Restroom Choice

May 25, 2012

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith is changing its policy regarding restroom use by transgender people after a student complained to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jennifer Braly, a 38-year-old UAFS junior who is a transgender woman, was upset after being instructed to use only gender-neutral restrooms on campus. Braly had used women’s restrooms and gender-neutral restrooms until another student complained.

Braly is again allowed to use women’s restrooms, said R. Mark Horn, a vice chancellor. He said that the decision was made this spring after the Justice Department sent a letter to the university system’s lawyers. The university wouldn’t make that letter available, citing federal privacy laws. Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa confirmed that a letter had been sent informing the university of the complaint, but Hinojosa said the letter did not direct the university to take any specific action. Hinojosa wouldn’t say whether an investigation is ongoing. A conservative blog, the first national outlet to report on the issue, accused the Obama administration of forcing the issue.

Born a man, Braly is raising money for gender reassignment surgery. Braly secured a name change, is undergoing hormone therapy and is now recognized as a woman on her Arkansas driver’s license.

Horn said Arkansas-Fort Smith is trying its best to accommodate transgender students. The issue simply hadn’t come up until recently, Horn said, at which point the college created several gender-neutral restrooms. “We did what we thought was reasonable accommodation,” Horn said. “We were trying to be fair on both sides to students who are not transgendered as well as to this student.”

Braly enrolled at Fort Smith in 2010 as a man. In early 2011, after changing her name and winning a court petition to switch her legal gender, Braly started attending classes as a woman. That's when the college created the gender-neutral bathrooms, which Braly said administrators instructed her to use exclusively.

As her hormone therapy progressed and Braly became more comfortable living as a woman, she said she occasionally used women’s restrooms. That was never a problem until Braly started lecturing to classes, at the invitation of several psychology professors, about gender identity disorder.

At that point, Braly said, at least one student complained that she wasn’t comfortable sharing a bathroom with a transgender person. Administrators then asked Braly again to use only gender-neutral restrooms, an arrangement that wasn’t satisfactory to her in part because many buildings she frequented had no such facilities.  When the college followed that request with a decision that she would live in a single dorm room next fall instead of with roommates, she contacted the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

The lack of a policy about transgender accommodations underscores a larger problem in higher ed, said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride.

Colleges should be proactive in establishing clear policies and gender-neutral facilities, said Windmeyer, whose organization advocates for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. While many transgender people prefer gender-neutral restrooms, also called family restrooms, Windmeyer said individuals should also be able to use a bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. In failing to allow that, Windmeyer said Arkansas-Fort Smith erred.

“It sounds like the campus has not done a good job taking responsibility for creating a welcoming, safe space for trans-identified students,” Windmeyer said. “It is unrealistic to ask anyone to go across campus in between classes to be able to use the restroom.”

Horn said the university is still finalizing a formal policy on transgender accommodations. Administrators are likely to consider such a policy this summer, a decision Braly appreciates.

“Frankly, this is new turf for us,” Horn said. “We welcome all students. The issue of accommodating transgender student needs has been a threshold that we had never had to go up to before. It’s been a learning curve for us, both in terms of the law and what gender identity disorder is in the first place.”

That lack of understanding of transgender issues is too common, Windmeyer said, even as acceptance of gay and lesbian issues grows on campuses. Transgender students consistently report feeling less safe at college than their gay peers. Braly said she knows of at least four other transgender students at Fort Smith, though most prefer not to advertise their sex change.

“Any campus needs to have active dialogue around trans-identified people,” Windmeyer said. “The ‘T’ of LGBT is largely forgotten or invisible on most campuses today.”

Even though Braly said her time at Fort Smith has been largely positive, the resistance she’s encountered in gaining access to women’s restrooms and housing makes her feel that more needs to be done.

“I have an ‘F’ on my driver’s license. I dress as a female. I live as a female. I do everything as a female,” she said. “Treat me as a female. They’re treating me as a leper -- like I have some icky disease.”

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