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UND administrators to review proposed gender inclusion policy

Instances of misgendering a person on campus, intentional or otherwise, don’t appear to be frequent, but some say it still happens. When it does, Charles Vondal, president of the Queer and Trans Alliance on campus, formerly known as the Ten Percent Society, said it can be hurtful.

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Donna Smith, assistant vice president of equal opportunity and Title IX at UND. Submitted / UND
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A proposed UND policy would consider intentionally misgendering a person to be an act of discrimination, and a university administrator said a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and ongoing discussions about creating an inclusive campus are the impetuses behind that policy.

The policy would require students, administrators and others on campus to use names, gendered references and pronouns that match a person’s stated gender identity. Intentionally misgendering a person refers to using words or pronouns that do not reflect the gender by which a person identifies. The policy does not apply to accidentally misgendering a person.

According to Donna Smith, assistant vice president of equal opportunity and Title IX at UND, the proposed gender inclusion policy would not fundamentally change existing UND policy on what is considered discrimination or harassment, just expand it to include intentionally misgendering a person.

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“The focus of the group on intentional misgendering is when it's done in an effort to harass someone, (and) create a hostile environment for them that would deprive them of equal access to their workplace, or their academic pursuits,” Smith said.

Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs with the North Dakota University System, declined to comment on the proposed policy as it is still in draft form. A spokesperson for NDUS said it is likely that UND’s gender inclusion policy is the first of its kind in the state system.

Instances of misgendering a person on campus, intentional or otherwise, don’t appear to be frequent, but some say it still happens. When it does, Charles Vondal, president of the Queer and Trans Alliance on campus, formerly known as the Ten Percent Society, said it can be hurtful.

The comment period for the proposed policy on gender inclusion closed on Friday, Oct. 22, and administrators are now looking through those comments and will respond to the people who made them, Smith said. The full text of the policy can be found online, and administrators will use those comments to refine the policy before sending it for discussion to UND President Andrew Armacost and his executive council. Armacost will need to sign the policy before it takes effect.

The proposed policy was first reported by Forum Communications Company writer Rob Port, in a pair of columns.

Smith said the policy is needed to provide guidance to students and other campus members on when to use a person’s legal name, or their chosen name and pronouns that reflect their gender identity or expression. According to the policy, a person's legal name must be used on medical and tax documents, or as required by law. Smith said the policy aligns with UND’s One Strategic Plan, a portion of which is dedicated to engaging with “an increasingly diverse population.”

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“We've had discussions on campus for a number of years about making sure we're creating an inclusive campus for everybody here, and that really was the goal of this policy,” Smith said.

The basis for the proposed policy stems from the Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia ruling handed down by the Supreme Court in June 2020. That ruling extended the definition of sex discrimination to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The ruling applies to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which deals with discrimination in employment situations.

The ruling does not specifically address Title IX, the federal rules that prohibit sex-based discrimination in education programs. However, on his inauguration day, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that extended the Supreme Court’s ruling on how sex discrimination is defined to other civil rights laws , meaning students have the same protections against such discrimination as employees.

Frequency of misgendering

Smith said she does not recall a recent instance of a person filing a formal discrimination complaint related to their gender identity, though that does not mean people don’t experience such discrimination. She said there have been “not a large number” of reports of such claims, which either don’t rise to the level of a formal complaint, or the person decided not to go down the road of getting involved in the complaint process.

Vondal said being misgendered has not happened to him very often, though it has occurred on occasion. When it occurs accidentally, most people respond differently after they have been informed. Still, he said there are those who misgender on purpose.

“I've known people who have actually been corrected so many times, and they would still use the wrong pronouns or even the wrong name,” Vondal said.

While Vondal said the proposed policy is necessary to make people feel like they can be safe and be themselves, he said he prefers to have a conversation over coffee, to help people understand issues related to gender identity.

“I've always been told don't try to force your views on other people, instead, educate them,” Vondal said.

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But should the policy, should it be enacted, mandates forms of address in certain situations. While the gender inclusion policy does not reference punishment or sanctions, the broader policy of which it is a part, does. Smith said complaints would be reviewed under UND’s policies addressing discrimination against protected classes.

In September, Armacost fired an administrator after it was determined by an administrative law judge that she discriminated against the university’s former chief of police, on the basis of his political beliefs.

Smith said she didn’t view the policy as mandating speech, and said that discrimination and harassment are determined by thresholds set by law. When that threshold has been met, such speech ceases to be protected.

Like Vondal, Smith said she thinks it’s better to approach situations surrounding gender inclusion with an eye toward education. Punishments like suspension or expulsion are typically reserved for students who commit serious or violent crimes, she said. It’s unclear what could happen to a student found to have purposefully misgendered someone.

“We are an educational institution and we always try to respond in an educational manner,” she said.

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Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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