Jacob McWilliams working on gender equality

Director of Women and Gender Center

Crammed in a tiny office loaned out by the Experiential Learning Center and often overflowing with boxes, resides the Women and Gender Center. It started as the Women’s Resource Center in 2012, and currently operates within the office of Diversity and Inclusion. Though the other Diversity and Inclusion offices are located in the brand-new office spaces added to the Student Commons Building, the office that pertains to all walks of life—that is, everyone who has a gender, which is everyone—is kept separate.

Photo courtesy of The Denver Post

Dr. Jacob McWilliams, the director of the Women and Gender Center, has been at CU Denver since January of 2016. “One of the first things I immediately noticed was that there was nowhere in this building for me to use the bathroom safely,” he said. “It was interesting to be the person who’s in charge of the Women and Gender Center and to not have a safe space to pee.”

Frida Silva, a student at CU Denver, recently wrote a proposal that was approved to establish a single-stall, gender-neutral bathroom in the Tivoli Student Union within the next year. McWilliams said, “I had been working with Xajes Martinez, the assistant director of the LGBTQ+ resource center, for over a year on pushing for a multi-stall, gender-inclusive restroom in the Tivoli and there was no way that was going to happen.” Demonstrating that while the faculty on this campus is working tirelessly to meet the needs of the student body, voices from students themselves can be the catalyst for change.

“I think there’s a need for us to think about accommodations differently to be more inclusive of the range of gender identities,” said McWilliams. For some students, such as those who identify as non-binary, a gender-neutral, single-stall restroom suits their needs. But what about men and women?

“The University protects students’ gender identities, so you should be able to use the bathroom that fits your gender. So if you identify as a man, no matter what your body looks like, you should be able to walk into a men’s restroom and use it, and it’s the university’s responsibility to make sure that you’re safe when you’re doing so,” said McWilliams. “It’s not the burden of trans students to go to the bathroom separately just to make other people feel safe; they’re protected. I think that we need to stop segregating trans people to their own separate bathroom,” he said. “I feel like this fear goes along the lines of, ‘oh no, what if I have to share a bathroom with a trans person? What will I do?’ You’ll wash your hands and go on with your day.”

“The fact that the student union doesn’t have a single gender-neutral restroom at this point is astounding,” said Dr. Mia Fischer, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications, as well as a part of the LGBTQ+ faculty assembly on campus.

Prior to working at CU Denver, McWilliams worked as a post-doctoral researcher and instructor at CU Boulder. Before working at CU Boulder, McWilliams received a Ph.D at the University of Indiana in Education, focusing particularly on gender, sexuality, and policy studies in education. He worked with elementary students, mostly at the 4th- and 5th-grade level, on issues of gender diversity in schools, “and the rest of the world. It was really fun,” he said. “It’s interesting to see the gap between kids and adults. They had no trouble with some of the gender stuff that adults have trouble with,” he said.

“While I was working with these students, I made a transition from one name and one set of pronouns to the name and pronouns that I use now, and they were like ‘okay great, thank you, anyway Jake, and then they would just continue on with whatever story they were trying to tell me. It didn’t matter [to them]. But somewhere along the way, they learn to be weird about gender. It was a reminder that it doesn’t have to be the way that it is in the world,” he said. “Researchers have done studies on kids at the preschool level and they see that kids who are assigned female at birth and kids assigned male at birth—‘boys and girls’—are treated differently from the very beginning. Like when they come into school they’re all just blobs of ‘child’ that all kids are at age 3, but by the time they leave preschool, the messages that they have gotten had already made them think that boys and girls are separate. So it really doesn’t take much,” said McWilliams.

The center was first created as a place for women to connect and support each other. About two years ago, the office was renamed the Women and Gender Center with an expanded focus on issues related to gender diversity broadly, as well as issues that intersect with gender equity. One of the office’s areas of focus is supporting transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary students on this campus. “When I first started the position as the coordinator, I was making 70 cents on the dollar to what the other directors of other identity-based offices were making. That wasn’t based off any evaluation of me as an individual more so than being a holdover of the assumptions of who would be running this office, and what kind of work it is,” said McWilliams. The lack of basic support for non-gender-conforming, non-binary, and transgender students demonstrates the sheer amount of work still left to be done on this campus.

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