Faculty senate votes to extend policy to protect gender identity

This story was originally published in the February 16 issue of Fourth Estate.

The George Mason University faculty senate passed a resolution on Feb. 4 to add gender identity and expression to the university’s anti-discrimination policies.

The resolution would extend protections to transgender and other gender non-conforming people under University Policy 1201, which currently bans discrimination based on race, sex, disability, religion and other categories of identity. The proposal passed in the faculty senate almost unanimously with only one present member voting against it. An earlier version was passed by the student senate on Jan. 28.

“Hopefully, [the resolution will] help the community realize that transgender and gender non-conforming lives matter,” Geoffrey Payne, the executive secretary of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs in the student senate, said. “They are important enough to be included in the anti-discrimination policy.”

Payne, who is also on the executive board of TQ Mason, the university’s trans/queer support and action organization, helped develop the resolution last semester along with Mason Student Body Vice President Dilan Wickrema. They introduced the idea of adding gender identity to Mason’s anti-discrimination policy at the beginning of the fall 2014 semester and, from there, crafted a proposal demonstrating student interest in and attitudes toward the possible addition to show the university that it was important to the community.

The resulting resolution argues that amending Policy 1201 to include gender identity and expression would “help support one of [Mason’s] institutional values of ‘freedom and learning’” and cites the College of William & Mary, the University of Virginia and James Madison University among the Virginia universities and colleges that have recently made similar additions to their anti-discrimination policies.

According to Charlene Douglas, the chair of the faculty senate, while the faculty and student senates operate independently and therefore do not always vote on the same issues, they sometimes share resolutions “to make a stronger political statement.”

“The vote of the faculty senate lends support to the student government resolution,” Douglas said in an email.

The next step is for the student senate to bring the resolution to the Office of Compliance, Diversity and Ethics, which enforces Policy 1201 and the related Title IX, and request a change in the policy’s language.

Policy 1201 outlines Mason’s commitment to “providing equal opportunity and an educational environment free from any discrimination” and applies to all university students, faculty and staff. It currently covers both sex and sexual orientation but not gender identity.

“Gender identity has to do with how you identify, how you express yourself,” Office of LGBTQ Resources Program Coordinator Amena Johnson said. “Gender identity could be someone that’s transgender [or it] could just simply be about gender expression. Your sex is female, but your expression is more masculine or vice versa, so gender identity, I think, is more inclusive than sex.”

The distinction between gender and sex is key but has generated some confusion, making education the primary difficulty Payne and others have faced in getting the resolution through the school’s administrative and legislative processes.

“When you start asking the question ‘Why aren’t transgender people protected under sex or sexual orientation?’, that’s when the room starts feeling like a women and gender studies class,” Payne said, adding that the reaction from students and faculty has otherwise been completely positive thus far.

The resolution comes after a series of similar actions at the state and federal level aimed at eliminating discrimination based on gender identity.

In January 2014, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed Executive Order No. 1, prohibiting discrimination in the workplace based on gender identity and sexual orientation along with other factors like race, national origin, religion, age, political affiliation and disability. Later that year, President Obama passed a new executive order amending Executive Orders 11478 and 11246 to include gender identity in the federal government’s equal opportunity practices. In addition, the Department of Education announced in April 2014 a guideline that extended federal civil rights protections under Title IX to transgender students.

Passed by Congress in 1972, Title IX is the law that protects people from discrimination based on sex in any federally-funded educational program, activity or institution. Though it is often associated with athletics, it has been used to address areas such as pregnant or parenting students, the lack of women in STEM fields and sexual harassment and violence.

Calling both the proposed amendment to Policy 1201 and these broader changes a step in the right direction, Johnson said that, because most of them have been mandated by individual people or administrations, they do not necessarily indicate that society as a whole, or even just Mason as a community, has significantly changed. She emphasizes that more work still needs to be done to increase acceptance of transgender and other gender non-conforming people.

“People need to be educated,” Johnson said. “There needs to be more classes about the issue, more mandatory training about gender and sexual orientation for faculty and staff, because if we’re going to be progressive, we have to understand that we live in a culture that isn’t necessarily accepting of these things.”

Many of the difficulties in addressing gender identity discrimination occur at a systematic level. For instance, the registrar’s office offers no way for transgender students to officially change their names, and many of them experience discrimination in the classroom when faculty members or other individuals address them by the wrong name or pronouns.

Giovanna Chesler, who is the director of the Film and Video Studies program and an associate professor in the Communications department, has attempted to address this issue by including a statement at the top of her syllabi asking students to tell her their preferred pronouns. She wrote the statement with advice from TQ Mason members and has recommended that other faculty members take the same approach.

“In recognizing that Blackboard and student records do not reflect in some cases the gender of a student, I felt it necessary to be very explicit in the class to not assume pronoun use,” Chesler said. “I think that the more things are explicit, the better it is for a community’s health.”

The Office of LGBTQ Resources provides safe zone and classroom training and helps organize events like Pride Week designed to create social and educational opportunities for discussing issues related to gender and sexuality.

Elavie Ndura, the chair of the faculty senate minority and diversity issues committee, has been pushing for the university to create more spaces for inclusive, critical conversations about LGBTQ issues as well as other topics like race and racism. She says that, because students tend to be more active in creating these spaces, greater faculty and staff involvement is crucial to future efforts.

“We still need to do more work in order to really, efficiently address socio-cultural issues that may impact learning, teaching and living together as a community,” Ndura said.

Mason started flexible or gender-neutral on-campus housing in the fall 2014 semester, and many people, like Payne and Chesler, have been advocating for more gender-neutral bathrooms.

Ultimately, the new resolution and other attempts to curb discrimination are about creating an environment where all students, faculty and staff feel accepted and respected so that they can learn or work to the best of their abilities.

“I think that it creates an empowering community,” Ndura said. “When we are empowered, we do better…and it would be overall a much happier community.”