The Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Student Affairs held a “Community Conversation” event in the Powerhouse to discuss transgender issues that have recently affected both the nation and the college community on Wednesday, March 1.
The event resulted in a college-wide email from Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones on Monday, March 6 to affirm the college’s renewed and urgent commitment to transgender and gender nonconforming students.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion sent an email on Feb. 28 informing the community of the event, describing its goals as “understanding the recent news about the withdrawal of federal guidance on transgender students and building a network of resources and support.” On Feb. 22, President Donald Trump withdrew a federal mandate originally instituted by former president Barack Obama that required public schools to treat transgender students in accordance with their gender identity.
The discussion was facilitated by Professor of History Jen Manion. Around 30 students, as well as several administration and staff members, attended the event.
However, the conversation ended up focusing heavily on the experience of transgender students at the college.
During the dialogue, students talked about the administration’s shortcomings in fully accommodating transgender students and referenced recent campus events affecting the transgender community, including the controversial gender-based housing policy which Residential Life previously planned to implement and the hate vandalism against transgender people found in a gender-inclusive bathroom at Frost Library.
Manion, whose research specializes in the history of sexuality and gender, provided a broader context for the campus issues discussed. Because the transgender community has been more visible since the 1970s and 1980s, she said, it has been the target of backlash.
“Gender non-conforming and trans [people] are the most vulnerable,” Manion said.
Access to public accommodations like bathrooms, she said, is “about who gets to exist in public spaces and has a right to be there without harassment.”
In response to students who asked Dean of Students Alex Vasquez about the status of the hate vandalism investigation, he said that the college had not yet identified the perpetrator and that investigations into bias-related incidents of vandalism rarely result in the identification of the responsible party.
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones, Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffee, Women’s and Gender Center Director Jesse Beal and Queer Resource Center Director Angie Tissi-Gassoway also attended the conversation.
Throughout the course of the conversation, students expressed frustration with the administration’s current policies for inclusion and protection of trans students as well as a perceived lack of plans for the future.
Manion acknowledged the criticisms. “I feel the heaviness in this room,” she said.
Other students raised questions about college housing policy, which had been another recent topic of controversy among the student body.
The Office of Residential Life’s planned housing policy for the 2017-2018 school year would have designated all rooms on campus as either “male,” “female” or “coed.” Individual students and campus activist groups heavily criticized and challenged the policy after The Amherst Student reported on it in late February, leading to a quick administrative reversal of the policy.
Paula Peña ’19 asked Coffey why Student Housing Advisory Committee members were ignored when they expressed dissatisfaction with the new housing policy during the early stages of planning. Coffey responded that she wasn’t in enough direct communication with SHAC and did not hear their feedback.
Coffey said that she took full responsibility for the housing policy. As chief student affairs officer, Coffey oversees the Office of Residential Life.
“In that moment in the [Residential Life] policy, I failed the college,” Coffey said, adding that she should have paid closer attention to the changes made to the housing policy.
Some students also expressed frustration with the administration’s general method of forming policies, arguing that it only makes changes or advancements when students push and demand for them.
In response, Tissi-Gassoway acknowledged their criticism and noted that the vast majority of staff, faculty and administrators who create college policies are cisgender.
“That’s why we need trans and gender-nonconforming students to be part of conversations,” she said. “[We] need to have collaboration … without having the onus be on students.”
According to the email from Jones on March 6, the college will be creating new programs and accelerating the implementation of long-term plans to serve transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
The college is currently speeding up the process of designating gender-inclusive restrooms in campus buildings and residence halls, and plans to complete the process by the upcoming fall semester.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Human Resources will also begin offering new “Trans 101” trainings for college employees.
In an email interview, Jones said that the trainings will not be mandatory, but that he “feel[s] confident that demand will be high.”
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion is also looking to implement versions of this training in programming for first-year orientation, residence halls, athletics and other areas of campus life.
New employee trainings will be standardized “so that we reach a wider audience and bring people into our workforce with the understanding that queer and trans communities are important to us,” Jones said.
In the follow-up email to students and faculty, Jones wrote that students’ comments in the discussion “made clear the ways in which our community is unaware of and disconnected from the needs of trans and nonbinary students” and provided the impetus for the new programs and policies.