Sewanee’s protections for transgender students lack clarity

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Photo by Lucy Wimmer

By Fleming Smith

Executive Editor

Around the country, debates are raging about what it means to be “transgender” and how this identity should be treated institutionally, ranging from the questions of bathroom use to changing records of name and gender. At Sewanee, many voices in the administration express their willingness to help transgender students with their needs, but transgender students are not explicitly protected from discrimination, and there is a lack of official policy regarding such students.

The official non-discrimination policy of the University of the South, last revised July 6, 2015, does not mention “gender identity” or anything that would correspond to students who are transgender. Vice President for Planning and Administration Nancy Berner, who also serves as Title IX coordinator and an author of the policy, believes that transgender students are still covered by the policy despite the lack of specific language referring to them.

“[The policy] covers discrimination based on sex, based on sexual orientation, and on genetics. So to me, those three things together would cover about anything I could think of in terms of transgender,” Berner explained. “I don’t particularly see how it’s not covered.”

Taylor Wilson (C’17), President of SPECTRUM, a club that aims to dispel stereotypes about LGBT+ individuals, disagrees with Berner’s judgement that the policy covers transgender students.

“As written, the non-discrimination policy is absolutely insufficient,” Wilson said. She explains that “genetic information” is a non-sequitur to transgender rights, as this category prohibits discrimination based on genetic testing results and predisposition to disease. Furthermore, the category of “sex” does not include gender identity or gender expression.

Wilson especially discourages the conflation of gender identity with sexual orientation, asserting that an individual’s sexual preferences have no influence on gender identification.

“The importance of the unique and separate struggle of gender from attraction is a vital detail that needs to be driven home. Protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people does not protect or assist trans-identified people,” Wilson added.

Berner, however, expressed her willingness to help any transgender students who do face discrimination, although she has not yet received a complaint. “I would never turn that person away and say that they’re not covered. I don’t think the University would want us to do that,” she said on the subject. Berner clarified that her understanding that the non-discrimination policy covers transgender students is not official policy, however, merely her understanding.

She expressed that The Sewanee Purple’s request for clarification regarding the University’s non-discrimination policy on transgender students was the first time anyone had mentioned gender identity or even the term transgender to her in reference to the policy.

The fact remains that in terms of language, the non-discrimination policy does not explicitly cover transgender students. Dean Lee Ann Backlund of Admissions and Financial Aid and Vice President for Enrollment Planning was surprised to learn that the non-discrimination policy does not include gender identity. “I’d just assumed it was [covered],” she commented.

According to Backlund, this year’s applicant pool included three transgender students. Although one did not complete the application, the two other students were accepted, and one is still considering whether to matriculate at Sewanee in the fall.

“I did not realize until you called about this that we had three in that pool. So I was pleasantly surprised,” Backlund said. Normally, gender identity would not be captured on the application unless mentioned in an essay. However, the Common Application, used by hundreds of schools across the United States, added a freeform text box this year allowing students to comment more on their gender if they so chose.

“[Gender identity] really plays no role in our admissions decisions,” she explained. However, Backlund added later, “Not every person on this campus is going to have an open-arms policy those of us in this office have.”

In the future, Backlund hopes her office can reach out even more to LGBT+ students by adding a LGBT+ resources page to the Sewanee website this summer and by attending Campus Pride college fairs.

“We want students to know that this is a place for anybody, that we want to be not just diverse, but an inclusive community,” Backlund said. “It just makes Sewanee a more interesting place when we all come from different backgrounds and we learn from each other.”

One transgender applicant, a student-athlete, is still considering enrollment. Admissions counselors put the student in contact both with Director of Residential Life Kate Reed and the student’s possible future coach.

On the subject of rooming for transgender students, Reed commented, “We do not have a written policy or procedure at this point.” Although no explicit framework exists, Reed has worked previously with transgender students to find a solution to rooming issues.

“I have not yet had someone request to live with another person, so that’s not something that I’ve encountered yet. And in my time here, it’s not a conversation that I’ve had often, but I’ve stayed in touch with the students who were willing to meet with me and talk about their housing needs,” Reed added. Typically, such students request to live in singles.

However, if a transgender student desired a roommate matching their gender identity, Reed said her office would make an effort to accommodate. “I would like to look for allies in the pool of other incoming students…so you’re living with a peer, but also with somebody who’s already volunteered that they’re ready to be an ally,” she explained.

“I understand that coming to ask me for help is a form of coming out, and so I know that that’s challenging, but I hope that if someone felt comfortable coming to me and telling me about their needs, they know that I would help,” Reed wanted students to know. “I’m here to listen and I’m happy to help.”

Senior Associate Dean of Student Life Becky Spurlock agrees with Berner that the non-discrimination policy covers transgender students, and says her office has been thinking of ways to further include them.

“I’ve had some campus conversations but I’m not yet ready to say we’re implementing these changes,” Spurlock said, referring to changes such as asking students for preferred pronouns and then including that information in class rosters and directories.

“I want students to know that the Dean of Students office is really interested in knowing about and hearing from and getting to know students and what support they need, or what things in the institution—either in our policy or in our practices—are working or not working,” she added.

Despite the expressed willingness of these voices in the administration to help and include transgender students, questions on the official policy of the University remain. For example, the debate over bathroom use has entered the courts in many states. While Tennessee does not have a “bathroom law,” it is unclear where exactly Sewanee stands on the issue.

Berner mentioned a recent visitor to campus who was allowed to use the bathroom of the gender they identified with after the administration discussed the issue with with Sewanee’s legal counsel. She said this would apply to anyone on campus, but in terms of residential life, Reed was not aware of such a policy.

Although the attitude of many in the administration towards transgender students appears positive and friendly, a lack of explicit protections for transgender students against discrimination does not match these attitudes. Until a clear, official policy addresses the needs of these students, Sewanee’s ability and desire to fully accommodate and include all students remains uncertain.

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