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December 8, 2016

Creating More Inclusive Community College Environments for Transgender Students

Community colleges offer open access to affordable academic and workforce training programs. It is critical that these community institutions are inclusive to all, including transgender students.

GLAD first learned about barriers faced by transgender students at Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in Massachusetts from Colby Patrie, who is studying art at the school.

“The facilities policy caused confusion, fear, and shame on campus,” says Colby. “I really felt it needed to change, both to eliminate the inconvenience, and to let transgender students know that the school respects and values us.”

The school did not allow students to use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity – and with no gender-neutral bathrooms on the classroom side of campus, students often had to choose between going to the bathroom and going to class.Their other option was using a bathroom where they felt uncomfortable or unsafe.

“The facilities policy caused confusion, fear, and shame on campus,” says Colby. “I really felt it needed to change, both to eliminate the inconvenience, and to let transgender students know that the school respects and values us.”

GLAD worked with Colby to secure a change in this policy, bringing NECC in line with state and federal law, and creating a more inclusive educational environment for transgender students. GLAD’s demand letter to NECC read in part, “NECC’s current policy is out of step with virtually every other entity in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts…[including] elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, employers, landlords…hospitals, gyms, homeless shelters and swimming pools.”

NECC’s discriminatory policy was far out of step with other public institutions in Massachusetts, particularly educational institutions, and violated state public accommodations law and federal law. We’re happy with the new facilities policy, and with the steps the school has made toward a better policy on biographical data.
- GLAD attorney Polly Crozier

Another policy of the college required that transgender students could only use their chosen names and gender in college records by providing the school with a certified court order reflecting a legal name change or a legal change of gender, also in violation of state and federal law. Since GLAD’s intervention, the school has agreed to the use of chosen names in school records.

“NECC’s discriminatory policy was far out of step with other public institutions in Massachusetts, particularly educational institutions, and violated state public accommodations law and federal law,” says GLAD attorney Polly Crozier. “We’re happy with the new facilities policy, and with the steps the school has made toward a better policy on biographical data. We will continue to advocate with them on that issue so that NECC can provide a truly supportive learning environment for all its students.”

Q & A about Community Colleges and Inclusion of Transgender Students

What was the problem?

Northern Essex Community College, and other community colleges in the Massachusetts system, had a bathroom and locker room policy that prevented many transgender men from using the men’s restrooms and many transgender women from using the women’s restroom. The policy limited student access to facilities based on the student’s records. Since the standard for revising the gender marker in student records could not be met by some transgender students, the standard created a barrier for many students to use shared facilities. 

Massachusetts has fifteen community colleges, and they offer open access to affordable academic programs aimed at preparing individuals for the workforce, college-level study and lifelong learning. It is critical that these community institutions are inclusive to all.

Why does it matter?

The discriminatory facilities policy harmed transgender students in many ways, most notably by limiting their use of school facilities and creating harmful and stigmatizing barriers. An educational environment must include all students, and this policy sent a clear message to the college community that transgender students are different than others and not worthy of respect and inclusion. 

Did this policy violate the law?

Yes. NECC’s facilities policy violated the Commonwealth’s public accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in “any place…which is open to and accepts or solicits the patronage of the general public.” Because NECC receives federal funding, the policy also violated Title IX, which provides that “no person…shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal assistance.”

What is the new policy?

Transgender students are now permitted to use restrooms throughout Massachusetts community college campuses based on their gender identity. 

How did this issue arise?

Colby Patrie, a transgender student at NECC and also President of NECC’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance, reached out to GLAD after meeting with school administrators about his experience on campus trying to access the correct bathroom and make it to class on time, and to feel safe doing so. Colby was also able to share data he gathered from the LGBTQ community at NECC. His advocacy was key to the change at NECC.  

What about student records?

Although GLAD got involved because of the discriminatory facilities policy, we also raised concerns about the student records policy, which allowed transgender students to use their chosen names and gender in college records only by providing the school with a certified court order reflecting a legal name change or a legal change of gender.

What is the student records policy now?

The school will now update internal college records to reflect a student’s chosen name and will update a gender marker with legal identification (i.e. driver’s license, passport, social security card) showing a gender change or a court order. These records policies should enable students to update their student records with ease, but if you encounter any barriers in a community college, please contact GLAD at GLAD Answers. We want to hear from you.

What if I need legal assistance to update my name or gender marker on my state or federal documents?

Transgender people living in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island or Vermont) seeking to update their legal name and gender on federal and state documents can receive free legal representation through the GLAD Pop Up ID project, a rapid-response program in collaboration with Ropes & Gray and MTPC.