Article Written by Brieanah Gouveia
For Dr. Todd Peppers, a professor at Roanoke, state legislation that would prevent transgender people from using certain bathrooms impacts him in a personal way.
“As a parent of a transgender child and someone who thinks hard and cares deeply about good public policy, I was appalled,” he said. “That type of legislation is either based on ignorance or hate. It doesn’t surprise me, it saddens me.”
The legislation, HB 1612, formally titled the Physical Privacy Act, which would have prohibited people from entering a restroom designated for use by members of the opposite sex, died in the Virginia House of Delegates on Jan. 19.
Still this legislation and the political debate surrounding gender identity and autonomy has led some students, faculty, and staff at Roanoke College to quietly spearhead initiatives in response.
HB 1612 was created as a reaction to the perceived risk that bathroom desegregation practices around the country pose. Specifically, that the right to choose to use facilities appropriate to one’s gender identity, rather than biological sex, runs the risk of sexual predators gaining access to bathrooms of the opposite sex. However, there is no empirical data that this activity is even an issue for the general public.
In actuality, current statistical evidence shows that more transgender people have been victims of assault or harassment in restroom settings, than cisgender people have been harmed by transgender men or women in such spaces.
For example, the William’s Institute of UCLA’s School of Law’s 2008 survey on transgender victimization in bathrooms provides compelling conclusions in support of this. According to their findings, eight people of the 93 surveyed admitted to being physically assaulted, one of which specified sexual assault, and 63 of the transgender men and women admitted to being verbally harassed.
Nevertheless, to combat this potentially endangering activity, VA legislatures stipulated in the Physical Privacy Act that government entities must provide separate bathrooms for the two opposite sexes, otherwise face the consequences of civil suits filed against them. To this extent, HB 1612 shared many similarities with North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, which was signed into law on March 23, 2016.
Not so similarly however, a unique provision of the Physical Privacy Act made this bill appear even more egregious and alarming to concerned Virginia constituents, like Peppers.
According to the policy summary documented on the website for Virginia’s Legislative Information System, HB 1612 would have required that “the principal of a public school notify within 24 hours the parent or guardian of a child attending such school if the child requests to be recognized or treated as the opposite sex, to use a name or pronoun inconsistent with the child’s sex, or to use a restroom or other facility designated for the opposite sex.”
In response, Peppers stated that “deputizing school administrators to spy on our children and report back” was nonsensical, adding that “the implication is that we have defined a child using another pronoun as something wrong.”
While HB 1612 would not have affected private Virginia institutions like Roanoke College, students and family members of the college community would have been impacted in other aspects of their lives. The mere presence of this bill on the VA legislature’s agenda led Peppers to say: “I’d like to ask people like Bob Marshall, have you ever met a transgender person? Spoken with one, about their issues?”
Yet, Peppers managed to find a silver-lining in this passing storm. “Maybe the silver-lining in the current political environment is that people are becoming more vocal and more active and more vigilant…and how can that be anything but a good thing – that more people are invested in their government,” he said.
Meanwhile an informal group of Roanoke faculty, staff, and students have formed a coalition called LEAG, which stands for LGBT Education and Advocacy Group. According to Juliet Lowery, director of Multicultural Affairs at Roanoke, the group has been working since 2014 to adopt policy changes and make Roanoke more welcoming to students who identify as being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
LEAG has specifically taken on the task of getting more gender neutral bathrooms constructed around campus, as well as increasing signage for those that already exist, such as the unisex bathroom on the 2nd floor of West Hall.
Jennifer Berenson, associate dean of Academic Affairs & Administration, added that the group would like for transgender individuals “to see a sign as [they] enter each building, indicating where the gender neutral bathrooms are.”
According to Lowery, the project is set to be complete by the fall and “the availability of the facilities will be noted on [Roanoke’s] website and campus maps.” In addition to these bathroom initiatives, she also said OMA and Residence Life are leading a task force to find a building and spaces for transgender students.
Presently, the exact number of non-cisgender students attending Roanoke is unknown, but Lowery said the college’s numbers have increased over the past five years. She said, “It is not a mandate that colleges/universities offer more options related to sexual orientation and gender identity,” while filling out admissions applications.
“But this kind of information would assist Roanoke in keeping records on admissions, retention and graduation. It [would] also demonstrate our commitment to being ‘inclusive’ for all,” she said.
Peppers expressed his support of the pro-LGBTQ+ projects and movements sweeping across Roanoke’s campus, and spoke of the value in such community activism. While reflecting back on his own expertise in constitutional law and experience as counsel in civil disputes, Peppers came to a conclusion.
“My son is one of the bravest people I know, because he’s being true to himself while knowing that the path he’s going to go down will be harder than if he hid who he was, or pretended to be cisgender,” Peppers said. “It takes courage and strength…My son has educated me.”