Gender policy at Williams: (In)action speaks louder than words

In 2006, Williams College expanded its non-discrimination policy to include “gender expression” and “gender identity.” For many of us who care about the complicated issues surrounding gender, this progressive proclamation on the part of the College seemed like a bold first step toward making Williams a welcoming community for those who are transgendered, genderqueer or who find fault with the restrictive, heterosexist gender binary. Since the policy change, however, it is hard to see what actions have been taken to realize this dream of a welcoming community. As Justice John Gibson recognized in 1825, “there is no magic or inherent power in parchment and ink, to command respect and protect principles from violation.” We would like to see this non-discrimination policy implemented through gender-neutral bathrooms and a review of the expectation that roommates be of the same sex.

Though many dorm bathrooms are gender-neutral, major buildings such as Paresky, Schow and Sawyer have only single-sex bathrooms. Most people don’t think twice about which bathroom they use, but single-sex bathrooms create awkward situations for anyone whose gender is more complicated than can be represented by the labels “male” and “female.” For people whose gender identity conflicts with their biological sex, for example, choosing a bathroom can be incredibly stressful. There is no “correct” bathroom for someone who identifies as male but has a female body – he may be perceived as an intruder in the women’s restroom but recognized as female in the men’s bathroom.

People whose appearance is androgynous but do not identify as transgendered also face uncomfortable situations when people perceive them to be in the “wrong” bathroom, and anyone who is unsure of his/her gender identity does not need the constant pressure of choosing a gendered bathroom. In buildings such as Hopkins Hall and the Thompson Biology Laboratory (TBL), many bathrooms already have only one stall, making a transition to gender-neutral bathrooms in these buildings particularly easy. Simply taking down the male/female signs on these one-stall bathrooms can free transgendered, androgynous and questioning people from the stress of choosing a bathroom without inconveniencing people who are uncomfortable using the bathroom with someone of the “opposite” sex. Eventually, we would like to see the gendered labels removed from all bathrooms just as they have been removed from many dormitory bathrooms. As people become more comfortable with the idea of gender-neutral bathrooms, the Williams campus will become a more welcoming place for people with non-normative gender identities.

In addition to the separation of bathrooms, Williams students are not, under most circumstances, allowed to pick into a room with someone of the opposite sex. The separation of sexes in rooming situations is based on an assumption of heterosexuality and a well-defined gender binary. Given the complicated nature of sex/gender and the existence of queer sexualities, this general expectation of same-sex roommates is an oversimplification of people’s experience. The College does not, for example, ensure that two gay men will not end up in the same room, or that a queer first-year will not be placed with a same-sex roommate who is homophobic. In light of the complicated situations that already arise in roommate pairings, it is unnecessary to prohibit opposite-sex roommates during upper-class room draw. If two students believe they would be comfortable living together, the College should not consider them unfit to be roommates based on a difference in their anatomical sexes.

With bathrooms and roommates, we have been discussing topics that for most people seem deceptively simple, perhaps trivial. College policies concerning these commonplace features, if changed, could very well have a significant, positive impact on the community at-large. To reiterate what was said above, we need more than impassioned mission statements, anti-discrimination clauses and other rhetoric. There need to be concerted efforts, concrete steps taken to build community. Our hope is that by addressing the issues of gendered bathrooms and same-sex roommates, the College will progress toward a concrete realization of its affirming gender policy.

Raf Donelson ’09 is a philosophy and

political science double major from McKeesport, Penn. Joe Boivin ’09 is a biology and women’s and gender studies double major from East Lansing, Mich.