College dorms a new front in US battle over transgender rights

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College Dorms Join Battle Over Transgender Bathroom Rights

BOSTON, June 10 (Reuters) - As lawmakers across the United States battle over whether to allow transgender Americans to use public restrooms that match their gender identities, universities are scrambling to ensure that dorms meet federal standards.

At a time of year when the nation's 2,100 residential colleges and universities are sorting out student housing assignments, they also are poring over a May letter from the Obama administration that thrusts them into the national debate on transgender rights.

Known as the "dear colleague" letter, it makes clear that federal law protects transgender students' right to live in housing that reflects their gender identity.

Schools that fail to provide adequate housing to transgender students could face lawsuits or the loss of any federal funding they rely on.

RELATED: North Carolina transgender bathroom law, protests

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College dorms a new front in US battle over transgender rights
In this photo taken Thursday, May 12, 2016, signage is seen outside a restroom at 21c Museum Hotel in Durham, N.C. North Carolina is in a legal battle over a state law that requires transgender people to use the public restroom matching the sex on their birth certificate. The ADA-compliant bathroom signs were designed by artist Peregrine Honig. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Opponents of House Bill 2 protest across the street from the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, April 11, 2016 during a rally in support of the law that blocks rules allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
A police officer confronts a lady holding a sign at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, April 11, 2016, during a rally in support of a law that blocks rules allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
DURHAM, NC - MAY 10: The 'We Are Not This' slogan is posted at the entrances to Bull McCabes Irish Pub on May 10, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. Debate over transgender bathroom access spreads nationwide as the U.S. Department of Justice countersues North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory from enforcing the provisions of House Bill 2 (HB2) that dictate what bathrooms transgender individuals can use. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
Supporters gather at the North Carolina State Capitol in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, April 11, 2016, in support of House Bill 2, a law that blocks rules allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Opponents of House Bill 2 protest across the street from the State Capitol Building in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, April 11, 2016 during a rally in support of the law that blocks rules allowing transgender people to use the bathroom aligned with their gender identity. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Two protesters hold up signs against passage of legislation in North Carolina, which limits the bathroom options for transgender people, during a rally in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 31, 2016. The rally drew around 100 people at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center. (AP Photos/Skip Foreman)
Demonstrators protesting passage of legislation limiting bathroom access for transgender people stand in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center in Charlotte, N.C., Thursday, March 31, 2016. Approximately 100 people gathered for the rally, many chanting and carrying signs. (AP Photos/Skip Foreman)
FILE - In this March 30, 2016 file photo, Human Rights Campaign Executive Director Chad Griffin, center, speaks at a news conference at the old state Capitol Building in Raleigh, N.C. Griffin was among several LGBT leaders who headed to the state to join in protests and plot strategy for trying to overturn a new law limiting bathroom options for transgender people. Stung by setbacks related to their access to public restrooms, transgender Americans are taking steps to play a more prominent and vocal role in a nationwide campaign to curtail discrimination against them. (AP Photo/Gary Robertson, File)
People protest outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 24, 2016. North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory later signed the legislation, which dealt a blow to the LGBT movement after success with protections in cities across the country. (AP Photo/Emery P. Dalesio)
People protest outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 24, 2016. North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory later signed the legislation, which dealt a blow to the LGBT movement after success with protections in cities across the country. (AP Photo/Emery P. Dalesio)
North Carolina lawmakers gather on the House floor for a special session Wednesday, March 23, 2016 in Raleigh, N.C. to consider stopping a new Charlotte ordinance set to take effect April 1 that gives protections to transgender people to use the restroom of their gender identity. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
This March 10, 2015 photo shows a PayPal sign outside of the main entrance to an office building in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Elaine Martin, right, listens as Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality NC, speaks during a press conference to announce filing of federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina's HB 2 law at the LGBT Center of Raleigh on Monday, March 28, 2016. Several different advocacy groups and some of the lead plaintiffs spoke at the event. (Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
Joaquin Carcano, center, the lead plaintiff in the case, speaks during a press conference to announce filing of federal lawsuit challenging North Carolina's HB 2 law at the LGBT Center of Raleigh on Monday, March 28, 2016. Several different advocacy groups and some of the lead plaintiffs spoke at the event. Joaquin was born a woman and is now a man. Simone Bell with Lambda Law is at left; Chris Brook with the ACLU is at right. (Chris Seward/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS via Getty Images)
TO GO AFP STORY BY BRIGITTE DUSSEAU - Transgender delegates Jamie Shier (L) and Janice Covington pose for photographs at the Convention Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, on September 4, 2012. The Democratic National Convention Committee announced Wednesday that US President Barack Obama would move his acceptance speech from the outdoor Bank of America Stadium to the indoor Time Warner Cable Arena due to predictions of thunderstorms. AFP PHOTO / Mladen ANTONOV (Photo credit should read BRIGITTE DUSSEAU/AFP/GettyImages)
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Although hundreds of universities had begun to offer gender-inclusive housing in response to student demand in recent years, many are now reviewing or expediting their plans so they can provide the option to incoming students for the first time this fall.

The policies are intended not only to accommodate transgender students, university officials say, but to help siblings, gay students who want to live with straight friends of the opposite gender or simply groups comfortable with mixed-gender housing.

The May letter from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice invoked Title IX, the 1972 law prohibiting gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds.

"Title IX and the 'dear colleague' letters make all of us, all institutions, more accountable for students who may be on the margins," said Darryl Holloman, dean of students at Georgia State University, which offered gender-inclusive housing options for the first time in the 2015-2016 academic year.

'ONLY A MATTER OF TIME'

There are no official U.S. statistics on the number of colleges that offer gender-inclusive housing, although a count by Campus Pride, a non-profit that focuses on supporting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in U.S. higher education, found it could be as low as one in 10.

The author of that study, Genny Beemyn, director of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's Stonewall Center, acknowledged the count, which shows just 203 universities, may underestimate the number of schools that offer gender-inclusive housing.

"More and more schools are grappling with it," Beemyn said. "It's only a matter of time until this becomes a much bigger issue."

Universities in the Northeast and along the West Coast have been quickest to allow gender-inclusive housing, with those in the South and religiously affiliated schools least likely to do so, according to observers, including Demoya Gordon, transgender rights project attorney with Lambda Legal, an LGBT rights advocacy group.

The Association of College and University Housing Officers-International has seen an increase in the number of questions it gets about transgender housing, said spokesman James Baumann.

"It is certainly something that has gained momentum," Baumann said. "When I first started 10 years ago the questions was, 'Should we?' And now the question is, 'How can we?'"

The same letter that has universities examining their transgender housing policies sparked a broader fight by telling U.S. public grammar and high schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that reflect their gender identities.

Thirteen U.S. states joined a lawsuit accusing the Obama administration of overreaching, attempting to add transgender protections to a 1972 law that never mentioned the subject.

LESS OPPOSITION

The university moves have been less controversial in part because the population affected is one of the segments of society most comfortable with transgender issues.

Some 57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds told a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken April 14 through May 3 that they believed people should use public restrooms that match the gender with which they identify. That is a far higher percentage than the 40 percent of Americans of all ages who held that view. The poll included responses from 6,723 people and has a credibility interval of 1.4 percentage points.

Few students are choosing gender-inclusive housing. At Georgia Tech's Atlanta campus, 42 out of some 4,100 students housed in dorms sought it last year.

When Johns Hopkins University first offered it in the 2014-2015 academic year, 30 out of some 2,500 students enrolled, a number that doubled to 60 the following year.

"There are certainly some transgender students for whom it matters a lot but if it's a gay man whose best friend is a lesbian and they decide they want to live together, this is an option," said Demere Woolway, director of LGBTQ life at the Baltimore university.

College officials interviewed also emphasized they have no plans to phase out traditional gender-segregated housing.

"We have students ... who want to maintain spaces where they are with people who have the same gender identity," said Elizabeth Lee Agosto, senior associate dean of student affairs at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, which has offered gender-inclusive housing since 2007. "It's important to have the full spectrum."

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