2016-09-02 / Community

All gender restrooms a reality at UNE, USM

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The University of New England has changed its housing policy to allow for students identifying as different genders to room together. The move was recommended by the Gender Inclusion Committee, created last year by the Division of Student Affairs.

“We view gender across the spectrum, not just male or female,” said Director of Intercultural Student Engagement Richard Anderson-Martinez.

Additionally, the university has designated all 57 individual occupancy restrooms across its campuses as “all-gender” restrooms. Anderson-Martinez said the policy changes are consistent with guidance the school received from the Maine Human Rights Commission. The U.S. Department of Education also sent the school a letter regarding amendments to Title IX that protect transgender and other gender-identifying students from discrimination. Title IX, passed by U.S. Congress in 1972, is a federal law that prohibits federally funded schools from discriminating on the basis of sex.

“Both of those provided us with the legal impetus to move forward,” Anderson-Martinez said. “All multiple occupancy restrooms are still the way they were before.”

The change of single occupancy restrooms to “all-gender” rooms is really only a matter of semantics, Anderson- Martinez said, because most of them were already available for anyone’s use, but the labels and signs on the rooms were not consistent across campuses. Some may have been gendered, and some were labeled as “unisex” or “gender neutral.”

“This gives them common language,” Anderson-Martinez said. “It certainly falls under the idea of universal design, so multiple people can use the space.”

Allowing students across gender identifications to be roommates however, was a bigger policy consideration for the university. Anderson-Martinez said the Office of Housing and Residential and Commuter Life had been reviewing the policy for several years.

“It’s definitely a big conversation within the housing (office),” he said. “In essence, we’re giving students more opportunities.”

In a gender inclusive shared living arrangement, all roommates have to be approved by each other.

“It’s a big step in the sense that we’re moving to a place where students do have those opportunities and live on campus and feel comfortable without having to explain their gender identity or out themselves just to live on campus,” Anderson-Martinez said. “Students have been asking for this for a while.”

Although there are no official bans, Anderson-Martinez said the university strongly recommends that students in romantic relationships not live together.

“It’s just complicated and it does bring up a lot of things students just aren’t prepared for,” he said. “The focus we want them to have is on their classes.”

University of New England is not the first Maine college to offer general inclusive housing options. According to Dan Demeritt, executive director of public affairs for the University of Maine System, “the option has been available per request at many of our campuses for several years,” including at the Universty of Maine (Orono), University of Maine at Farmington, University of Maine at Presque Isle, University of Southern Maine and University of Maine at Machias.

Demeritt said at Presque Isle, students may sign a cohabitation agreement that states if their relationship fails, they both have to leave the room assigned to them.

“Almost all of our co-habitation agreements involve couples, but we do have one situation where a female is living with a male and they’re not a couple,” he added. “They really deal with these situations on a case-by-case basis.”

Anderson-Martinez said higher education institutions have evolved much since the days of gender segregated colleges and gender segregated dormitories.

“Basically, the function of higher education at that time was to be a substitute for parents, or for universities to babysit young people,” he said. “Now we value them as adults and give them the freedom and recognize it’s their time to develop. Education has taken a new trajectory from the past.”

As for the restrooms, it will take a few months for the “all-gender” signs to be placed on all the doors, but in the meantime, students will find temporary signs with information at each restroom, explaining the school’s new policy.

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