The University of Richmond Board of Trustees will vote Thursday, April 21 on whether the university will adopt gender identity and gender expression into its non-discrimination policy. An affirmative vote would make Richmond only the third private college or university in Virginia to do so, behind Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. and Virginia International University, located near Washington, D.C.
Ken Cuccinelli, attorney general of Virginia, last March ordered presidents of any of Virginia’s public colleges and universities who had adopted policies to prevent discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation,” “gender identity” or “gender expression” to remove those policies from their list of non-discrimination categories.
Jon Henry, junior and president of the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity (SASD), has been involved in the push for this change to the non-discrimination policy from the beginning.
Henry said SASD members had met with different faculty and administrative groups on campus to get support and had also gotten signatures of endorsement from approximately a third of the student body.
“This past fall the president was like, ‘Here are these signatures, all these people endorse it—what are you going to do about it?’,” Henry said
Henry worked almost exclusively to develop a 13-page proposal for how the change to the non-discrimination policy would be implemented.
“We consulted with other schools off campus and we also consulted with other organizations,” Henry said. “We were pretty thorough and pretty in-depth with the research.”
The non-discrimination policy for the University of Richmond, as stated on the University’s website, reads: “The University of Richmond prohibits discrimination and harassment against applicants, students, faculty or staff on the basis of race, religion, national or ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability, status as a veteran or any classification protected by local, state or federal law.” This decision, if passed by the board, would add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to the list.
Johanna Gehlbach, a junior member of SASD, said, “The fact that the LGBT community can go from being virtually non-existent to having a petition go through to the board of trustees—that’s crazy.”
Cuccinelli’s letter explained that, for public colleges and universities, it was the decision of the Virginia General Assembly whether to allow changes to the non-discrimination policy.
“The Virginia Human Rights Act states that it is the policy of the Commonwealth to ‘safeguard all individuals within the Commonwealth from unlawful discrimination … in places of public accommodation, including educational institutions’,” Cuccinelli wrote. “In addition to this affirmative statement, the General Assembly has on numerous occasions considered and rejected creating a protected class defined by “sexual orientation,” “gender identity” or “gender expression.”
As a private university, Richmond doesn’t fall subject to the laws or regulations of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Glyn Hughes, director of the Common Ground, said his main role in the discussion was to figure out how to handle the changes to the policy in a concrete way. “What we were thinking about,” Hughes said, “was how we could deal with different scenarios.
“We’re pretty confident that we can do that—whether it comes to housing requests or wanting to switch from Richmond to Westhampton College—we could handle those and we would just do it on a case-by-case basis and have a commitment to making sure that those requests were met with no hassle.”
Gehlbach said the majority of complaints she had heard about the policy were more about the specific changes than the overall idea.“When we were tabling in the Commons,” Gehlbach said, “there were kids asking, ‘What does this mean? What would this do?’ … People are more worried individually about, ‘How is this going to affect me?’
“But that’s what we’re here for. We’re here to let them know what’s going on.”
Henry said he thought the change would affect admissions and the number of LGBT students who would consider Richmond in their college search. He said he hoped the board would pass the change.
“It’s basically been student-prompted, student-organized and student-researched,” Henry said. “Overall, we’ve led the push.”
Gehlbach said she was a little worried.
“I’m hopeful about it but I really don’t know,” Gehlbach said. “It’s scary. If it does pass, there will be a party. If it doesn’t, there will be a protest.”