As students settled into a new academic year at Virginia Tech this fall, university president Timothy Sands announced to about 400 employees some significant changes to employment policies at the college. Specifically, Tech joins a growing list of close to 740 institutions of higher education across the nation that have added transgender faculty, staff, and students to their official non-discrimination policies.

The policy was revised following a unanimous vote by Tech’s Board of Visitors approving new language that specifically protects gender expression and identity.

Governor sets precedent

This latest announcement follows a move by Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe at the beginning of the year in which he signed “Executive Order Number 1: Prohibiting Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity.” While the order intends to prevent discrimination at the state government level, it does not necessarily extend to state universities and other institutions.

Notwithstanding the order’s non-binding nature, Virginia institutions such as James Madison University, Norfolk State University, the College of William and Mary, and Old Dominion University subsequently opted to protect gender identity and expression.

Limits on protection

While university students and employees and state government workers may enjoy expanded protection from discrimination, there are limits to both the governor’s order and bans on college campuses. For example, same-sex spouses of state employees are not eligible for state health and other benefits. To date, the General Assembly has repeatedly declined to extend those rights.

Nor is there currently on the books in Virginia a statewide law that proscribes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression in private workplaces. This means employees can be fired or refused employment in Virginia due to sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.

With that being said, 88% of the Fortune 500 companies in the U.S. have adopted non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation, with half of these companies including gender identity protection.

Trend continues

Not long after Virginia Tech’s announcement, Radford University’s Board of Visitors also voted unanimously to add gender identity to its anti-discrimination and harassment policy. Under Radford’s policy, there are detailed investigation and reporting procedures, in addition to the designation of a Title IX coordinator to oversee such processes.