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Institutions Adapting as Gender Identity Evolves

LaToya Dennis

Society has traditionally defined gender as either male or female. These days, more people seem to be breaking free of those gender norms. Now, some institutions are making changes as a result.

For some people, male or female doesn’t fit.

“I identify as gender fluid.”

That’s Noel Mariano--a 29-year-old PH.D student at UW-Milwaukee.

“So to be gender fluid, it’s the idea that gender is on a spectrum, that it’s not static. There are days when I wake up and I may be presented male, but I’ll feel like I’m in drag because I’ll feel like no, I feel more closely identified to female identity. Or there are days where my gender expression matches with my identity for that day,” Mariano says.

Mariano was born male and on most days, chooses an androgynous look – jeans and a t-shirt. But today, Mariano is leading a class while dressed in slacks, a button-down shirt and tie.

“At UWM I traditionally display male just because as a force of habit. A lot of my students, a lot of the staff, a lot of the department knew (know) me as male, so I default to that,” Mariano says.

Mariano says UW-Milwaukee has made strides when it comes to accepting and accommodating the LGBT plus community. For example, the university has created a number of gender-neutral restrooms. Mariano points to two in the student union. One is more of a family restroom with a changing table for babies; the other…

“It’s just your basic restroom. This looks like your basic half bath that you would find anywhere. So it’s just toilette, sink,” Mariano says.

Credit LaToya Dennis
UW Milwaukee has a number of gender neutral restrooms on campus.

“When I arrived in 2004 there was very little talk of gender identity, gender expression, transgender identity,” Murray says.

Jennifer Murray is director of the LGBT Resource Center. She echoes Mariano’s sentiment that UWM has made strides in becoming more inclusive of gender differences. Murray says in 2006, the Board of Regents added gender identity to its nondiscrimination policy. Last year, the university added another housing option and around 30 students have chosen it. Now, Murray says UWM is creating a system that will allow students to use their preferred name.

“That would be very honoring for students to not have to like go through the process of outing themselves through an e-mail every semester to let this professor know that this is the name I use, and this is how I want you to refer to me in terms of my pronouns. It would just be an actual seamless process where it would automatically show up that way on the class roster and internal documents to the university,” Murray says.

Universities aren’t the only institution working to adapt. Doug Mering is vice president of the Baraboo School Board.  He says it recently updated the district’s policy regarding transgender athletes.

“It gives us a way to be able to qualify that person to compete athletically. So whether they’re going from a male to female or female to male, being able to take part in our WIAA sponsored athletics,” Mering says.

Last year, the Shorewood School District updated its bullying policy to better protect transgender students. The new policy also instructs staff to address transgender students using their preferred name and pronouns, and that students be free to dress in a way that makes them most comfortable.

Karen Gotzler is Executive Director of the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center.

“Our society is definitely coming to understand that the concept of gender is not as binary as maybe some of us were raised to believe,” Gotzler says.

Gotzler says there are still battles to be waged in the fight for equality and fairness, but she’s happy to see progress.

LaToya was a reporter with WUWM from 2006 to 2021.