Mr, Ms, Mx? Non-binary policies at universities gain traction

By Siena Morrell

November 20, 2015 was probably unremarkable for the majority of Durham University students. Perhaps summative stress was getting you down; perhaps you spent the day recovering from a Thursday night out; perhaps, like most Fridays, it merely melted into the weekend, unobserved.

But for some Durham students, November 20, 2015 was a significant date: Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international annual event launched in 1999 to commemorate victims of transphobic violence across the globe.

This year alone, transgender and gender-variant issues have achieved an unprecedented visibility thanks to historic LGBT+ legislation in the United Kingdom and the United States; and have been pushed further into the spotlight by pop culture icons such as Laverne Cox, star of Orange is the New Black, and love-her-or-hate-her Vanity Fair cover-star Caitlyn Jenner.

This year, too, the Women and Equalities Committee of the House of Commons announced a nationwide inquiry into outstanding issues for the trans community and will be considering how they can most effectively be addressed.

In recent years significant steps have been taken to ensure equality for trans people. The Gender Recognition Act of 2004 for the first time allowed trans people to be legally recognised in their new gender. And the Equality Act of 2010 made it illegal to discriminate against trans people.

Despite the significance of the Gender Recognition Act for affording trans individuals full recognition of their sex in law for all purposes, the only options for gender are ‘male’ and ‘female’.

So, what happens when individuals define themselves beyond the gender binary?

Understanding gender as a spectrum, rather than an either/or issue, requires distinguishing between sex and gender, as advocated most famously by Judith Butler, an American philosopher and gender theorist.

In her work, ‘Undoing Gender,’ Butler argues that gender is “doing, incessantly performed” – while a person’s sex is biological, determined by chromosomes and anatomy, gender is a performative construct determined by human interaction and societal standards.

For cisgender people – those whose self-identified gender agrees with the sex they were assigned at birth – the difficulties and inequalities faced by non-binary people are unimaginable.

President of Durham University LGBT+A, Joanna Gower, shed light on the day-to-day difficulties of being a non-binary individual at university:

“For a trans individual, going out for coffee, or even something as simple as going down to a college bar for a pint can become incredibly stressful and intimidating if there aren’t gender-neutral toilet facilities available for them to use.

“There are students at Durham who don’t drink anything when they’re out of their house for fear of having to use a toilet and having no gender-neutral ones available to them.”

The academic year 2014/15 saw the Students’ Union in Dunelm House reintroduce gender-neutral bathrooms, and further facilities designated as gender-neutral were introduced in both the Geography Department and Trevelyan College.

Commenting to Palatinate earlier this year, Phil Mullen, a Durham Pride trustee and Geography PhD student, said:

“Separate spaces for men and women reinforce a gender binary in which not everyone feels comfortable. Gender-neutral toilets can create a more inclusive and safer atmosphere for non-binary staff and students.”

Joanna Gower agreed, and emphasised the little effort required.

“Changing a toilet to gender-neutral is as simple as sticking a sign on the door, and is a cheaper option for new facilities being built as well.

“Even one gender-neutral toilet per building would be a good start – an outward display of unity and solidarity with trans students, who can so often feel erased at Durham, as well as offering a practical solution to a serious issue.

“For those who aren’t aware of or affected by trans issues, the change will be almost imperceptible. For those who are, it can give the reassurance to join in with their friends without having to worry as much, to go to lectures and colleges without having to pre-plan exit strategies, and can show that Durham truly is a place that is inclusive of everybody.”

Beyond gender-neutral loos, university policies at Durham and further afield are evolving to indicate acceptance of new ideas about gender identity.

Notably, at the universities of Exeter and Oxford, the title ‘Mx’ (pronounced ‘mux’, ‘mix’ or ‘mixter’) has been introduced, and the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) 2016 applications feature ‘Mx’ among the long list of titles available.

In a statement to Palatinate, Durham University said:

“We welcome the discussion and debate about gender-neutral toilets and we will be discussing the issue as well as the use of ‘Mx’ for transgender students at the Diversity and Equality Advisory Group (DEAG).”

On DUO, Durham University’s online student portal, students are able to write their own title in the ‘Personal Information’ section, but the options for gender are restricted to ‘Male’, ‘Female’ or ‘Not Disclosed’.

This disenfranchisement of students who identify as non-binary can contribute to the misconceptions and discriminations that genderqueer and transgender men and women suffer.

A 2014 survey undertaken by the National Union of Students of over 4,000 respondents reported that just two in ten trans students felt safe on campus, and one in three trans students had experienced some form of bullying or harassment whilst at university.

Such statistics are staggering, and highlight the importance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.

“Just because you haven’t met anyone who has told you they’re trans, it doesn’t mean trans students don’t exist, and their needs deserve to be fulfilled just as much as anyone else’s,” Joanna Gower concluded.

Though one anonymous student scoffed at the idea of having explicit university-wide gender-neutral policies, calling it “political correctness gone mad,” Durham University commented to Palatinate that they are “committed to creating and maintaining an environment that is inclusive and accessible.”

With the increased representation of trans and genderqueer people in mainstream popular culture, there has been a parallel improvement of trans consciousness in Britain.

As the average Brit is becoming more and more informed about the issues facing queer and trans people, we make progress ever closer to resolving social justice issues.

Perhaps, then, November 20 will be marked as a significant date on more Durham students’ calendars next year.

Illustration: Lara Salam

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