National spotlight on campus gender accommodations

As more people realize self-identification is not a fad, more institutions may change policies

The University of Vermont allows its students to identify their own gender around campus, even if it’s no gender at all.

Though the policy has existed for nearly five years, it wasn’t until a February New York Times article that UVM received significant attention, says Dot Brauer, director of the LGBTQA Center@UVM.

“Nothing prepared us for this level of excitement,” says Brauer, who received several requests for interviews and advice from other higher ed institutions. “The feedback has been nothing but positive and encouraging.”

For about a decade, UVM has been known as a highly LGBT-friendly institution, and more transgender students have been enrolling, Brauer says.

Allowing students to choose how they’re identified in the student information system (SIS) was the next step. Officials were on board, but no third-party SIS company was willing to make the change. “UVM finally decided to stop waiting,” says Brauer.

It took roughly four months of internal work—at a cost of about $80,000 in staff time—to modify the SIS. Since Spring 2009, students have been able to select a preferred gender pronoun or be referred to by name only.

Options are he, she, they or the gender neutral term, ze—or even a preferred non-legal name. Students can update this information themselves online as they wish. Class rosters include this information so faculty can confidently identify students, says Brauer.

Many other colleges and universities allow students to select a preferred name, but do not offer the gender-neutral option, she says. Yet as more people realize self-identification is not a fad, she believes institutions will change.

It’s common for campuses to provide accommodations in the form of gender-neutral bathrooms and housing. Since 1992, Wesleyan University in Connecticut has had “Open House,” a facility that houses those with various gender-neutral classifications and sexual preferences.

For at least 10 years, the housing description has used a lengthy, 15-letter acronym to state that it’s a safe, inclusive space for all.

“There are many ways people might be queer … in their desires, presentations, orientations and relationship styles,” says Margot Weiss, Open House’s faculty advisor. “The acronym captures Wesleyan students’ interest in thinking broadly about gender and sexual difference—and not just for people who identify as gay or lesbian.” —Lauren Williams

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