Cassidy Medicine Horse, a transgender student at Montana State University, says she is “extremely pleased” after the Montana Board of Regents voted unanimously to outlaw discrimination against students and employees because of homosexuality or gender identity.

“This is hugely important,” Medicine Horse, 65, a Ph.D. student in American studies, said Wednesday. “This is a stepping stone that destigmatizes the concept of transgender.… We’ve moved into the 21st century.”

The Board of Regents voted 4-0 in a conference-call meeting Monday to expand the Montana University System’s anti-discrimination policy by adding gender identity and sexual orientation.

Regents’ policy already required each campus to ensure that there’s no discrimination based on “race, color, religion, creed, political ideas, sex, age, marital status, physical or mental disability, national origin or ancestry” unless based on “reasonable grounds.”

Seven of the state’s campuses — MSU and the University of Montana, and campuses in Billings, Havre, Helena, Dillon and Butte — had earlier barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

A practical result will be that the University System will designate more restrooms as family, unisex or handicapped accessible, like those seen in many airports, said Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education.

“It’s just sending a proper message that our campuses are open, welcoming, safe places to attend for any Montana students,” Christian said.

Medicine Horse said she was born anatomically as a boy, but mentally as a girl. About five years ago, after therapy and hormone treatments, she started dressing as a woman. However, one day after working out at the MSU student gym, she realized she had nowhere to take a private shower.

She said she brought her concerns to student government leaders at the Associate Students of MSU, but despite some lip service, nothing happened. Months later she brought it up again to MSU’s new dean of students, Matt Caires, who approached the new ASMSU leaders.

Kiah Abbey, then MSU student president, and Troy Duker, a student senator, took action. They got a resolution passed last fall, first by the ASMSU Senate and then the UM Student Senate, asking the Board of Regents to change its policy.

Christian appointed a work group to look into the proposal. He said it typically takes six to 12 months to change a policy for the entire University System.

“I could not be more excited,” said Abbey, an MSU senior in political science and a “straight ally” to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. “Holey moley – students got together to make the university more LGBT friendly. … We can say to a community of 50,000 people that your gender identity doesn’t matter, we’re here to support you.”

She said it was “really cool” to see students support the policy change, including in conservative communities like Dillon and Havre. Only the MSU-Billings student senators declined to support the resolution, she said.

Regent Jeff Krauss of Bozeman didn’t vote Monday but said that was because of a scheduling mix-up, and he fully supports it. Zach Rogala, the new student regent, was on an already scheduled international trip and missed the vote.

According to the work group’s report, 623 colleges and universities have non-discrimination policies for gender identity. Twenty-seven states offer some legal protections barring discrimination for sexual orientation and 16 states do so far gender identity.

Medicine Horse said she’s not the only student helped by the policy. Last winter 23 students attended the first meeting of the Transgender Club, or T-MSU, and she believes there may be dozens more who are reticent because of family, jobs or social stigma.

In a, Chronicle interview last fall, Medicine Horse talked about how historically transgender Americans were arrested, fired, humiliated and given electroshock treatments, and that she had been beaten growing up. The article prompted only one negative comment, she said.

“Everybody has been extremely positive in the community, on campus,” Medicine Horse said of the discrimination policy change, “telling me what a good thing it is, something whose time has come.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.