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University changes gender identity policy that said refusal to use pronouns was ‘unlawful’

South East Technological University’s gender expression and identity policy sparked controversy last year

South East Technological University (SETU) has dropped references in its updated gender identity policy which previously stated that refusal on the part of staff or students to use students’ or staff members’ preferred pronouns would amount to “unlawful discrimination or harassment”.

The policy sparked controversy when it was published last October, with one lecturer stating that it was a misinterpretation of equality laws and could discriminate against those “who do not subscribe to gender identity theory”.

The university said at the time that its policy aimed to create an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere for all staff and students, and was drafted with regard to “all applicable laws”.

SETU’s updated gender identity and expression policy now states that all staff and students are expected to avoid “unacceptable behaviours” such as, “repeatedly referring to a person by using names or pronouns with which they do not identify, in circumstances where the person has communicated their preference”.

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It does not reference the refusal to use pronouns as unlawful.

Colette Colfer, a lecturer in world religions, said she welcomed the change in policy.

“It provides clarification for staff, students and visitors. I support the aims of the policy, and did so at the outset, to provide an environment where all staff and students can fulfil their potential,” she said.

“Ireland is a multicultural society with a plurality of beliefs, outlooks, religions and identities. No one should be dismissed on the basis of their beliefs, including beliefs around identity.”

SETU had not responded to a request for comment at the time of writing, but its updated policy states that a rich part of university’s diversity is embodied by student and staff members who express their gender identity in different ways.

To ensure good practice in its collective approach to embracing diversity through gender expression and identity, it said the policy provides advice and guidance for the support of non-binary, intersex and transgender students and staff members.

“SETU is committed to non-discrimination, equality, maintenance of dignity and the cultivation and maintenance of safe and collegial working and learning spaces,” the policy states.

“This commitment involves safeguarding and supporting gender minority students and staff in SETU. This policy is underpinned by the key principle of respect for all current and prospective students and staff.”

Ms Colfer said it was important that all higher education policies are in line with current legislation, noting that UCD, the RCSI and Trinity College Dublin’s gender expression policies also state that a refusal to address a person by their preferred pronoun amounts to “unlawful discrimination”.

She said while she believed all students should be treated fairly and equally, the methods of some policies could result in discrimination against “those who do not subscribe to gender identity theory and who believe that biology is more relevant than gender identity in matters such as women’s sports and changing rooms”.

Policies on gender expression in higher education institutions have typically formed part of their bids to secure advanced Athena Swan Charter accreditation, which is part of official higher education policy in Ireland.

The charter was launched in Ireland in 2015 with a specific remit to address gender equality and has since expanded to include consideration of the experience of trans staff and students.

Higher Education Authority policies require attainment of Athena Swan certification for universities to be eligible for State research funding.

One of the Athena Swan charter principles commits higher education institutions to “fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine and affirm their gender, and to implementing inclusive and effective policies and practices that are cognisant of the lived experiences and needs of trans and non-binary people”.

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