Two Words Are Worth...

Harvard changes its antidiscrimination policy to include transgender students. Will others follow?
April 13, 2006

Harvard University announced Tuesday that it would add “gender identity” to its nondiscrimination policy. The two word addition has activists hoping that this is the start of something big at Harvard, and beyond.

“The fact is, everyone pays attention to what Harvard does,” said Nanette Gartrell, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco, who has studied nontraditional families for three decades.

Harvard's current statement prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, national or ethnic origin, political beliefs, veteran status, or disability.”

Joe Wrinn, a Harvard spokesman, said that the change is “part of our overall wish that all people should be judged on their merit, not their status.”

The policy change makes Harvard the 53rd college or university to include gender identity in its nondiscrimination policy, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute.

Still, it took considerable effort from student activists to bring that part of the wish to fruition. The first push came in 1997, when an undergraduate student informally created the Transgender Task Force, and submitted a request to administrators to change the antidiscrimination policy.

According to current task force members, the initial efforts didn’t produce tangible changes.

This year, however, according to Wrinn, the task force became an officially recognized coalition of students, alumni, and faculty and staff members. Wrinn said the task force approached university officials, including the general counsel, about making a change, and soon conversations commenced among faculty members, deans and human resources staff members.

Ultimately, the Harvard Corporation gave the change the thumbs up, and the university officially announced it Tuesday.

Members of the task force applauded the change, but said that it’s just a small step in the right direction. “Harvard will need to make many policy changes to ensure that transgender people aren’t discriminated against,” said Noah Lewis, who graduated from the Harvard Law School last year and is a co-coordinator of the task force.”

An article in the Harvard Crimson’s magazine last month reported on transgender students who have moved off campus to find a higher comfort level. The article cited a change in the antidiscrimination policy as the first step toward providing a more welcoming environment for transgender students.

Among other changes, the task force wants campus housing not to be limited to the traditional model that requires roommates and suitemates to be of the same sex. Task force members said Harvard is currently responding to housing requests on a case by case basis.

Some members of the Harvard community, though, have questions about the policy change. Arvind Vaz, a Harvard undergraduate, expressed some concern about the breadth of the policy. Vaz said he thinks it is “unacceptable” to discriminate against transgender people in admissions or employment, but that, for instance, campus religious groups should have a degree of autonomy. Vaz is a member of Harvard’s Catholic Student Association, which he said welcomes transgender students. But a blanket antidiscrimination policy that includes transgender students, he said, “seems like it could threaten religious freedom” for campus organizations.

Brad Luna, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, which fights against bias based on sexual orientation, said he definitely expects Harvard’s decision to prompt some discussion at other institutions.

The Human Rights Campaign has been publishing an annual Corporate Equality Index that scores companies on “how they are treating gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender employees, consumers and investors,” according to HRC’s Web site. Luna said that an increasing number of companies strive to get high scores on the index, which first appeared in 1992. By 1997, only one Fortune 500 company included “gender identity” in it’s nondiscrimination policy. In 2006, 82 of those companies included “gender identity” in their policies, according to the group.

Later this year the Human Rights Campaign plans to begin an equality index for colleges.

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