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Speaking out: GRCC's policy supporting transgender students creates safe learning environment

Beau VanSolkema

Grand Rapids Community College should be praised, not criticized, for working hard to protect the civil rights of all its students, including its transgender population, writes Beau VanSolkema, the president of GRCC's  LGBTQQA+ organization.
This article is part of Rapid Growth's Rapid Blog series, which highlights the voices of leaders making positive change in Grand Rapids. This week's post comes from Beau VanSolkema, the president of StandOUT, Grand Rapids Community College’s  LGBTQQA+ organization.

Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) has awarded me my most cherished opportunities and milestones. In April of this year, I was the first in my family to receive a college degree. I was also recently awarded The 2016 Women’s Salute Award, an honor given on behalf of the Bob and Alecia Woodrick Center for Equity and Inclusion. I was chosen out of 18,000 students and presented with this award thanks to my volunteerism and mentorship in our community.

As a proud student and community member, I was recently outraged upon hearing GRCC Trustee Richard Stewart’s 10-minute opposition statement against the transgender equal opportunity policy that the college worked diligently with transgender students to implement about a year and a half ago, well before President Barack Obama’s administration issued a directive that transgender students’ civil rights be protected. As part of these guidelines, it is stressed that transgender students have the right to use the bathroom aligning with their gender identity. I was devastated to think someone publicly elected to serve the college I hold so close to my heart and had so much trust in would make these statements.

I want to stress: Stewart is a publicly elected official, not an employee of GRCC. He’s a trustee of an institution that aligns itself with Grand Rapids’ civil rights policy, as well as reflects how we as a society are embracing differences among individuals. As a population, we are changing our views of race, sexuality, gender, disabilities, and age. Stewart’s statements do not represent these ideals.

At a GRCC Board of Trustees retreat on Wednesday, Sept. 21, which followed Stewart's remarks, five of the seven trustees once again expressed support for the school's transgender equal opportunity policy, which was implemented in August 2015 and updated this past February. This progressive policy marked a precedent of safety and equality, with which students and community members can expect to be treated. It protects a growing number of students and staff who hold a trans identity. This policy has been monumental in that it allows students to use their preferred name and pronouns on many campus documents. However, there are some documents (such as financial aid) that must remain an individual’s name on their birth certificate for legal purposes.

Other institutions, like Grand Valley State University, have similar transgender and name/pronoun policies. I learned recently that GVSU has the largest trans spectrum population compared to any other university or college with more than 250 students in the United States. They share many of their students with Grand Rapids Community College through transfer agreements or concurrent enrollment. I am honored to attend both GRCC and Grand Valley State University to pursue my Bachelor’s degree in social work, as well as a Master’s degree with a license for therapy.

As a transsexual (someone who receives medical treatment for gender transition) and the president of the community college’s LGBTQQA+ (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, trans, queer, questioning, and ally) organization, a community leader, and a volunteer for The GIFT (Gays In Faith Together) organization, as well as The Grand Rapids Pride Center, I feel it’s my duty to take a stance on Stewart’s lobbied argument and false accusations.

Serving as a trustee of an institution that educates people of all background and values, including trans individuals, people of color, and non-traditional students, Trustee Stewart is not at a place where he should instill his own personal values and forego others. He, on several occasions throughout his statement compares trans individuals to pedophiles and sex offenders. He must be forgetting the many students who attend GRCC are already marginalized in society and themselves face far higher rates of being physically attacked, including being sexually assaulted, than their non-trans peers. All students deserve the safety and security necessary for them to be successful at GRCC.

“Do what we say or the bucks go away,” Stewart says, referring to the Obama administration's directive that public schools support transgender students using bathrooms that match with their gender identity. As mentioned prior, GRCC implemented this policy last year, before the administration required it. The Michigan Board of Education too recently voted 6-2 to approve guidelines supporting transgender students to use the bathroom aligning with their gender identity. I believe GRCC has aligned its core values of the college with the desire to create equality through education, compassion, and philosophical experience for all.

Another un-researched topic the trustee voiced would have his listeners believing there are incidents across the U.S. of “women and children being harassed in showers, bathrooms, and changing rooms by sexual predators under the guidelines of being gender confused (trans).” I can assure anyone reading this that there is not one reported case of this -- and, it’s important to note, it is individuals who are transgender who are the ones at risk of assault. One in two transgender individuals are sexually abused or assaulted at some point in their lives, according to federal statistics.

According to RAINN, the country’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, 21 percent of transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconforming (TGQN) students have been sexually assaulted, compared to 18 percent of non-TGQN females and 4 percent of non-TGQN males. I am appalled that an educated individual would speak so callously about people he knows nothing about. If he had done his research, he would have easily found what I did.

Trustee Stewart assumes that when a trans individual enters a restroom or locker room, they’ll show their genitalia. Speaking from personal experience and as an advocate for many trans spectrum individuals in the community, for those of us who are not “passing” (looking like our identifying gender), we are too embarrassed to unclothe or use the restroom in fear that someone may notice we are physically the opposite sex.

Being a current student, as well as a recent alumni, I salute GRCC. The transgender equal opportunity policy has created a safe learning environment for my peers and myself. Individuals come to GRCC seeking an education based on the premise that students of all identities will be ensured a safe environment in which they may learn and grow.  The school has shown that they value the basic human rights of a population that represents 41 percent of the total number of suicides in this country each year. Why can’t Trustee Stewart?

On Monday, Oct. 17 at 4:15pm, the next board meeting will be held. I, among many students and community leaders, will be making statements. These are not statements to change GRCC’s policy; there’s no need for that. We are gathering to honor  trans lives lost, support those who need help, and set the facts straight. We ask the community to join us in the Bostwick Commons area in front of GRCC’s main building off of Fountain Street. We will have tents with free water, donuts, and cider. There will be a microphone for those who want to speak outside. Anyone from the public may speak in the board meeting, but will be allotted only three minutes. StandOUT, GRCC’s LGBTQQA+ club, will host a “Silence Shoot” photo session to take a stance on equality for trans individuals everywhere, particularly right here in our community. The shoot will start at 11 am and run until the day’s events have concluded. Details of this event can also be found here.
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