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Northwestern reaffirms commitment to protect transgender, non-binary community

Champions policies to keep diverse students, faculty and staff safe and free from discrimination

Despite recent efforts by the federal government to define a person’s gender as a biological fact determined at birth, Northwestern University is reiterating its unshakable commitment to policies that affirm gender identity and expression and prohibit any kind of discrimination against trans* and other members of the Northwestern community on that basis.

The Department of Health and Human Services is considering defining gender as male or female and unchangeable — and determined by the genitals a person is born with — the most drastic move yet to roll back Obama-era protections of transgender people under federal civil rights law. 

As part of the University’s ironclad commitment to diversity and inclusion, Northwestern officials have moved this fall with words and actions to demonstrate that University policies are very clear on these issues.

Northwestern has long been a leader in research delving into these issues, including work in the fields of gender and sexuality studies, as well as research into LGBTQIA+ health, behavior and well-being in adults and among youth. 

The University has broadly and repeatedly reaffirmed its values on and commitment to diversity and inclusion issues, and those values and protective policies will not change on the matter of how transgender and non-binary members of our community are treated, according to University officials.

“Northwestern University emphatically affirms and respects transgender and non-binary identities. But it goes beyond that,” said Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. “This University will protect members of our community with such identities to the fullest extent possible. 

“We will not discriminate or permit discrimination by any member of the community against any other on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” the President said. “This is non-negotiable for us, and is absolutely foundational to who we are as an inclusive University community.”

Sarah Wake, associate vice president for equity, underscored that commitment again in light of the Trump Administration’s recent policy consideration to define gender as the sex listed on a person’s original birth certificate. 

“Northwestern prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” Wake said. “That will not change, nor will the University’s commitment to creating a welcoming community for all of our students, faculty and staff.”

The Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion, established in 2015, continued its work this year on a broad range of issues meant to promote and protect diversity and inclusion on campus, as well as to assure Northwestern community members are living the values of the institution.

As part of that effort, and recognizing there is still work to be done, Northwestern announced this fall that a group of students, faculty, staff and alumni are meeting this academic year to explore ways to better and more fully support the success of genderqueer, non-binary and transgender students, faculty and staff at Northwestern.

The group is called the Gender Queer/Non-Binary/Transgender (GQNBT) Support Task Force, and it was asked by senior leadership to: 

  • Identify key challenges faced by genderqueer, non-binary, transgender and transitioning individuals at Northwestern 
  • Review existing data and information available about the genderqueer, non-binary and transgender population and their needs, and 
  • Submit a report on findings and recommendations to better support the success of genderqueer, non-binary and transgender individuals

Sponsors of the group are Provost Jonathan Holloway, Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin and Vice President and Chief Human Resource Officer Pam Beemer.

During the year ahead, the GQNBT Task Force will explore topics such as common spaces, bathrooms, safe spaces and gendered spaces; residential spaces, classroom issues, pronouns, training and education for faculty and group interactions; University resources, counseling and support, advocacy, student groups and staff groups; body and well-being services, health services and insurance, and names and identity issues, among others.

The Task Force is led by Héctor Carrillo, professor of sociology and gender & sexuality studies, and co-director of The Sexualities Project at Northwestern (SPAN), and by Sekile Nzinga-Johnson, director of the Women’s Center.

SPAN was created in 2010 following the establishment of an endowment at Northwestern intended to support research and education on “life sciences, biomedical sciences and social sciences as those fields relate to the study of human sexual orientation and human sexuality.” SPAN is a broad-ranging initiative that promotes research and education on sexuality, sexual orientation and health in social context. While anchored in social scientific frameworks, the initiative is intended to be broadly interdisciplinary.

In its eight years of existence, SPAN has funded faculty and graduate students conducting research on sexuality studies and LGBTQ issues in more than 37 programs and departments throughout the University. SPAN is regarded as a leader in sexuality studies nationally and internationally, in part because of its highly competitive postdoctoral fellowship program, the many SPAN-funded presentations that Northwestern graduate students deliver in scholarly conferences around the country and SPAN’s annual interdisciplinary workshop, which brings to Northwestern some of the most prestigious researchers in the field of sexuality studies.

Another group, the LGBTQ Ally Training Committee, chaired by JT Turner in Multicultural Student Affairs and Kate Harrington-Rosen in the Office of Equity, provides quarterly trainings for staff and faculty in partnership with the Learning and Organization Development in the Office of Human Resources.  

The Ally Training is designed to give Northwestern staff and faculty baseline knowledge to effectively support LGBTQ students and colleagues. Workshops are facilitated by trained staff volunteers and cover active allyship, terminology, data and statistics about LGBTQ student experiences, LGBTQ history and tools for creating inclusive and affirming spaces on campus. Training enrollment is consistently at capacity, and the Training Committee frequently receives requests for department-level offerings, which is an opportunity for future growth when resources allow.

Reacting to the forthcoming policy changes expected in Washington, D.C., Northwestern Professor Brian Mustanski, an LGBTQIA+ health expert, said the move, if it happens, would amount to “narrowly defining gender as a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” But, he warned, “Genitals, genes and brains don't perfectly line up for sex — and even less so for gender. Such a change is not medically accurate and likely will have no effect but to terrorize the transgender community.” 

Mustanski is director for Northwestern’s Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing (ISGMH), and a professor of medical social sciences in Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He specializes in the mental and behavioral health of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, with a focus on youth. ISGMH is the largest LGBTQ health and well-being research institute in the U.S.

In February 2017, during an earlier move by the Trump administration to rescind Obama-era protections for transgender and gender non-conforming students, Vice President for Student Affairs Telles-Irvin issued a message to the Northwestern community reaffirming the University’s commitment to those students.

“The Obama Administration guidance provided that schools should allow trans* students to participate in activities and access facilities, including bathrooms, consistent with their gender identity,” she said. “I want to reassure members of our community, especially those who are trans* and gender non-conforming, that our support for them remains strong and that Northwestern does not plan to change our current procedures or practices as a result of this recent action.”