been no response at all.

Published April 3, 2014 in Opinion

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