California made significant strides with the passing of three state bills in support of LGBT rights legislation this past October 10th.
The Gender Nondiscrimination Act requires gender identity and expression to be its own protected category at work, at school, in housing, at public accommodations and in other settings; the Vital Statistics Modernization Act makes it easier for transgender people to obtain court-ordered gender change and updated birth certificate; Seth’s Law will tighten anti-bullying policies in schools by making sure there are clear and consistent policies, provide better training and guidelines for teachers and faculty, and establish shorter timelines for investigating claims of bullying.
A fourth bill, with the purpose of amending anti-discrimination policies in relation to sexual orientation and gender identity, was also signed by Governor Brown on October 8th. Specifics in the bill include the requirement that California state universities and community colleges allow students to identify their sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression in the annually collected demographic data. Recording accurate numbers of LGBT identifying students will help institutes of higher education grasp the amount of student services necessary for the LGBT community and awareness training for faculty and staff, reported The Daily Californian.
These new pieces of legislation may have greater implications beyond the state of California—they have the potential to lay the groundwork for other states as well as play a role in influencing colleges and universities in confronting the role of gender identity in their anti-discrimination policies. Moreover, this landmark legislation has the ability to additionally set a precedent for women’s colleges and their policies around transgender students.
Women’s colleges were originally founded as a means of educating young women in a time when there were no other alternatives for females to seek higher education. Their existence in the 21st century has been questioned, in a time period where private universities are co-ed and women are less oppressed than in times past. Not only do women’s colleges have to defend their mere existence in 2011, but they’ve also been faced with a lingering quandary over sex and gender identity: where do transgender students fit in? The question is taking on new resonance as the majority of single-sex institutions have yet to cultivate systemic changes in their official policies that specifically address transgender students.
Trans students have had a growing presence in America and, in turn, on college campuses. Despite the increasing transgender population, there’s still very little official protection from discrimination for these students. If administrators elect to handle matters with trans-students one by one as they come up instead of developing concrete policies, then transgender students are at risk for greater, and more systemic, discrimination.
Historically speaking, students on campus have been at the forefront of social change. The issue of accommodating trans-students at women’s colleges hasn’t been any different—the majority of activism and support thus far has been from students, with administrators lagging behind.
Smithies in Northampton, Mass. are a great example of what happens when students take the initiative in being more inclusive toward transgender students and influence their schools to follow suit. In 2003, the students voted to replace gender-specific pronouns in their constitution with more gender-neutral pronouns. Shortly after, the Smith administration opened the Center for Sexuality and Gender as a resource for students. Gender-neutral bathroom and housing options have become popular means of accommodating transgender students as well.
While these are important alterations to make because it helps to take away small-scale yet inherently political burdens from a student’s daily life, there needs to be a greater institutional shift toward clarifying where schools officially stand. This would result in a loss of ambiguity for students—one less grey area for transgender students to struggle between.
Title IX, the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibits any kind of discrimination on the basis of sex, but it also guarantees women’s colleges the right to solely admit applicants who identify as biological females. This amendment enforces the federal law that colleges can only admit students whose legal documentation proves their gender is compatible with that specific institution.
Once already admitted, it should be the responsibility of each college to address and accommodate any kind of physical or emotional transition. Our society as a whole often fuses the roles of sex and gender together—we’re wrongly conditioned to learn that the two go hand in hand. This complicates the ways in which women’s colleges interpret their own policies around trans individuals.
Already existing policies for transgender students at women’s colleges are not adequate in protecting the students’ basic rights: the ability to involve themselves socially, engage in traditional school-wide activities, and graduate from the school in which they originally enrolled. It is critical for schools to clarify this issue in the most official way possible.
California’s decision to act on these specific LGBT rights bills will increase protection specifically for the transgender community on campuses and prove to be a step in the right direction. California can now potentially serve as a critical influence for women’s colleges to enact official policies for their transgender students.