College dorms a new front in U.S. battle
over transgender rights
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[June 10, 2016]
By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - As lawmakers across the
United States battle over whether to allow transgender Americans to use
public restrooms that match their gender identities, universities are
scrambling to ensure that dorms meet federal standards.
At a time of year when the nation's 2,100 residential colleges and
universities are sorting out student housing assignments, they also
are poring over a May letter from the Obama administration that
thrusts them into the national debate on transgender rights.
Known as the "dear colleague" letter, it makes clear that federal
law protects transgender students' right to live in housing that
reflects their gender identity.
Schools that fail to provide adequate housing to transgender
students could face lawsuits or the loss of any federal funding they
Although hundreds of universities had begun to offer
gender-inclusive housing in response to student demand in recent
years, many are now reviewing or expediting their plans so they can
provide the option to incoming students for the first time this
The policies are intended not only to accommodate transgender
students, university officials say, but to help siblings, gay
students who want to live with straight friends of the opposite
gender or simply groups comfortable with mixed-gender housing.
The May letter from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice
invoked Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting gender discrimination at
schools that receive federal funds.
"Title IX and the 'dear colleague' letters make all of us, all
institutions, more accountable for students who may be on the
margins," said Darryl Holloman, dean of students at Georgia State
University, which offered gender-inclusive housing options for the
first time in the 2015-2016 academic year.
'ONLY A MATTER OF TIME'
There are no official U.S. statistics on the number of colleges that
offer gender-inclusive housing, although a count by Campus Pride, a
non-profit that focuses on supporting the rights of lesbian, gay,
bisexual and transgender students in U.S. higher education, found it
could be as low as one in 10.
The author of that study, Genny Beemyn, director of the University
of Massachusetts at Amherst's Stonewall Center, acknowledged the
count, which shows just 203 universities, may underestimate the
number of schools that offer gender-inclusive housing.
"More and more schools are grappling with it," Beemyn said. "It's
only a matter of time until this becomes a much bigger issue."
Universities in the Northeast and along the West Coast have been
quickest to allow gender-inclusive housing, with those in the South
and religiously affiliated schools least likely to do so, according
to observers, including Demoya Gordon, transgender rights project
attorney with Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights advocacy group.
The Association of College and University Housing
Officers-International has seen an increase in the number of
questions it gets about transgender housing, said spokesman James
"It is certainly something that has gained momentum," Baumann said.
"When I first started 10 years ago the questions was, 'Should we?'
And now the question is, 'How can we?'"
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A sign protesting a recent North Carolina law restricting
transgender bathroom access is seen in the bathroom stalls at the
21C Museum Hotel in Durham, North Carolina May 3, 2016.
REUTERS/Jonathan Drake/File photo
The same letter that has universities examining their transgender
housing policies sparked a broader fight by telling U.S. public
grammar and high schools to allow transgender students to use
bathrooms and locker rooms that reflect their gender identities.
Thirteen U.S. states joined a lawsuit accusing the Obama
administration of overreaching, attempting to add transgender
protections to a 1972 law that never mentioned the subject.
The university moves have been less controversial in part because
the population affected is one of the segments of society most
comfortable with transgender issues.
Some 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds told a Reuters/Ipsos poll
taken April 14 through May 3 that they believed people should use
public restrooms that match the gender with which they identify.
That is a far higher percentage than the 40 percent of Americans of
all ages who held that view. The poll included responses from 6,723
people and has a credibility interval of 1.4 percentage points.
Few students are choosing gender-inclusive housing. At Georgia
Tech's Atlanta campus, 42 out of some 4,100 students housed in dorms
sought it last year.
When Johns Hopkins University first offered it in the 2014-2015
academic year, 30 out of some 2,500 students enrolled, a number that
doubled to 60 the following year.
"There are certainly some transgender students for whom it matters a
lot but if it's a gay man whose best friend is a lesbian and they
decide they want to live together, this is an option," said Demere
Woolway, director of LGBTQ life at the Baltimore university.
College officials interviewed also emphasized they have no plans to
phase out traditional gender-segregated housing.
"We have students ... who want to maintain spaces where they are
with people who have the same gender identity," said Elizabeth Lee
Agosto, senior associate dean of student affairs at Dartmouth
College in Hanover, New Hampshire, which has offered
gender-inclusive housing since 2007. "It's important to have the
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott)
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