May 25, 2012; Source: Inside Higher Ed

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) is formulating policies that would allow transgender students to use restrooms that match their gender identity. Although UAFS recently made gender-neutral restrooms available on campus to accommodate transgender community members, it had to rethink its approach after Jennifer Braly, a junior, complained to the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which sent a letter to the university’s lawyers. While the college would not make the letter publicly available, DOJ spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said UAFS was not directed to take any specific action.

R. Mark Horn, vice chancellor for university relations, said the institution is doing its best to meet the needs of transgender students and had considered gender-neutral restrooms the most viable solution. “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 (sic) as well as to this student.”

Braly explained that she had been using both women’s and gender-neutral restrooms and encountered no problems until she started lecturing about being transgender at the invitation of several psychology professors. Soon thereafter, at least one student complained about having to share facilities with trans people. UAFS administrators requested that Braly limit herself to gender-neutral restrooms but she countered that there were no such facilities in the buildings she frequented. The university then placed Braly in a single dorm room for the coming fall semester instead of with roommates, which finally spurred her to contact the Justice Department.

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

“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.”

As more transgender students courageously come out in our campuses, colleges and universities need to establish policies that welcome and adequately meet the needs of all students. – Erwin de Leon