Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

University policy covers gender identity and expression

Prejudice against transgender people takes many forms.

It may be reflected in something as simple as using the incorrect pronoun when referring to someone who looks like a man but identifies as a woman, or vice versa.

Or it may show itself in more subtle but discriminatory ways, such as denying an effeminate-looking man a job because he’s assumed to be weak or denying a masculine-looking female a promotion because she’s feared to be too aggressive.

Whatever the circumstance, such prejudice can lead to discrimination or harassment of transgender individuals. A prohibition of discrimination based on gender identity and expression has been written into University of Denver policy, joining existing protections for gender and sexual orientation.

“It gives people the freedom to dress and express themselves they way they identify themselves,” says Susan Lee, Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity director.

In November, the DU Board of Trustees adopted the addition to the University’s nondiscrimination policy. The policy change follows similar protections written into state law last year. While it is DU policy to always follow applicable state and federal nondiscrimination laws, campus diversity officials and advocates say it is nevertheless important for DU to explicitly recognize that protection and create a welcoming campus climate.

“Once you have a policy in place it’s easier to implement changes,” says Sarah Nickels, assistant director of the Center for Multicultural Excellence. “This is an important step toward inclusion of people of all gender identities and expressions.”

Kristie Seelman, who graduated from the Graduate School of Social Work last year, spearheaded the effort to change DU policy regarding transgender discrimination, based on research she had done as a student. She found colleges across the country were changing their nondiscrimination policies to protect the full spectrum of diversity of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

A broad coalition of campus groups came together under Seelman’s leadership to begin building support, researching similar policies and developing language that could be incorporated into DU’s existing nondiscrimination policy. DU administrators were receptive to the change, Seelman says, and forwarded it to the Board of Trustees last fall.

“I thought it was something that could move the University forward,” Seelman says.

Now that the policy is in place, transgender people and their allies would like to move the University further forward through additional education about gender diversity and other changes inclusive of transgender individuals.

K. R. Roberto, a librarian at Penrose and a member of the coalition of activists, says transgender individuals face discrimination based on appearance, stereotypes and workplace attitudes. Education, he says, could go a long way in reducing snide remarks, misuse of pronouns and misunderstandings people have about gender identity. Many people, he says, still equate transgender with gay.

Other steps the group would like to work toward, says Nickels, include installing more gender-neutral restrooms and housing options and expanding gender categories on University forms.

To report discrimination or harassment, contact the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity. For more information on gender identity and expression, contact the Center for Multicultural Excellence.

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