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UNE Becomes a More Gender Inclusive Campus

Catherine Bonner, Opinion Editor

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I had the opportunity to sit down with some of UNE’s faculty and students to discuss the gender inclusive changes that were made in campus dorms and bathrooms. This progressive step towards acceptance and opening the doors to diversity really shapes the core values of the University of New England.

Richard Anderson-Martinez, the director of Intercultural Student Engagement here at UNE, explained how these changes were first introduced to the UNE community. “The Maine Human Rights Act was passed a few years ago and the most recent version added sexual orientation and identity. In January of this year they issued guidelines of what that means. They delivered a set of guidelines that explained what we needed to do as a university and even though University of New England is private, we still have to abide by state laws,” he then continues, “the United States Department of Education and their office of civil rights released what we call ‘Dear Colleague’ letters, and so every couple of years they give us a new one about Title Nine. Title Nine is a gender equity law that came into play in the 1970s as an amendment to the higher education act and basically what it allowed was men and women originally to play sports on a level playing field.”

Richard Anderson-Martinez did note that these changes for housing did circulate years prior. “When it comes to housing; two or three years ago the discussion was on the table and I use to work in housing and our intern for the summer, one of his projects was to research other schools like us and find out if they were gender inclusive or gender neutral housing. This is a topic that has been discussed for 15 or so years, multiple universities that have very similar policies, every UMaine public school, this was already a thing, same with Bates and Bowdoin and in some ways we were playing catch-up, but we wanted to make sure we were doing it in a way that made sense for us and our students and not just copy someone else.”

Grace Harvey who is the president of the Alliance Organization here at UNE expands upon the benefits of these changes, “It just makes it more inclusive, which was the goal and makes it so people who are not conforming can also feel like they are validated in knowing that they can use the bathroom or live with who they want. Because of a change in who they are, because they realize who they are; who they want to be and then they can’t live with their roommates anymore, that would be very difficult, because you become friends with those people and suddenly you can’t live with them, because you have changed, so I think this gender inclusive housing just makes sense.”

“A lot of people may find it contentious, but it just seems so matter-of-fact for me. This is a person, yes, they are different, but they’re still going to go here.” Anderson-Martinez states, “If a student wants to pay to go here and meets all the academic requirements, then they should be able to go here.”

A total of 57 bathrooms between both Biddeford and Portland campuses had the signs changed to label that bathroom as gender-neutral. “We didn’t change much, as it relates to restrooms, we took inventory of the facilities of every single occupancy bathroom on both campuses, here in Biddeford and Portland. And then anything that was just meant for one person, we went through and changed all the signage, so that it was similar,” Anderson-Martinez explains.

“The idea of gender over time has become more of a social construct and there has been more and more court precedent at lower levels, that says discrimination against gender identity is similar to discrimination against sex,” Anderson-Martinez continues,  “We weren’t looking to do anything political or to make a big splash, I do think that sometimes people look to universities to set that trend, so there are schools across the country that made changes like this 10 years ago. There are repercussions sometimes, when states decide to enact laws opposite that.”

“We haven’t received any negative feedback. I’m sure there is somewhere online, but I don’t go searching for negativity” He explained when asked about the University receiving any backlash, he continued with “There hasn’t been any backlash from the university [either], everyone all the way up to president Ripich had time to review the proposals and sign off on them. And that was really nice to know that it wasn’t just ‘I said we were going to do this’ the fact that there was this institutional commitment to making those changes real. We did receive a phone call from one family member who was concerned, because they had read something out of context on Facebook, which happens with the internet, so they just called to clarify shared use of showers, which isn’t something that was effected at all and certainly something we were not encouraging.”

Grace Harvey also explained how the first response from people was primarily confusion, “I think mostly people were just confused, like ‘What does this mean, what does this mean for me; for everyone else?’ But I think what really helped was the website they have about inclusive changes and the frequently asked questions on there, I think is a great place for anyone to go and it really brings the conversation to light for people.” And you can go onto the UNE website and find all this information about the changes under Gender Inclusion.

This is a big part in equality and allowing basic campus life needs to be accessible to all people, regardless of who they are. Richard Anderson-Martinez states, “It was an opportunity that we had in order to make sure we were following laws, but also to make sure that we were opening up the campus to more people.”

 

UNE’s press release about the Gender Inclusive Restrooms can be found here.

For more information the UNE Housing Office is located on East first floor and can be reached at 207-602-2272

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