Momentum for Gender Neutrality

Study finds more colleges -- especially in Northeast -- are amending anti-bias policies and adding options for housing and bathrooms.
August 27, 2007

While only a small minority of colleges have added gender identity to their anti-bias policies or created gender-neutral dormitories or bathrooms, the movement to do so is growing, especially in the Northeast and among elite universities, according to a report being released today.

The GENIUS Index (for Gender Equality National Index for Universities and Schools) found that:

  • 147 colleges and universities have added gender identity and expression to their non-discrimination policies.
  • 141 colleges and universities have created some gender neutral bathrooms, frequently private bathrooms that students can use without fear of being judged as being in the wrong bathroom based on the way others view the students' identity.
  • 30 colleges and universities have created options for gender-neutral housing, in which the norm for roommates is not presumed to be someone of the same sex.

Policies such as those highlighted in the report have been an emerging goal of transgender students on campus and their supporters, who say that people who don't fit into standard gender categories face not only discrimination, but threats of violence.

The Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, which pushes for policies in educational institutions and the workplace that allow people "to learn, grow and succeed -- whether or not they meet expectations for masculinity and femininity" -- produced the study.

The report notes that these policies are almost always relatively recent and were unheard of just a decade ago. The adoption of such policies is still sufficiently new that a college's actions on creating a new restroom may attract news coverage, as was the case this weekend with the new student center at the University of Vermont would feature some gender-neutral bathrooms.

While the report notes that the gender-neutral movement is attracting support at all kinds of institutions, it also acknowledges the role played by regions and elites in higher education. Of colleges that have amended anti-bias policies, for example, 43 percent are in the Northeast while only 5 percent are from the South. All the Ivy League institutions have amended their anti-bias policies, as have two-thirds of a list of the top 25 universities in the country.

The emphasis on the policies of elite universities mirrors the strategy used by proponents of domestic partnership benefits. By noting that such benefits are the norm at elite universities, proponents at institutions that aspire to be top research universities have won over skeptics by talking about the benefits as a way to be competitive in recruiting faculty talent. The strategy has had numerous successes, but has run into some obstacles recently because of anti-gay marriage measures enacted in some states.

Brittney Hoffman, youth coordinator for the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, said that the report's emphasis reflected a range of goals. Inclusion in anti-bias rules is an essential "top level" policy, while gender-neutral bathrooms and dormitories are what students want to improve "the day to day lived experiences on campus."

Hoffman said that the issue should be framed as being about safety. "A lot of gender non-conforming youth experience harassment in choosing a restroom, and really suffer this sobering anxiety in making a decision about a bathroom that for the vast majority of the population is really simple," she said. "They have to ask, Which bathroom is going to be safest for me right now?" And when those students are in hostile situations in a dorm, the situation is only compounded, she said.

Gender-neutral bathrooms and dormitories don't just help transgender students, Hoffman said. Gay students, male-female couples or friends or siblings who want to live together, and other students can also benefit. Hoffman stressed that her organization was not pushing to convert all bathrooms or to change all dormitory policies. It's fine to have gender-specific housing and bathrooms, she said, as long as other options are provided. In cases of gender-neutral rooms, she said both roommates should be among those requesting such rooms.

To date, the policies on gender neutrality have not prompted major culture war outbreaks, although that may be in part because the issue is relatively new and hasn't been pushed in culturally conservative parts of the country. On Phi Beta Cons, the higher education blog of National Review, the issue has come up periodically and been mocked. Last year, the blog took note of a campaign for transgender bathrooms at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the developments of a symbol for doors of such bathrooms at a Unitarian seminary in California by writing: "This debate gives a whole new meaning to the expression, 'Get your head out of the toilet.' "

Hoffman said she was aware that some people didn't view her goals with sympathy. "These are very new issues for some people," she said. "But look at how many colleges have changed recently. This movement is taking off."


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