On February 22, 2017, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued a Dear Colleague Letter that rescinded protections for transgender students at all levels of federally-funded institutions.

The guidance issued in this letter reverses the guidance of the Obama Administration’s May 13, 2016 Dear Colleague Letter. The May guidance intended to clarify that under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities from schools that receive federal funding, the term ‘sex’ included a student’s gender identity. While the letter laid out several areas of guidance, the one garnering the most attention was that which stated a student must be able to access bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.

Rescinding protections from an already at-risk population seems a step backwards for our campuses and, by extension, impedes NIRSA’s vision of building healthy people and healthy communities. Our Association recognizes this decision as standing contrary to our values, particularly Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. NIRSA also values its history and maintains a commitment to the intentionality behind its founding principles of diversity and inclusion; there is a sense of irony that this guidance was issued on our association’s 67th anniversary.

NIRSA stands up for the health and wellbeing of all students

While many states have indicated they will maintain or even continue to evolve the measures they’d put into place to protect transgender students since the May 2016 guidance, other states may choose a different path. Regardless, we as NIRSA members will continue to stand up for our values and for the health and wellbeing of all the students of our campus communities. We applaud the member institutions who have already taken up efforts towards inclusive practices for the trans* community.

I have every confidence in each of our member’s abilities to proceed this way. In 2014, NIRSA pioneered the creation of an inclusive transgender participation policy for athletic competitions with its “NIRSA Championship Series Transgender Athlete Participation Policy.” Through the adoption of this policy, NIRSA updated the guidelines that govern its tournaments to empower students to participate in intramural and club sports divisions based on their gender identity.

Putting this policy into practice involved extended and thorough conversations and research, contributions of best practices and philosophies, and steadfastly prioritizing the wellbeing of our students despite any of the natural challenges involved in implementing new or evolved policy. From coast to coast, NIRSA members rose to the challenge.

NIRSA is working to support members in their efforts to pursue social justice

If living our values was easy, we wouldn’t need thought-leaders to help us revise policy. We wouldn’t need to reexamine and update our programming and facilities. We wouldn’t need to evolve our staff training. And we wouldn’t have to worry about confronting pushback—direct or indirect—from peers, community members, campus officials, or even policy makers.

However, we are an association of professionals who have continually proven capable of pushing the needle forward. As indicated in a 2015 Recreational Sports Journal research study by Erin Patchett and Jason Foster, the importance of inclusive facilities and programs for transgender users helps not only build a genuinely and inclusively welcoming culture in our recreation centers but also helps our departments actively contribute and even lead in our campus’ student-centered and inclusive missions.

At least two sessions dealt with the transgender student population directly at the NIRSA 2017 Annual Conference—“Gender-Inclusive Practices–including NIRSA’s Transgender Athlete Participation Guidelines–within Campus Recreation,” lead presenter Kim Rottet, and “Finding Common Ground: Religion, Faith, and LGBTQ Inclusion,” lead presenter Wendy Motch-Ellis—and presentation materials from these sessions can be accessed through the NIRSA 2017 Annual Conference Connect community’s library  or through contacting the lead presenters for more information.

In addition, while NIRSA’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Commission continues to work towards their interactive identity wheel and the tiered modular resources to come out of their November Summit, they are also actively compiling a growing collection of social justice resources. These include an explanation of the resources’ specific applicability to campus recreation in assisting those looking for immediate tools and ideas in this, and all, social justice areas.

  • For more information, contact NIRSA Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships Erin O’Sullivan.

Pam Watts is Executive Director of NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, headquartered in Corvallis, Oregon. Pam is a Certified Association Executive and she can be reached at Pam.Watts@nirsa.org