WEISS: U.Va. is not doing enough for transgender students

Despite minor progress, U.Va. policy lacks specific, concrete measures to ensure safety of transgender students on Grounds

optransgenderflagcourtesywikimediacommons

The University must take concrete steps to increase its support for transgender members of the community.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

President Trump rescinded the Obama administration’s statements of policy and guidance Feb. 22 that ensured transgender students’ access to bathrooms which match their gender identity. In their “Dear Colleague” letter, the U.S. Justice and Education Departments stated “there must be due regard for the primary role of the States and local school districts in establishing educational policy.” As part of a longstanding tradition in American history, the letter’s citation of states’ rights as justification for this action is an ugly, cynical attempt to veil the Trump administration’s bigotry. In response, University President Teresa Sullivan released a statement which reiterated the University’s commitment to diversity and intolerance of “discrimination or harassment toward LGBTQ faculty, staff, or students” and the inclusion of gender identity and sexual orientation in its existing non-discrimination policy. This, however, does not go far enough.

The University must take concrete steps to increase its support for transgender members of the community. First, they should issue a statement denouncing the transphobia of the Trump administration’s action. Second, an amendment should be made to the University’s sexual and gender-based harassment policy that explicitly ensures transgender students’ right to access the facilities that corresponds with their gender identity. And finally, a more forceful push should be made to expand the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms on Grounds. The University must take immediate measures to assure transgender members of the community that they are welcome and valued, and the full institutional force of the University will be mobilized on their behalf when their rights are threatened.

To be clear, Sullivan’s message was an important first step for the University. Our non-discrimination policy cites explicit compliance with Title IX’s and the Governor’s Executive Order Number One’s requirements, two respectively federal and state legal pillars on which the University bases its policies. Sullivan’s message reasserts the University’s inclusion of gender identity in its non-discrimination policy.

But both of these pillars are either compromised or subject to change. The interpretation of Title IX to include protections for gender identity has been revoked by the Trump administration and the Governor’s executive order can just as easily be rescinded. In light of the frailty of existing provisions, there is a pressing and clear need for the University to go beyond the language of its current policy and its ad hoc assurances of good faith to the transgender community. The University must provide an explicit guarantee of transgender students’ access to the correct facilities in its policies. This is the best and most direct way for Sullivan to give substance to her statement and institutionalize its promise.

This amendment should be accompanied by a denunciation of the Trump administration’s blatant transphobia. Having the University come out strongly against President Trump’s action would send a powerful signal to the White House and to the nation that we do not tolerate the erasure of the transgender experience.

Furthermore, the rescinding of these statements of policy and guidance should provide the University with an impetus to rededicate itself to a more equitable, accessible and welcoming University environment. There are currently far too many facilities on Grounds which do not have gender-neutral bathrooms, according to the web map created by the LGBTQ Center. These include the Chemistry Building, Nau / Gibson Halls, Monroe Hall and others. The designation of one gender-neutral bathroom on the West Lawn is a baby step in the right direction. The University’s centers of learning should never force its transgender community members to have to scour to find a bathroom where they feel safe. Nor should our buildings make transgender individuals feel unwelcome by the fact that a building’s design simply does not take into account their existence.

Each of these individual steps would be an important yet insufficient measure in response to the Trump administration’s action, either individually or in concert. The President yet again has demonstrated the fragility of those rights and of our duty as citizens to remind those who occupy high office of their oaths to the Constitution. Transgender Americans are arguably the most discriminated against minority in the U.S., who often find themselves voiceless in the face of overwhelming opposition to their very existence, at home and in public. The University should strive to be a haven for those struggling to determine who they are, or those who can say with confidence, if not with total security, that their lives and experiences matter. I unfortunately do not believe the University is succeeding in this endeavor today. All of us who do not identify as transgender should make an effort to reach out to the transgender community and make our voices heard so it may join theirs in a chorus of opposition and validation. Amidst this national retreat into the darkness, we must all do our part to create pockets of light which will outlast and eventually overpower the harm being done to those bonds of common purpose which make us American. We must resist and we must thrive. Anything less is a moral failure.

Olivier Weiss is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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