U.S.

Diversity U. Makes a U-Turn

Wesleyan
12/13/13
In the Magazine
US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) addresses the graduating class at the Wesleyan University commencement exercise in Middletown, Connecticut May 25, 2008. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

"Why is there a boy in here?"

That's one of the nicer comments Bryce, a senior at Wesleyan University who identifies as "gender nonconforming," hears in the women's bathrooms on campus. In the men's room, she's heard "Wrong bathroom, fag!" and threats to call campus security. Her peers have even threatened to beat her up.

Bryce and other trans students at Wesleyan - trans serving here as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from the sex they were assigned at birth - told Newsweek they often won't use the bathroom if they can't locate one of the school's "all-gender," single-use facilities. More than one said they experience panic attacks from the stress.

According to 2011's National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 78 percent of trans Americans suffered severe harassment in childhood and 41 percent have attempted suicide, as opposed to 1.6 percent of the general population. Even something as seemingly innocuous as a trip to the bathroom can be traumatic: 70 percent of trans respondents in a recent Washington, D.C.-based survey said they had experienced verbal harassment, assault, and had been denied access to public restrooms. Fifty-four percent reported physical problems from trying to avoid using public restrooms, including dehydration, kidney infections and urinary tract infections, and 58 percent said they avoided going out in public due to a lack of safe public restroom facilities.

Wesleyan, an elite liberal arts college often dubbed "Diversity University," has long appealed to burgeoning activists; the students there have been fighting to eliminate gendered bathrooms on campus for more than a decade. But that's not the only reason hundreds of Wesleyan alumni joined together last week to support three trans student activists who were penalized for removing signage - they call it "degendering" - from bathrooms in the main student center.

They're concerned the decision is indicative of a culture shift on campus that deters marginalized students from speaking out. "For Wesleyan to perpetuate this type of discrimination is abhorrent and not in line with the values that were ingrained in us as students: social justice, inclusivity, community," former students wrote in an open letter signed by alumni from across the world. "This is not an isolated incident, but rather must be understood within the context of the increasing conservativeness on campus, in admissions, administration and faculty.... We are concerned about the current and future climate of a place we once held so dear."

Last October, a group of students using the pseudonym Pissed Off Trans People uploaded PDFs of "All Gender Restroom" signs, along with a manifesto, to MediaFire; their goal, they told campus blog Wesleying, was to spark a grassroots degendering movement. That's what happened: Dozens of bathroom signs across campus reading "Men" and "Women" were torn down or pasted over with paper signs declaring the space accessible to all, "regardless of gender identity or expression."

Although more than 200 signs were downloaded, only three trans students - the administration claimed they were the only perpetrators they could identify - were charged with property destruction by the Student Judicial Board. According to Sophie, a junior who was first to be summoned, they were originally ordered to pay a collective fine of $5,245 - $157 per sign, "plus additional unexplained fees." (The students asked to be identified by first name due to fear of retaliation.)

After a four-and-a-half hour hearing, the board lowered the fine to $451 and gave each student three disciplinary points (10 earns a suspension or dismissal). "The SJB action was taken because vandalism occurred," Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Whaley said in a statement. "The board does not strive to determine the legitimacy of a protest/action, only whether such protest/action is done in a manner that violates our community's standards."

The three students tell Newsweek they feel they were unfairly singled out for actions committed by many but were most concerned with the symbolism of it all: This was the first time anyone knows of that the administration had punished individuals for LGBT activism.

"We're talking about economic sanctions on activism at a school that profits off a reputation of being a progressive, activist-friendly space," says Ben, a Wesleyan junior. "Being trans and fighting for trans justice is not profitable or shiny or appealing."

Founded by community service-minded Methodists in 1831, Wesleyan has a longstanding reputation as a prestigious yet progressive university, the best of both worlds for eccentric overachievers unimpressed with the Ivy League. In 2002, Mother Jones awarded Wesleyan its No. 1 ranking for campus activism; two years earlier, The New York Times described a clothing-optional dorm as the ideal setting for "a time traveler who wanted to find a place where the ethos of the 1960s still flowered."

Over the past decade, students, alumni, and professors have stressed the importance of "Keeping Wesleyan Weird" despite what they see as institutional attempts to attract well-off students who might one day become wealthy donors. According to university data, more than 20 percent of the class of 2012 went on to careers in Arts and Entertainment; as one 2011 graduate who worked in the fund-raising department quipped, "hipsters don't give back money" - at least not the type of big bucks the school wants.

In 2003, the school banned sidewalk chalking, a popular form of free - and often vulgar - speech on colleges across the country. Many saw this as ominous; an alum referenced Wesleyan's proud history of political activism and diversity, wondering, If we can't protect free speech at a place like Wesleyan, what can we expect for civil liberties in America at large?

A 2007 Hartford Courant article interviewed some "high-achieving iconoclasts, left-leaning mavericks and brilliant bohemians" who were worried that the administration was trying to make the school less quirky to compete with more conservative liberal arts colleges. "If I were a white-bread, middle-of-the-road moderate with few opinions, I would not have applied here," one sophomore complained. "Wesleyan is extreme. Wesleyan is opinionated. Wesleyan is unique."

Last year, Wesleyan ended its "need-blind" admissions policy due to what University President Michael Roth said was financial necessity - and what many say is the last and most troubling straw. The university proposed the controversial move twice before, once in 1982 and again in 1991, but both times student activists successfully fought to preserve the program.

"This is merely the first time in recent Wesleyan history that students have permitted the decision to go forward," Wesleying noted last year. "Whether that reflects on the state of activism at Wes or the dire state of university finances today-well, you debate."

Not all alumni have fond memories of campus activism. One 2000 graduate remembers a peer shouting, "Divest from the military penis!" through a bullhorn during an anti-defense industry protest and a hunger strike for a professor who was denied tenure. "A hunger strike. Over tenure. Yes, that is Wesleyan in a nutshell," he wrote in an email to Newsweek. A 2004 grad who said she was "super annoyed by all the protests" during her time there recalled people eating fries during hunger strikes. In 2008, a conservative columnist for the Wesleyan Argus fretted over Wesleyan's inability "to sell itself as a purveyor of an apolitical, high-quality educational experience," referencing his work for the Red & Black Society, a calling program that raises money from alumni and parents. He urged the school to get over its "obsessive phobia of Ivy League culture" so as not to alienate "prospective students who may want to acquire deep pockets before going out and trying to save the world."

But others are nostalgic for the more radical Wesleyan - including, ironically, the school itself, which encourages alumni to give back via its This Is Why campaign by reminding them how the college "taught us not only to fight for the causes we believe in but how to win them" and how "the freedom-the challenge-to make our own paths would be overwhelming to some."

Roth praised This Is Why in a Wesleyan Argus article last month announcing that endowment had gone up 12 percent, thanks in part to the campaign, which had raised $308 million of its overall goal of $400 million, including cash donations from 46 percent of the university's alumni, totaling $42 million.

However, Vice President for Finance and Administration John Meerts said the endowment was still lower than it was before the 2008 recession - which means getting more is more important than honoring Wesleyan's progressive past.

"They're talking about 'changing the status quo' and fighting for change, but actually making decisions that reveal the exact opposite," says Mica Taliaferro, a 2012 graduate.

Many Wesleyan students, faculty, and even some alumni see this tension between a radical past and a financially insecure present being played out in the battle to squelch a few trans students caught papering over bathroom signs.

Trans rights for students of all ages are becoming a hot topic across the country. This year, Colorado determined that a school district discriminated against a transgender elementary schooler when it would not allow her to use the girl's restroom, and the federal government decreed that a California school district must treat transgender students equally. Campus Pride, a nonprofit for LGBT students, recently released a list of the top 25 LGBT Friendly Colleges and Universities of 2013; Wesleyan didn't make the cut.

Given that similarly minded colleges like Oberlin and Hampshire, as well as larger colleges like San Diego State and Columbia, have taken significant steps to make bathrooms accessible to all genders, it's frustrating that Wesleyan doesn't want to spearhead change, says Una Osato, a 2004 graduate who helped write the alumni open letter. "Why isn't Wesleyan at the forefront?"

Wesleyan spokesperson Kate Carslisle says the school "has always been committed to the ideals of social justice and the idea of having an impact on your community" but that the school is also "committed to making sure that all visitors and members of our community feel safe and comfortable." Plus, she says, the university must adhere to building codes that require multiple-use restrooms to be separated by gender. Currently, 58 of Wesleyan's 67 academic and administrative buildings have at least one single-use "all-gender" restroom.

Dru Levasseur, transgender rights project director at Lamda Legal, the nation's oldest and largest legal organization working for LGBT civil rights, says studies dispel the myth that gender-segregated bathrooms are more dangerous and that the building code claim is an oft-heard excuse that, in reality, is easy to work around. "Lots of schools are changing their bathroom policies to address trans students needs," Levasseur says. "There is no law that I know of that would prevent a school from making bathrooms accessible."

Carslisle says Dean Whaley has proposed changes, including signs on single-use restrooms that make it clear they are available for any gender identity and a website page that clearly indicates which restrooms on campus are gender-neutral, single-use facilities. But students and alumni says the administration often makes vague promises but doesn't deliver.

"The deans say they're supportive, but they continue to not actually do anything and then severely reprimand us when we actually take direct action to improve the daily lives of trans students on campus," Ben says. "We keep hearing that the campus 'just isn't ready' for all-gender bathrooms."

Zach Strassburger, a trans 2006 Wesleyan alumni who helped establish the school's first gender-neutral dorm, has heard that before. "When is Wesleyan going to be ready?" Strassberger says. "How much longer will it take? Wesleyan gets a lot of attention and students for its reputation as diversity university, but in the end, it's a neoliberal institution that needs to sustain itself by retaining a semblance of normalcy."

"If Wesleyan keeps treating student activists this way," Osato says, "they'll end up on the wrong side of history."

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