Why the on-campus transgender revolution seems a little stale
'Fresh' is rotten and transgender bathrooms are just new ghettos with plumbing, writes Donal Lynch
Fresh. It almost sounds like the name of an urban vegetable market. Or perhaps it could be retro American teen-speak for 'cool' - as in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
As of this year, however, the word will be reimagined by Trinity College Dublin with a brand new meaning. They are scrapping the word 'freshman', for first-year students, replacing it with the gender neutral term 'fresh'.
This has been met by the resounding noise of a fresh raspberry from the student body. On learning the news, one student wrote: "Thanks for the update. I'm really looking forward to the Student Union equality committee's screening of Bat v Super." In Trinity, Aine Kelly, an associate professor in physiology, wrote in an email: "I fear that this may make the college look ridiculous."
A woman, who signed herself off as a 'senior freshman' complained that the term was "already gender neutral". She said: "If it was ever offensive, it ceased to be years ago. As a female student, I don't feel excluded from this at all."
Equality for women seemed very much beside the point of this initiative, however. It has been more widely seen as part of an overall strategy for greater inclusion for transgender students in Irish universities. UCD recently announced it is to re-designate more than 170 toilets across the entire campus as "gender neutral" and introduce transgender changing facilities at its sport centre.
Dublin City University (DCU) has meanwhile opened 54 gender-neutral bathrooms across its three campuses, while UCG has made 14 of its disabled toilets into transgender facilities. Minister for Children and equality campaigner Katherine Zappone welcomed the moves as another step towards "full equality for all".
"Our universities are drivers of change, promoters of equality and champions of justice," she said.
This is laudable, lofty rhetoric - but where, you might wonder, does preparing students for the real world factor into the championing of justice? There is the growing impression that rather than being drivers of change, our colleges are simply bubbles apart - ivory towers where debate is stifled, lest it give offence, where language is mangled in service of misguided political correctness, and where protection of minorities foments ghettoisation.
Outside the groves of academe, for instance, you almost never see bastardisation of the English language to pander to the imaginary offence of a minuscule constituency. Only a college could decide it was going to do away with the salutations 'Mr' and 'Ms', as happened in New York's City University last year, for instance. In the ordinary workplace, that wouldn't fly.
As a institution of learning, Trinity is setting a dubious example by replacing a noun with an adjective. Obliterating the word 'man' everywhere it appears might be a priority for some extreme feminists but savvier campaigners tend to pick more important battles.
Gender neutral bathrooms might also seem like a step in the right direction, but, like the language debate, they give the unfortunate impression that campuses are set apart from the outside world.
Even within the tiny minority of students who identify as transgender - less than 1pc according to some studies - there is a tinier minority again who identify as truly 'gender neutral' or 'gender fluid'; most transgender people believe they are psychologically male or female. Why should these people be required to relieve themselves in special facilities which publicly cast them as a third 'other'?
Matt Horwood, a representative of British LGBT organisation Stonewall, recently said: "Many people from the trans community are happy to use bathrooms that are binary, so a male bathroom or a female bathroom, but it's about the attitudes that other people have towards them using those bathrooms that are problematic."
But why worry about society adapting its attitudes when you can just as easily pack transgender people off into a new ghetto, with plumbing, and call it "championing justice"?
That these toilet initiatives have already resulted in reduced facilities for disabled people - who form a larger minority than transgender or gender fluid people and who have physical rather than socially constructed reasons for not being able to use other facilities - shows how misplaced they are.
There are so many rights that need to be improved for students and transgender people in this country. In all cases being able to walk into a bathroom where the sign shows a person wearing half a skirt would seem a distant third to housing and access to proper healthcare.
The type of mindset that has changed 'freshmen' to 'fresh' and trumpeted the significance of transgender bathrooms has infected all aspects of our universities. Broadening the mind, strengthening resilience and showing diverse groups how to live together - these should be mainstays of college life. Instead, we have created a climate where universities are "safe spaces" where young adults are shielded from words and ideas - "triggers" - that make some uncomfortable and where taking offence is the way to win any argument.
This climate of protection and political correctness on campus has mostly been imported wholesale from the United States, where there are important cultural reasons for it, including the polarisation of politics there.
You would hope that here in the Republic of Ireland we can come up with a better way of promoting rights than vandalising language, stifling debate and pandering to society's prejudices.
Our transgender students - who may also be our freshmen - deserve better than that.