Putting the Y in Ally

By Liz Massey, September 2016 Issue.

A Flagstaff Family YMCA manager has been honored by Northern Arizona University’s LGBTQIA Commission for her efforts in making the facility a safe and welcoming place for transgender and non-binary patrons.

Lindsey Combe, the facility’s operations director, received the commission’s Ally of the Year Award late in the spring semester. The award, which has been presented by the commission

Lindsey Combe, Flagstaff Family YMCA's operations director. Photo courtesy of Instagram.com.

since 2013, recognizes partners on and off campus who demonstrate support for NAU’s LGBTQIA community.

Combe was nominated for the award because of her handling of a request to change the signs on the two single-stall restrooms in the facility.

After a member communicated that they didn’t feel safe or comfortable in the Flagstaff Family YMCA because of the strict gender-exclusive labeling of the restrooms, Combe met with the individual’s parents, Joe and DeeAnn Wegwert, who are also members of the YMCA.

Joe, an associate professor at NAU, and DeeAnn, a community representative, provided Combe with insight on the best ways to update the signage, which included the suggestion to avoid using icons that emphasized the gender binary of male or female. This resulted in the creation of new signs bearing only a toilet icon and an wheelchair-accessible icon. The signs cost about $400 to have manufactured and installed, Combe said.

The Wegwerts were instrumental to expanding Combe’s understanding of the issues that trans and non-binary individuals face in gendered spaces such as public restrooms, she asserted.

“All staff at the Y want to be supportive, but we really didn’t have the language to begin the conversation. I said, ‘Please help me understand how to help you.’ Joe, in particular, and the NAU LGBTQIA group sat with me and helped me understand the language to use,” she said.

The Ally of the Year Award praised Combe’s prompt handling of the matter, and her willingness to find a solution that created a welcoming atmosphere at the facility.  According to Combe, the entire YMCA organization is dedicated to ensuring its members feel included and welcomed.

“The Y is for everyone,” she said. “It’s a community place where everyone should feel comfortable. We say ‘no one is turned away from the Y,’ mainly in terms of finances, but it’s so much more than a person’s ability to pay. [Inclusion is] so important to our culture.”

Combe noted that there was no general announcement about the signs on the restrooms, but that her staff has been trained to have educational conversations about why the change was made when members ask about it. Additionally, the Wegwerts have joined the YMCA’s board, and have sat in on staff meetings to answer questions about the change.

The changing rooms for the Flagstaff Family YMCA remain gendered spaces, although Combe said conversations were taking place at the national level of the organization on how to promote the safety and inclusion of trans or non-binary members. For now, she said that the LGBTQ members she’s interacted with were appreciative of the inclusive restrooms as a safe place to change into their workout gear.

The signs have generated mostly positive comments for the Flagstaff Family YMCA, with other local organizations seeking counsel from Combe about how to design inclusive restroom signage and implement a similar change.

Because Joe and DeeAnn are both members of the LGBTQIA Commission, the changes also attracted attention at the university, resulting in Combe’s nomination from the award.

Matthew Tombaugh, the immediate past chair of the commission, said that honoring the actions of people such as Combe through the ally award was significant, because allies are crucial to the advancement of LGBTQ equality.

“Much, if not all, of our work depends on the support of people who identify outside of the LGBTQIA community to move efforts forward,” Tombaugh said.

Combe said she was “humbled” by the award, which she was presented at the President’s Annual Diversity Awards.

“I hadn’t thought about being an ally much before this,” she said. “But I saw that something as simple as changing the bathroom signs meant so much to the people who are affected. It was such an easy change, but it showed me how much that segment of the community has struggled with this issue.”

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