Pink locker rooms get critical look

Attorneys: Locker room at Kinnick Stadium is “sexist and homophobic”

Chairs occupy the lockers of the pink visitors locker room at Kinnick Stadium Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008 at Kinnick Stadium Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
Chairs occupy the lockers of the pink visitors locker room at Kinnick Stadium Saturday, Feb. 9, 2008 at Kinnick Stadium Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

ALTOONA – The University of Iowa is leaving itself exposed to legal challenges by continuing to have a pink visitor’s locker room at Kinnick Stadium, two attorneys told attendees Wednesday during a workshop at the Iowa Governors Conference on LGBTQ Youth.

Jill Gaulding, co-founder of Minnesota-based Gender Justice and a former UI tenure-track faculty member, said the Kinnick locker room is one of a growing number of sports-related traditions that use “pink shaming” and “cognitive bias” to deride opponents and try to “get in their heads.”

The locker room was first painted pink in the 1980s during Hayden Fry’s run as Hawkeye football coach and later redone in 2005. 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 the UI’s lead.

“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 she believes the university could be subject to a lawsuit if it maintains the pink locker room. The UI receives federal funding and is covered by Title IX and Title VII rules, which prohibit 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.”

UI spokesman Tom Moore did not agree with the Gender Justice attorneys’ analysis.

“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.”

To her knowledge, Gaulding said, there’s never been a legal challenge to pink locker rooms. But she said a federal court in Arizona ruled that “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.”

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