Swarthmore College recently announced that it will be expanding its equal opportunity statement to include “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited basis for discrimination. This was decided at the Board of Managers meeting, and according to Equal Opportunity Officer Sharmaine LaMar, “it was something that the administration really felt was important and needed to happen… there wasn’t a need for a vote.”
This issue first came to the fore when a group of students brought a proposal to the administration to have the language added in the fall of 2005. Although “they were not aware of active discrimination at the time,” the push for adding this language to non-discrimination statements has been part of a national movement.
According to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, Swarthmore has now joined the ranks of over eighty other colleges that have included “gender identity” or “gender identity and expression” in their non-discrimination statements. The University of Iowa was the first to add such language in 1996. Among peer institutions, Brown added both in 2001 and Yale and Williams added both in 2006. Princeton, Harvard, Penn, MIT, and the University of Chicago all have added “gender identity” in the past four years. Amherst, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Oberlin and Pomona all have yet to add either protection to their non-discrimination statement.
What’s the difference between “gender identity and expression” and just “gender identity”? LaMar explained that “identity is about the internal and expression is about the external.” While she can’t speak for other institutions, she explained that Swarthmore chose to add both because “we want to protect the individuals completely, both the way they feel internally and the way they choose to express themselves.”
The Borough of Swarthmore has also been a leader in fighting gender-identity-based discrimination. The borough passed an ordinance in March 2006 prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. As Equal Opportunity Advisory Committee member Cong Cao ’07 explained, “Since there’s no federal or Pennsylvania state law that prohibits sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, it’s really up to the community to take a stand on giving equal opportunity and being protective towards people of any gender identity or expression.”
When the borough passed the ordinance, the process was already in the works at Swarthmore, but the borough’s law made the college’s revision a foregone conclusion. LaMar explained that “we were going to change it anyway because it was the right thing to do, it’s in line with our mission, and it places us in sync with other institutions, but even if that weren’t the case, the ordinance made its law for us last March.”
Swarthmore convened the Equal Opportunity Advisory Committee, which is composed of faculty, staff, and students, to do an impact assessment about the proposal and see what would have to change were it adopted. “We met with different departments across campus to see where we ask about gender, how we ask, and whether it is legally required that we ask,” explained LaMar, “we also wanted to find out how people use our facilities and how a transgender person might view our facilities… we wanted to be more inclusive to all of our community members.”
Jose Aleman ’09, a student member of the Equal Opportunity Advisory Committee, reflected that “it was great to be in the committee because it gave me first-hand experience of how policy-making and policy-implementation works at the administrative level.”
One thing that will change is forms that ask about gender. Although “most people are used to it in a check-off-the-box way,” explained LaMar, “we have to think of it not in terms of a binary system.” Instead of checking off “male” or “female,” those filling out forms such as employment and admissions applications and the housing questionnaire for incoming students will now see “Gender” followed by a blank space where they can write however it is that they identify.
Some changes that took place right away had to do with housing. The housing questionnaire added “transgender-friendly” to its list of characteristics with which incoming freshmen are asked to describe themselves, and there are also more gender-neutral rooms now than before. Although these rooms are not all being used as gender-neutral rooms, LaMar explained that “we’ve created more options for people to be comfortable.”
Swarthmore’s restroom situation is also going to be changing. It turns out that “there’s a gender-neutral bathroom in almost every building on campus,” such as two in the basement of Parrish and two near Room 117 in Kohlberg. Over the summer, construction in Sharples and Tarble will create single-sex restrooms that will also be ADA compliant, and the single-stall restrooms in Trotter will be changing their signs to reflect their new gender-neutral status. LaMar explained, “It’s significant because it’s creating options for transgendered individuals to find a restroom to be comfortable in.”
In discussions with Worth, LaMar said, “we found that they don’t ask whether you’re male or female, but it can come up during the course of care… they may have a health-related necessity to know the physical characteristics of the assigned sex at birth.” Employee health insurance will still ask for gender in the binary way, since “our health-insurance carriers require us to ask it in a certain way.”
Gender will also be static on all legal forms having to do with Swarthmore. “In our legal forms we have to provide the legal name,” explained LaMar, “but where it’s not a legal form we can use preferred names.” For example, a diploma is a legal document and Swarthmore has to place your legal name on it, but the commencement program is not, so Swarthmore can put the name of your choice.
The new language also makes Swarthmore’s stance on more obvious forms of discrimination, such as employment and admissions, explicit. LaMar explained, “we’ve taken something that’s been implict for a while and made it explicit in our policy.” Although people might not notice some of the minor changes, “it is an important step in making all of our community comfortable.” Cao agreed, writing in an e-mail, “the change of statement is not just a gesture or a simple change of language, it has immediate and practical implications such as the change of facilities… and the proper conduct towards people to respect their choice of gender identity and expression.”
Aleman was also glad that the college made this decision. “Transgender people don’t choose to be the way they are, and society must treat them fairly regardless of their real or perceived gender identity… I’m glad the college has rejected the hostile and regressive attitudes that dominate the debate on sexual and gender identity, and has instead embraced a benevolent and progressive approach that celebrates difference.”
If you have further questions about this policy change, consider attending a fireside chat on the issues to be held on Wednesday, March 28th. Cao told the Gazette that this chat will be “to discuss why we adopted the new statement and its implications… the chat will be led by an outside speaker who’s an expert on the issues of gender identity and expression.” Anyone interested in the policy change is encouraged to attend.