The Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity reached its goal this week of obtaining 1,000 signatures for a petition to have gender identity and expression included in the University of Richmond's nondiscrimination policy.
By obtaining signatures from approximately one-third of the student body, the members of SASD said they hoped to show that it was an issue of wide concern, and was not limited to the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender communities.
"The petition helps with people saying we want to take a look at this now, instead of whenever you get to it or whenever it gets on the list of things," said Valerie Wallen, the university's director of organizational learning and development. "The more the petition grows, the more the attention will grow."
Wallen works as a liaison between the Community Board for Gender and Sexual Diversity - which is composed of students, faculty and staff - and the members of SASD. Also partnering with SASD on the petition are students from the Women Involved in Living and Learning and UR Men 4 Change programs.
The petition strives to protect gender identity - the internal sense of one's gendered self - and gender expression - how a person's gender identity is communicated to others through behavior, clothing or other external characteristics.
"The purpose of the gender identity petition is to protect everybody on campus who doesn't fit into stereotypical gender norms," said Johanna Gehlbach, advertising manager for SASD. "You'd be surprised that it is a lot more people than normal. It's not just LGBT individuals - it's straight individuals, who just don't fit into your stereotypical guy/girl category. It's not about transgender or transsexual individuals - it's about everybody."
Since 1992, more than 147 universities, including the entire Ivy League, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, New York University and others, have added gender identity and expression to nondiscrimination clauses. If Richmond were to protect gender identity and expression, it would be the first university in Virginia to do so.
At Richmond, members of SASD have presented the change to organizations such as the Diversity Roundtable, Amnesty International, the Multicultural Student Union and the Black Student Alliance, as well as to Westhampton College Dean Juliette Landphair, Richmond College Dean Joe Boehman, Vice President for Student Development Steve Bisese and other administrators.
"In general the administration side is supportive," Wallen said. "They have to look at alumni constituencies, families and where this might all fit in that discussion and dialogue before they just go ahead and insert it in the clause."
The members of SASD work to reeducate the community about what sexuality means. The petition will not only help protect transgender people, but it will help raise awareness about gender issues, said Jon Henry, president of SASD.
"It's helping everyone," Henry said. "It helps transgender people a lot because when they fill out a form, it's just male or female. But there's so much more to it than that. In India there's the third sex, Native Americans recognize the third gender and in ancient Greece there used to be the idea of a third gender. It's just American Puritan ideas about sexuality that morphed this idea of there being only a binary in Western culture."
Wallen, who works within the hiring resources department, said adding protection for gender identity and expression could help recruit and retain a more diverse set of faculty, staff and students.
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"If it's not included then it's not a safe place for people who have different gender identities," Wallen said. "It's certainly not going to make somebody dress a way they don't want to. In fact, it will let people dress ways they want to. Which might be uncomfortable for some folks who really like to be able to look at someone and say they're dressed feminine or they're dressed masculine, because that's simpler in some ways."
Henry said there had already been incidents of discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression on campus. He said one female member of SASD, because she does not exhibit stereotypically feminine traits, had been refused access to the safety shuttle because the driver didn't believe she was a Westhampton College student.
If the nondiscrimination policy were amended, discrimination on the basis of amended, discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression would face the same consequences as that of racial, ethnic or sexual discrimination.
For faculty and staff, this would mean investigations and counseling by the human resources department; for students it would mean referral to the appropriate college dean, who would then decide on the course of action.
On Feb. 2, members of SASD took their fight for gender equality to the Virginia state Capitol, where they participated in lobbying senators to pass a nondiscrimination bill. According to Henry, former governor Tim Kaine made an executive order during his first hour of office that said the state would not discriminate against LGBT people. But because he is no longer in office, the executive order no longer stands, and it is now legal in Virginia to fire LGBT employees at any level of the state, including in schools. Henry said their lobby focused on passing a permanent law to protect LGBT people.
Gehlbach, Henry and about 20 other Richmond students, faculty and staff spent the day distributing material, meeting with interns and trying to persuade senators to vote for the bill.
"We ended up seeing one of Jon Henry's delegates," Gehlbach said, "and Jon's district is staunch Republican. So this guy is like 6 foot 4 inches - he's a big guy and he looks like an ex-cop. While he's on the more conservative side, he still listened to us, and that meant a lot to me. I'm from Vermont, so for me it was eye-opening. They just passed a gay marriage bill legislatively there, and down here this is the first time a nondiscrimination bill has passed the committee."
On campus, SASD holds events such as the National Day of Silence, National Coming Out Week, which featured a closet door in the forum, and speakers who focus on gender issues.
Although SASD has more than 1,000 signatures on the petition, its members will continue to collect more.
The group also plans on meeting with the Westhampton College Government Association and the Richmond College Student Government Association later during the month to formally present the petition.
SASD will conduct a general campus meeting at 5 p.m. on Feb. 16 to discuss the petition in Jepson Hall, room 120.
Contact staff writer Maria Ribas at email@example.com.
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