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Texas Colleges Staying Out of Bathroom Battles

The state's colleges and universities have been largely been left out of the debate over transgender bathroom policies. Over the past decade, most have adopted policies friendlier to transgender students and staff.

Protesters at a press conference held by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in May, 2016 calling on Fort Worth Independent School District Superintendent Kent Scribner to resign over the district's bathroom guidelines for transgender students.

At the University of Houston, transgender students can enroll in voice feminization or masculinization clinics. At the University of Texas at Austin, students can write a simple letter to change how their gender is listed in school records. And many colleges in the state have maps on their websites showing the locations of dozens of on-campus gender-neutral bathrooms. 

Across Texas and beyond, politicians have been arguing about who can use what bathroom, or how much legal protection transgender people need. But at most universities in Texas, the issue was decided before it became a national fight. Officials across the state have already adopted policies to make sure transgender students and staff are accommodated and comfortable. 

Last month, the universities — like every education entity that receives federal funding — received a directive from the U.S. Department of Education saying transgender students should be allowed to use the restroom of the gender they identify with. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that he would send his own letter to schools telling them to ignore those orders, and Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the federal government over the policy. 

So far, however, the universities haven't received much pressure. Patrick's letter to Texas schools didn't go to colleges or universities. And most universities say they see no need to re-evaluate their policies. 

"If complaints arise, or any person requests accommodations, we do our best to address them on a case-by-case basis, respecting the privacy of the persons affected," said Jayme Blaschke, a spokesman for Texas State University. 

Each of the flagship or namesake schools at the state's six major university systems — the University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas and Texas Tech University — has specific protections for gay and transgender students included in its nondiscrimination policies. That's thanks in part to advocates who have gone from campus to campus in recent years pushing for the policy changes.

Josephine Tittsworth, a social worker who is transgender, began advocating for a non-discrimination policy at the University of Houston-Clear Lake shortly after she became a student in 2002. The effort involved lobbying the university president, its legal office and the student and faculty senates, she said. 

"It took about three or four years before the university president agreed to sign on," she said.

Soon, transgender students from other schools called seeking help changing their schools' policies. Eventually, she helped create the Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit, which organizes a conference every year to help strategize for policy changes.

The group came up with a plan for students advocating for change at their schools, Tittsworth said. Advocates shouldn’t focus on lobbying university boards of regents, whose members are appointed by Republican governors and may be resistant to addressing issues for transgender students, they decided. Instead, they should push for changes during routine reviews of university policies, which are often handled by more sympathetic committees made up of faculty and staff. 

On its website, the Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit lists 27 universities and community college systems that have adopted nondiscrimination policies. The number may actually be higher, Tittsworth said, since the group hasn't reviewed the policies of every school. 

None of the policies specifically mention bathrooms, but many universities said they do enough to comply with the U.S. Department of Education's directive, which urged broader protections and services for transgender students. An additional written rule about bathrooms is unlikely unnecessary, many schools said. 

"UH does not discriminate based on those classifications, and students, staff and faculty are free to use the restroom that is consistent with their gender identity/expression," said Shawn Lindsey, a spokesman for the University of Houston, in an e-mail.

Of the six flagship schools, only UT-Austin said it was reviewing its rules in light of the recent debate. 

"As a state entity, we are following these legal disputes closely and will continue to review the situation as we seek clarity in an unsettled area of law," said spokesman J.B. Bird. 

But so far, there has been little pressure to do so. Asked last week whether Patrick had a problem with the universities' rules, his office's staff responded with a statement: "This is not very complicated. No one should be discriminated against, harassed or bullied. At the same time no man should be allowed to use the ladies room and no woman allowed to use the men's room. It's a matter of common decency, common sense and safety."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, the University of North Texas and Texas Tech University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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