ALTOONA — The University of Iowa is leaving itself exposed to legal challenge based on discriminatory action by continuing to have a pink visitors locker room at Kinnick Stadium that jokingly conveys a “sexist and homophobic” message, two attorneys told LGBTQ conference attendees Wednesday.
Jill Gaulding, co-founder of Minnesota-based Gender Justice and a former tenure-tracked faculty member at the university, said the Kinnick locker room first painted pink in the 1980s during Hayden Fry’s run as Hawkeye football coach and later redone in 2005 is one of a growing number of sports-related traditions that use “pink shaming” and “cognitive bias” to deride their opponents and try to “get in their heads.”
During a workshop at the Iowa Governors Conference on LGBTQ Youth that drew about 800 participants, Gaulding said a hockey club in Duluth, Minn., a minor league baseball team in South Bend, Ind., and now the Bondurant-Farrar High School — using money donated by a family that won a Powerball jackpot — have followed Iowa’s lead using the pink locker room theme.
“Most people understand the pink locker room as a taunt against the other team, calling them a bunch of ladies/girls/ sissies/pansies/etc.,” according to an information sheet Gaulding and Gender Justice law partner Lisa Stratton distributed to the workshop attendees.
Gaulding’s handout quoted a passage from Fry’s autobiography where he said pink was a “passive” color and might put opponents in a passive mood. “Also, pink is often found in girls’ bedrooms, and because of that some consider it a sissy color,” according to a quote Gaulding said she took from Fry’s book.
Gaulding said it’s problematic when the message is conveyed by a public university in an education setting that receives federal funding and is covered by Title IX and Title VII rules that prohibit civil rights discrimination based on gender.
“I do believe it creates legal liability — not necessarily about financial liability. To me, that’s never been what this is about,” she said. “But they could be exposed to a declaratory judgment action where someone would just seek to settle the question legally and have a judge decide once and for all is this OK or not.”
University spokesman Tom Moore did not agree with the Gender Justice attorneys’ analysis.
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“While the Office of Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education determines compliance with Title IX, we believe we are compliant,” Moore said. “The color was chosen because of the belief that it would have a relaxing and calming effect on the visiting team.”
Gaulding said that, to her knowledge, there has never been a legal challenge brought regarding locker rooms for male athletes that are painted pink but she said a federal court in Arizona ruled that a “shaming practices” of having male prisoners wear pink underwear was deemed a form of punishment that lacked legal justification.
“I think every institution that is using pink or gender as a shaming joke reinforces that idea across the entire culture and that is why it is so harmful,” Gaulding said.
“I certainly do conclude that based on all the things that we’ve been talking about and what I understand are the civil rights laws that it’s actually illegal to have a pink locker room because it’s not OK for a public institution to potentially put out a message that people perceive to be based on a sexist or homophobic slur,” she added. “It’s not OK for them to put up a banner that says it’s bad to be a girl. It’s not OK for them to build a pink locker room that conveys that same idea.”