Students across the country will possibly be subjected to a new legal definition of gender. It’s a move by the Trump administration that would threaten to erase the rights of transgender, gender nonconforming and intersex people.
The Department of Health and Human Services has called for government agencies to establish a single definition of gender, according to a memo leaked to the New York Times. The memo seems to favor defining gender as a biological characteristic that is determined at birth.
Days after the memo was leaked, President John Williams expressed his grievances. He assured the College’s stance on gender identity as continuing to be protected when it comes to students, faculty and staff. The College, “will continue to maintain our commitment to enhancing our campus community as an inclusive space that effectively supports transgender and gender non-binary individuals,” wrote President Williams in his email.
However, if the definition were to be adopted, this change would exclude transgender and gender nonconforming people from the protections under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools. That means it could affect how schools that are federally funded protect transgender students. It could limit the position schools would have to take in funding gender-neutral bathrooms.
Lin-Chi Wang, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Equity and Title IX, wants to remind students of the advantages of attending a private college.
“The federal laws are a floor–it’s a floor for what we have to protect so we can choose to protect more than is required. We want to do that in a very intentional and careful and thoughtful way,”
“The federal laws are a floor–it’s a floor for what we have to protect so we can choose to protect more than is required. We want to do that in a very intentional and careful and thoughtful way,” said Wang in response to the possible new definition.
Last semester, the College created a diversity strategic plan that included plans to add more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. There are currently 17 gender-neutral bathrooms, and this plan would continue the effort to, “make Muhlenberg as equitable and inclusive as possible,” said Dean of Students Allison Gulati earlier this year.
As chair of the committee in charge of creating more gender-neutral bathrooms, Dean Gulati wants students to know that the College has been productive.
“Multiple academic and residence hall projects have been identified and we are currently working on designs, pricing and communication plans for those projects,” wrote Dean Gulati in an email to The Weekly.
However, only one bathroom has been added since April, which has discouraged some students into believing the college will not uphold its promise, especially if the new definition on gender becomes legalized.
“There seems to be a little bit of feet-dragging,” said Kieva Mark ‘20, secretary of Muhlenberg Transgender Advocacy Coalition (MTAC) and co-president of Students for Queer Advocacy (SQuAd). Beyond the strategic plan, there hasn’t been much more action being taken on the administration’s part
However, Mark has found comfort in MTAC and SQuAd. Created five years ago, MTAC has been a safe space that fosters support for students on the transgender spectrum. Though SQuAd shares the same values, it supports all LGBTQ+ students and has been focusing more on advocacy this semester. Combined, these two groups have given students a space where they feel they can be supported and another where they can create action–it’s a dynamic that appears to be helping club members involved with both groups.
After the memo leaked, an anonymous student expressed how being in both groups allowed her time to cope.
“I needed to be able to process before I act. Having someone already acting and taking that up has helped me feel like it’s not my sole responsibility and that other people will take up action,” said the student.
For other students, gender-neutral bathrooms are important in cultivating a safe environment.
Another anonymous student who is choosing to go by Em describes themselves as transgender, specifically genderqueer. For Em, having gender-neutral bathrooms is important because, “it’s very affirming that there are places you belong and there’s not this sort of sequestering that’s frankly unnecessary.”
When Em found out about the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, she was very surprised as there were hardly any in the academic buildings.
“Even if they are spaces where other genderqueer might frequent, somehow it’s not accessible for everyone,” said Em.
“There’s this constant pressure that you also have to assimilate to an environment where you feel unwelcome, which just makes all these other things that is so difficult about being a college student that much harder,” said Em.
In response to this memo, clubs like SQuAD are taking initiative.
“What has happened has been pretty much solely student-driven,”
“What has happened has been pretty much solely student-driven,” said Mark.
As recently as last week, the advocacy group drafted an email template that could be sent out to candidates who are currently running for elections or current representatives encouraging them to actively take a stance against the memo.
But students still feel there should be more action from the college administration. As a private institution, Muhlenberg College has the advantage to foster inclusivity and foster a more welcoming environment for all students.
“There is an important distinction between showing solidarity in support and making a plan for direct action,” said Mark.