New anti-discrimination language is being added to the College of William and Mary’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to include a more comprehensive definition of gender identity and expression.
Meanwhile, state officials have rolled back policies banning discrimination based of sexual orientation.
Physics professor and Faculty Assembly President Eugene Tracy, along with history professor Leisa Meyer, initiated the change last spring. The policy already prohibited discrimination based on gender, sex and sexual orientation. It now provides the same protection to transsexual, transgendered and gender-neutral faculty and students.
“The problem was that because the evolving understanding of the meaning of the words sex and gender … it opened a gap in the protections in the stated non-discrimination language, leaving a certain group uncovered,” Tracy said.
Meyer added that the specific language clarifies the difference between “gender” and “sex” as legal terms.
“Sex … refers to what some might term ‘biological’ sex,” she said. “Gender refers to the way in which individuals understand themselves in relation to ‘male’ and/or ‘female,’ and ‘masculine’ and/or ‘feminine’ characteristics, expressions and identities.”
The clarification between “identity” and “expression” was also important to assembly members.
“An individual might have an identity but choose not to express it outwardly for a variety of reasons,” Meyer said. “So ‘identity’ and ‘expression’ are clearly distinct concepts.”
Some have questioned both the necessity and specificity of the change.
“I’ve gotten some questions … about why we don’t just say, ‘We don’t discriminate, period,’” Tracy said. “The response is, ‘Of course we do, based on SAT scores, talent, ability and so forth.’ So you can’t just say, ‘We don’t discriminate.’ You have to start parceling in what ways we don’t discriminate.”
College President Taylor Reveley believes the new policy is already recognized by the College.
“With or without this clarification, we do not, of course, discriminate at William and Mary on these grounds,” Reveley said. “We welcome people of all sorts. Nonetheless, I am quite willing to add the clarification requested by the Faculty Assembly and am now working on how to do it in a way that relates only to William and Mary, with no appearance of setting policy beyond the bounds of our campus.”
Meyer said the change makes it possible to move forward on extending health benefits to domestic partners.
In Richmond, however, the state’s discrimination policy has recently been rolled back to exclude protections based on sexual orientation.
On Feb. 5, Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell repealed an order signed into law by former Gov. Timothy Kaine that included sexual orientation in the state’s anti-discrimination policy.
“This order is in furtherance of the stated policy enacted by the General Assembly, and specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, political affiliation, or against otherwise qualified persons with disabilities,” the order reads.
Despite this, the governor’s office released a statement saying that the McDonnell administration supports equal opportunity in the workplace.
“The previous Executive Order on discrimination, minus the one addition previously found not to be in the Governor’s authority to make, has been in effect this entire time,” McDonnell spokeswoman Stacey Johnson wrote in the statement, according to The Washington Post. “Upon review of that Executive Order, the Administration determined that some changes needed to be made to ensure compliance with state law. Those changes have been made, and this has resulted in the issuance of a new Executive Order on the subject.”
McDonnell also recently discontinued a proposal to extend Virginia health insurance to “other qualified adults,” including the domestic partners of same-sex couples. The proposal was made last fall under the Kaine administration. The College, along with several other Virginia universities, supported the change because of concerns that competing universities would begin offering such extensions.
“In the university setting, this sort of insurance is important for faculty and staff recruiting and retention,” Reveley said. “Providing it has become common practice in the corporate and university world in the United States.”
“[The proposal is] a common-sense way for Virginia’s universities to compete with national peer universities and to meet a basic need of our faculty and staff,” Jeffrey Trammell, the first openly gay member of the College’s Board of Visitors, said.
However, because the College receives state funding, its policies are governed by Virginia law.
“To date … the state has not agreed to make the insurance available,” Reveley said. “Until that happens, we won’t have the ability to offer [health insurance] to domestic partners of university employees.”
Trammell believes such exclusion is both discriminatory and unnecessary.
“Experience in the corporate world and at other leading universities has shown that the best management practice is to prohibit such discrimination as unrelated to the ability of the individual to do his or her job well,” he said. “In my view, the sooner that this corporate ‘best practice’ is followed by our state government, the better for our universities.”
There is no set date for Reveley to announce the change. Both the faculty and student handbooks will be amended upon approval by the BOV.