Why Gender-Neutral? So that we actually respect trans and non-binary students

Rebecca M Hickman

cw// deadnaming, gender policing and invalidation

Yesterday marked the launch of CUSU LGBT+’s new campaign: Why Gender-Neutral. The purpose of this campaign is to draw attention to the unnecessary gendering of life and facilities within the University of Cambridge, and to forcefully argue that these things should be de-gendered. That means gender-neutral bathrooms, gender-neutral dress-codes, and gender-neutral admin.

Students and staff will likely already be aware of the argument for gender-neutral bathrooms. This is now a familiar political issue in many parts of the world, and has become, in a strange way, a defining question of contemporary gender politics. Our objective is simple; for all bathrooms in the University, including in every college and faculty, to be de-gendered.

Trans and non-binary students persistently run into the problem of which toilet to use. For some, especially non-binary people, the male/female choice is essentially a no-option scenario, whilst even those trans people whose gender identity aligns with one of the two binary options live in constant fear of having their gender vetted or challenged by others.

Additionally, trans people who experience menstruation but who are more comfortable/less uncomfortable using the men’s bathroom are faced with the practical issue that most men’s bathrooms lack sanitary facilities. In this way, what should be a basic human function becomes for many students a minefield.

We believe that the best way to rectify this issue is to de-gender bathrooms altogether, and to have a simple ‘Toilets’ or ‘WC’ label accompanied by a ‘Stalls only’ or ‘Stalls and Urinals’ indicator. Every stall should have a sanitary bin. The opinion of trans and non-binary students is clear: in CUSU LGBT+’s 2017-18 Survey, 95.2% of them supported the introduction of gender-neutral toilets across the University, and 84.8% said the current provision is insufficient.

Another issue is dress-codes. Almost a quarter of trans and non-binary students report having decided against attending a formal or other function at college because there were simply no dress options they felt comfortable with. Many colleges have paid lip-service to the gender-neutral ethos by removing any mention of gender in their codes, but have kept the binary either/or option. This does not fix the problem. Colleges need to provide more flexibility beyond the suit/dress dichotomy. The point is to look smart, not to climb into one of two predefined boxes for an evening.

Finally, we believe that the University’s admin should be made gender-neutral. Forms, letters, and information systems such as CamSIS are littered with gendered terminology such as ‘Sir/Madam’ or ‘his/her’. Aside from being grammatically unnecessary, this is actively exclusionary towards those who identify outside of the gender binary and/or do not use ‘he/him/his’ or ‘she/her/hers’ pronouns. Language like ‘To whom it may concern’ and the singular ‘they’ or ‘them’ would be far more inclusive in letters and emails, whilst forms need to recognize the diversity of gender identities by having an open box instead of a multiple-choice selection. Having a ‘Preferred pronouns’ field in every form would also be a gigantic step forward!

On the subject of admin, the current process for changing names, gender markers and other personal information within the University’s systems is far too complex. Our own guide to doing this contains five rather chunky steps, and even then a student cannot guarantee that incorrect names, pronouns and gender-markers will not appear somewhere. Being ‘dead-named’ out of the blue is never pleasant. Administrators in the University need first to recognize the problem, and then address it by adopting standardized protocols. Ideally, there should be a designated member of staff or office (most obviously the Student Registry) that students can contact to help them change their information across the board, rather than dealing with it on a piecemeal basis.

Taken together, CUSU LGBT+ believes that these changes would vastly improve the lives of trans and non-binary students in Cambridge. With some careful thought and application, in fact, we could make this the best place in the world to be an LGBT+ student.

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