Most students would agree that Yale’s nondiscrimination policy is fairly complete: Sex, race, color, religion, age, disability, status as a veteran and sexual orientation cover just about everyone, don’t they? Well, not quite everyone. Despite a growing push among universities and state governments nationwide, Yale has yet to adopt language that would specifically protect transgender students, faculty and staff from discrimination.
A large part of Yale’s reticence in this area no doubt stems from a lack of familiarity with the issue. Few students have regular contact with people who are transgender, i.e. people whose gender does not match the sex they were born with. Moreover, the categories that need to be added to the policy — gender identity and gender expression — can come across as just another fragment of PC-speak. Let me try to remedy this in a couple sentences. Gender identity means the way people identify as female, male or something else. Gender expression means the way people present themselves in terms of gender — whether through speech, behavior, clothing or other means.
The important thing to remember is that these categories are distinct from biological sex, and thus remain unprotected by the nondiscrimination policy. There is no institutional recourse for, say, a biologically male student whose professor takes issue with her decision to live, speak and dress as a woman. Nor is there for a dining hall worker who is harassed and denied promotions as a result of a gender transition. These are not mere hypotheticals, but actual incidents that have recently occurred at Yale.
An updated policy would help provide a more welcoming and supportive environment for transgender students. Under the current policy, housing assignments can be a humiliating ordeal, especially for trans students who have not undergone the medical procedures necessary for a legal sex change. Instead of living with supportive friends, such students may be forced to take medical singles so as not to conflict with the University’s policy against co-ed housing. A medical single is no doubt appropriate for some transgender students during a difficult transitional period in their lives, but it’s simply unfair to prevent other trans students from enjoying the same housing options as everyone else. A trans-friendly policy need not invalidate the current housing system. Rather, housing authorities could meet with individual trans students to discuss solutions on a case-by-case basis.
The expansion of our nondiscrimination policy would additionally benefit Yale as an institution. With Ivy admissions as cutthroat as ever, Yale should be doing all it can to lure top students from every background, and as recent improvements to financial aid show, the University brass are actively aware of this. Adopting a trans-friendly policy of nondiscrimination is an important next step Yale can take to enhance the quality and diversity of its admittee pool.
To see why, consider the case of Wesleyan University. Despite having an undergraduate body half the size of Yale’s, Wesleyan is home to dozens of openly transgender students, whereas the number at Yale could probably be counted on one hand. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; Wesleyan has historically been known for its tolerant social environment, an environment no doubt bolstered by its early adoption of trans-friendly policies. Given Yalies’ lack of exposure to transgender issues, the social scene here is far less comfortable. A trans student offered admission to both universities might very well forgo Yale for a place he feels comfortable being himself. When qualified transgender students go elsewhere, the Yale community loses access to the voice of an entire segment of society, and our intellectual life suffers in the same way it would if, for example, all Baptist or Pakistani students decided to attend other universities.
Our university has come a long way from the racial, sexual and economic homogeneity of its past. To ensure that this growth continues, Yale must expand its nondiscrimination policy to protect transgender people. But our chance to be a leader in this area is slipping fast: 52 universities, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the University of Iowa, have already adopted trans-friendly nondiscrimination policies, and Harvard University, which just last week announced major financial aid improvements, can’t be far behind. The time for Yale to act is now.
Jacob First is a junior in Calhoun College. He is a member of the Queer Political Action Committee.