Jesse Howie, a UNC Charlotte junior, is an articulate, involved student with a silver nose ring and hair color that’s apt to change from week to week. Howie, whose birth certificate says female, is also a transgender student who declines to be identified as male or female, preferring the gender-neutral pronoun “they.”
Few people would call UNCC a radical hotbed. It’s no Berkeley or Oberlin, not as liberal as Chapel Hill. But Howie, who grew up in Charlotte, has found the school supportive of LGBT students. “I have never felt discriminated against for being trans,” Howie says.
While North Carolina’s House Bill 2 puts new restrictions on transgender people, requiring them to use public restrooms matching the sex on their birth certificates, an opposite trend flourishes on many college campuses: They’re broadening support for students like Howie.
On a growing number of U.S. campuses, including UNCC, students can indicate their gender identity by choosing a preferred pronoun. Many campuses, including Duke University and Davidson, Guilford and Warren Wilson colleges, offer gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral housing, where students of different genders can room together.
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At least two national fraternities now accept transgender men, and since 2014, the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals has offered a list of best practices for supporting LGBT students that covers everything from school records to fraternities and sororities.
HB2’s bathroom provision has put N.C. campus leaders in a bind, legal experts say, because they’re supposed to follow federal nondiscrimination policies that protect transgender students. UNC System President Margaret Spellings has said the law won’t change the system’s nondiscrimination policy covering sexual orientation and gender identity and that she won’t tolerate discrimination or harassment. But it’s still unclear how the bathroom law will play out on public campuses.
One thing, however, is clear: There’s a cultural gulf – a vast one – between HB2 supporters and college communities. On many campuses, students see gender as a social construct, not a biological one. And they regard nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as a basic human right.
UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Bradley Opere sums it up like this: “For every student who walks on this campus, we take you how you are. We’d like Carolina to be a home for everyone.”
Students believe in equality
LGBT students make up on average 10 percent of national college enrollment, according to Karen Shaffer, UNCC’s assistant vice chancellor and director of student activities. That percentage may be much higher at campuses seen as LGBT-friendly.
Campus climates for LGBT students still vary widely. In 2014, a security officer detained and questioned transgender Central Piedmont Community College student Andraya Williams, as she left a women’s restroom on campus. In March of this year, The Atlantic wrote about conservative Christian colleges with policies forbidding same-sex behavior.
Large public universities and selective private colleges, especially those outside the South, tend to be the most progressive, says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a Charlotte-based national nonprofit that works to create a safer college environment for LGBT students.
Often, those schools are responding to students who already hold strong beliefs about LGBT equality when they enroll. They’ve grown up knowing people with different sexual orientations or gender identities.
At Chapel Hill, when first-year students arrive, there’s not much educating to do, UNC’s Opere says: “It’s more of a cultural thing that’s already there.”
But being a college student who’s gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, still comes with risks of violence and harassment. LGBT students, especially trans students and youths of color, suffer higher depression rates than straight students. And while transgender people are a small percentage of the U.S. population – only about 0.3 percent, according to some estimates – national surveys show that 41 percent of transgender or gender non-conforming adults have reported a suicide attempt, compared with 4.6 percent of the overall U.S. population.
In 2010, a University of Rutgers student killed himself after learning his roommate had used a webcam to spy on him having sex with another man. And in 2015, many at UNCC mourned the suicide of 18-year-old Blake Brockington, a transgender activist who’d been a student at the university. The tragedy “made everyone ask what more could we do,” UNCC’s Shaffer says.
Gender as continuum
North Carolina’s House Bill 2, passed by the Republican-dominated General Assembly, nullified a Charlotte ordinance that gave transgender individuals the right to use the bathroom matching their gender identity.
HB2 supporters have called Charlotte’s ordinance radical. They say HB2 is a safety measure – a common-sense privacy law, according to Gov. Pat McCrory – that keeps predatory men out of women’s restrooms. One assumption underlying their reasoning: Gender is binary. You’re either male or female, as decreed by what’s on your birth certificate.
Many experts disagree, arguing that gender is a continuum influenced by multiple factors, including hormones, anatomy, chromosomes and feelings. Even genitalia aren’t as boy-girl as most of us have been taught. The Intersex Society of America says that in 1 in 1,500 to 2,000 births, genitalia are so atypical that a sex differentiation specialist is consulted.
As co-editor of the 2010 book “Toilet: Public Restrooms and the Politics of Sharing,” New York University sociologist Harvey Molotch has studied these gender issues and how they relate to the evolution of bathroom etiquette and regulation. Over the past century, he says, in much of society – occupations, for instance – gender has become less binary. “The last bastion is the public restroom,” Molotch says. The fight to restrict transgender restroom use, he believes, comes out of “a desperate anxiety” to preserve traditional gender definitions.
N.C. Values Coalition Executive Director Tami Fitzgerald, an HB2 supporter, declined to comment for this story.
A chill in the climate
Jesse Howie began identifying as a lesbian in ninth grade, but by the end of high school, that identity didn’t fit. After a lot of Internet research, what felt best was the term transgender, but neither male nor female. “Genders need not apply to my body,” the sociology major jokes.
UNCC has no multi-stall gender-neutral restrooms. It’s continuing to add single-stall unisex restrooms, though many buildings lack them. But implicit in UNCC’s nondiscrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity, is that transgender people can use the restroom that matches their identity.
Howie chooses a women’s bathroom when necessary, but it doesn’t feel right. Neither does a men’s restroom. In Howie’s perfect world, all restrooms would be gender-neutral, and people would understand that “there’s not only two genders.”
Howie was distraught when HB2 was passed. Many on N.C. campuses are similarly upset. There have been protests. The UNC Association of Student Governments, which includes student leaders from every university campus, passed a resolution calling HB2 “reprehensible.”
The association’s president, Zack King, is an N.C. State senior from Louisburg. He’s also bisexual. He says the N.C. political climate might be friendlier to transgender people if legislators and the governor got know some trans people. “There’s just a lack of education on this issue,” he says.
Legal experts say HB2 conflicts with Title VII and Title IX, federal nondiscrimination rules that have been interpreted to cover transgender public employees and students. UNC law professor Maxine Eichner believes federal law preempts the state’s bathroom law. But faced with the choice between federal sanctions that could cost campuses federal money and reprisals from state legislators who control university budgets, she says, “I wouldn’t want to be in university administration making these calls.”
If transgender people use campus restrooms that match their gender identity and someone complains, it’s unclear what would happen. UNC system President Spellings has noted that the law carries no enforcement provisions.
She has also made clear her displeasure with the law, saying it sends a chill throughout the system. It’s prompting alumni to rescind donations and affecting staff and student recruitment. Legislative leaders have said they’re open to hearing the system’s concerns when they reconvene April 25. “We plan to take full advantage of that opportunity,” she says.
Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271