Straight ally advocates for gender identity protection
The fight for fully inclusive anti-discrimination policies at higher education institutions in Tennessee continues at the local level after the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) announced in April that it had revised its policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
But the Board’s policy change does not effect the policy at the schools themselves, even though one woman spent the past year trying to do just that.
The momentum for the TBR policy change began with Linda Brunton, a professor at Columbia State Community College in Columbia, Tenn.
Brunton, who teaches in the psychology department at Columbia State, has been with the college 27 years. She said it came to her attention in the summer of 2007 that applicants for teaching jobs were reviewing the non-discrimination policies of schools that they considered.
At that time, each school in the TBR system had a policy of non-discrimination against classes protected under federal law including race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability and veteran status. None of the schools included gender identity and only some of them included sexual orientation.
“I was embarrassed that I hadn’t paid attention to the policies and started to do something sooner,” Brunton said.
She first went to the Board of Regents. The board informed her that, because each school has its own non-discrimination policy, the decision to include gender identity or sexual orientation was a decision to be made by each school. There are 45 institutions within the TBR system.
Brunton then contacted the human resources departments of individual schools. If a school included sexual orientation in its policy, she asked about the process they undertook to make the change.
“I was naïve,” she said. “I thought it was an oversight and that once it was pointed out the changes would be made.”
She was surprised to learn that some of the human resource directors were not in favor of either policy revision, even at schools where sexual orientation was already included in the statement of non-discrimination. Reactions to her inquires varied greatly from school-to-school.One school was very positive about the discussion but a director at another was hostile, Brunton said.
“It is extremely disheartening,” she said.
Brunton met with groups at Columbia State to explain why she sought a revision of the policy.
“The majority of folks were positive,” Brunton says. The Faculty Senate and Diversity Committee of Columbia State recommended the change to the school. The professional staff and support staff were also in favor and students wrote letters of support, she said.
De’Marcus Jackson, a psychology instructor at Columbia State since 2006, was among faculty members who wrote letters to the administration supporting the policy change.
“I felt that the policy would help to move Columbia State forward with regard to diversity issues, and would demonstrate that the institution welcomed all people into its embrace,” Jackson said.
He said the environment at the Columbia State is extremely open and respectful of student and faculty diversity.
The initial response from the administration was that by expanding its policy, the school would open itself to greater liability. Jackson assisted Brunton with research of case law, which he said showed a policy change would actually help protect the institution.
“The legal research was very instrumental,” Jackson said.
The case law research led Brunton to Christine Sun, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) LGBT Project. Documents show that in September 2007, Sun sent a letter to Columbia State encouraging the school to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination statement.
In October that year the administration replied by letter that it “does not plan to revise the non-discrimination statement to delineate specific categories of individuals who are not protected classes under federal statutory law.” The administration also forwarded the letter to the legal counsel of the Board of Regents.
In February 2008, the general counsel for the board sent a letter to Sun notifying her that it had revised its policy to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Sun was the first to inform Brunton of the Board’s decision.
The TBR policy change did not mandate any policy changes for schools within the TBR system. Yet Brunton still hopes that the announcement will make it easier for schools to change their policies.
“Some schools will do what they’ve done in the past which is to say their language will reflect what federal and state laws say," Brunton said. "Other schools will make the change.”
Brunton admits that the labor she has put into the project for the past year has been exhaustive, but says that she will do what she can to help change to policies at Tennessee schools.
“The more I get to know her, the more I am impressed,” Jackson said of Brunton. “I’m very proud of her. I am proud to work alongside her.”