Board of Regents grants transgender protection

The UW System Board of Regents added transgendered individuals to the list of those protected by the UW System’s nondiscrimination policy at its meeting Friday, said Kimberly Barrett, vice chancellor for Student Development and Diversity.

The change will add the phrase “gender identity or expression” to documents addressing the System’s nondiscrimination policy. The existing policy protects individuals from harassment or employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color, creed, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry or age.

Senior Jessica Janiuk, a transgender student and chair of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender affairs for Student Senate’s Student Life and Diversity commission, said she spoke to the Board of Regents in December about her experiences. Both Janiuk and Barrett said the addition met with little resistance from the Regents.

“(Some) did have a look of surprise when I said there were no legal protections,” Janiuk said.

“In the moments that followed the presentation … they started immediately taking up the cause of adding gender identity and expression to the nondiscrimination cause.”

“Gender identity” refers to a person’s sense of identity as a man, woman or a combination of both or neither, according to a press release from the United Council of UW Students. “Gender expression” refers to the external presentation or appearance of a person’s gender.

As a result of the change, UW-Eau Claire’s Student Development and Diversity office will begin considering a range of issues for transgendered students including housing, gender-neutral bathrooms, health services and recreation, said Jodi Thesing-Ritter, associate dean for Student Development.

Janiuk said these issues can have the most impact for transgendered individuals during the transition phase.

“Early in your transition, you don’t know where to go to be safe,” Janiuk said. “There was one point where I was actually standing outside the male and female restrooms, looking back and forth, not knowing which one to go into.

“I feared for my physical safety to go into the men’s restroom … but legally in the state of Wisconsin, if I had gone into the women’s bathroom I could have been arrested,” she said.

Barrett, a member of the UW System’s Inclusivity Initiative committee, said making the protection an official part of System policy will aid in recruitment and retention of students and faculty.

“As the UW System tries to create excellence across the board … excellence includes being able to get the best and the brightest, no matter what groups they belong to,” Barrett said.

“Everybody has to feel welcome and (that) they would be valued in our system.”

Janiuk said her own experiences with harassment and employment discrimination have motivated her to speak out, despite the risk.

“I was very welcomed here on campus,” she said. “I was just worried that in other situations other students might not be. Just because I have been lucky does not mean other people will.”

The University of California and the University of Minnesota also explicitly include transgender individuals in their nondiscrimination policies, according to United Council.

“Transgender is a concept that’s coming into its own, and I think it’s going to become more prominent in the next couple of decades,” Janiuk said.

“It’s going to be an issue eventually, and its better that we handle it before we run into these problems later.”