Zachary Wolfe: Fight for transgender equality

Professor Banzhaf’s op-ed “Defending transgender students” (March 4, p. 4) highlights the need for open discussion about transgender students and University policy. Contrary to its position, however, the op-ed illustrates the need to amend GW’s nondiscrimination statement promptly, not to delay action. The Faculty Senate should join other bodies in calling for adding “gender identity or expression” to GW’s nondiscrimination policies.

The op-ed first critiques the proposal by asking whether it would be applicable to a particular recent act of discrimination. While it may be a fine law school examination question, something different is required of a higher education community under these circumstances. We must re-evaluate institutional statements of principle in light of evolving public discourse and the expressed needs of minority members of our community.

The D.C. City Council recognized that transgender people have been overlooked in nondiscrimination laws and continue to face prejudice and material hardships, so it added “gender identity or expression” to the D.C. Human Rights Act back in 2005. Given GW’s obligations under the law, amending GW’s policy would have significance only as a statement and reminder of our obligations. GW transgender students continue to express concerns and ask for such a declaration of policy. Nondiscrimination statements have meaning beyond the regulatory, including inviting discussion about those values, as in this op-ed exchange.

That discourse, however, must begin with a statement of principle: We reject discrimination against transgender members of our community. From this common ground, we can explore the issues raised in Banzhaf’s op-ed. (If we cannot start with that statement as common ground, the discussion must be quite different). This is one reason the Faculty Senate should adopt the resolution without delay.

Apparently, much concern surrounds restrooms: We might lose the authority to decide what someone else’s gender is for the purpose of their use of public restrooms. I must confess that I simply do not see the problem here. More than 260 schools have nondiscrimination policies that include “gender identity or expression,” including Georgetown and the entire Ivy League. Obviously, all existing laws and policies concerning lewd conduct, harassment and the like would remain in place. Vague predictions of discomfort cannot stand in the way of equality.

One simple solution is gender-neutral restrooms, which are now the norm at a number of schools and increasingly seen everywhere – at my undergraduate institution, there were no gender-specific restrooms, including dorm showers. That was nearly twenty years ago.

Two other points by Banzhaf warrant brief response. He states that amending only one of GW’s four nondiscrimination statements is insufficient practically and rhetorically. However, the resolution clearly calls for “amending of all University nondiscrimination statements.”

Of greater concern is his analysis that because GW’s current policy says “or any other illegal basis,” the specific listings apply only if also illegal. I read the “or any other illegal basis” as adding to the bases on which we, on our initiative or otherwise, will not discriminate. If there is a serious dispute, I would urge the University’s General Counsel to clarify. I trust that University staff assigned to Virginia operations are instructed, as a condition of employment, not to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, regardless of the Commonwealth’s view.

I look forward to a broader dialogue that begins with the Faculty Senate joining those who have declared abhorrence of bigotry against transgender students and employees, and continues with ongoing discussions and efforts to live up to that principle.

-The writer is an assistant professor in the University Writing Program.

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