When a student approached the Diversity and Equal Opportunity (DEO) office in Fall 2010 with concerns about her transition from male to female, she received emails back stating the DEO was constrained to attempt informal resolution as USF is not bound by the laws or ordinances of the City of Tampa or Hillsborough County to protect gender identity.
Over the years, the DEO also received complaints from employees who had been sent home and asked to change their clothes after appearing at work in non-gender conforming attire.
Again, the DEO was constrained, because USFs non-discrimination policy only protected race, color, marital status, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age and genetic information.
But at the suggestion of Associate Vice President of the DEO Ted Williams, the presidents committees for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (CISOGI), Title IX and Womens Status collaborated to draft new language in early April that will amend USFs non-discrimination policy.
Williams, who said he grew up in the era of Jim Crow laws, said he understands firsthand the need to protect all people.
My passion is to do the best that I can to ensure that equality of opportunity is a reality at USF, he said. If any segment of the community is being denied that, that is unacceptable.
With the presidents approval of the policy last month, gender identity, which is protected by the city of Tampa and, as of December 2011, the federal government via an Eleventh Circuit Court ruling, will now be protected at USF.
For the next six weeks, the policy will be promulgated through Student Government, the Faculty Senate, the Council of Deans and other USF bodies.
For the wheels of bureaucracy to turn that quickly, I think its pretty good, CISOGI chairman Mark Hafen said.
Hafen said the committees put in months of research into changing the policy and found that little change was required.
We had seen, for example, USF aspires to become part of the American Association of Universities, the AAU, he said. Twenty-eight of those 34 schools have protections, outright, in their non-discrimination clause for gender identity and expression, as do quite a few of our peers and aspirational peer institutions.
While there was no overt pushback to the policys introduction, Williams said restroom usage was brought up as a subtextual concern that continues to echo through the sphere of conversation.
Some were concerned allowing transitioning individuals access to restrooms matching their identities could infringe on the rights of the existing users, Williams said.
But Hafen said the issue is not that big of a deal.
We already have, for example, restrooms that are separate for family access or handicap access, he said. Part of it is just making sure people are aware of where they are. It doesnt have to be this huge cost thing.
Williams said while no one would be forced to use any particular bathroom, all parties need to be taken into account.
Im not one given to legislate human behavior, he said. Comfort zones would dictate that. The rights of everybody must be protected. Whose rights outweighs the others rights? Im not in the position to make those judgement calls. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of one. But everyone has a right to come here and file a complaint.
After the policy is amended, gender identity will be added to USFs diversity trainings and non-discrimination brochures.
Once this policy gets out there, you might see a little resistance, Hafen said. There are people within the population of the university that may not be on board with this. Its not a matter of punishing them or anything, but its about making them aware about what USFs doing and how they need to comply with it. Thats going to take awhile. Everybody isnt going to say Oh, this is the policy. Im okay with it.
Hafen said as a whole, however, USF is inclusive of diversity.
I think USF is better than the community at large, he said. I think once you get outside the boundaries of the city of Tampa, it changes drastically in terms of diversity inclusion. The city of Tampa, overall, is pretty accepting, but as a community, I think USF is far above the rest of the community.
Williams said he encourages anyone who perceives discrimination against them to file a complaint with the DEO, because the DEO only learns of discrimination through the complaints it receives.
The DEO keeps track of all the complaints it receives, including ones from those who could not initially be protected by the non-discrimination policy.
This represents the inexorable progress USF is making towards embracing equality of opportunity for all of its community members, Williams said. Sometimes the wheels of progress turn a little slower than others, but the wheels are turning. Not a voice goes unheard.