A New Trump Plan Could Encourage Religious Colleges to Reject Trans Students
by Laurel Powell
In 2006, upon graduating from high school, I packed my bags for my college of choice: a small Christian school in the Wesleyan tradition, located in the Midwest. After years of leadership in the youth group of the non-denominational, somewhat socially-progressive church I attended, I was ready to take the next step: pursuing a life dedicated to my faith and to serving others as a pastor. I wasn’t quite ready for what I’d find on campus.
During my time there, the school’s policy towards those who disagreed with doctrine was clear. A biology professor left after writing a well-publicized book arguing that evolution and God’s creation are not mutually exclusive. Rumors circulated constantly about students who had been expelled for attempting to come out as lesbian or gay. It was a far cry from the accepting, positive environment in which I had spent years learning about and going deeper in my faith.
Transgender people exist even on these campuses. I was one of them, although, despite being aware of my identity, I was not out at the time. I knew who I was, and perhaps that I might one day be able to transition, but the environment in which I lived and worked and studied showed me that, should I pursue my degree there, I would never be safe or accepted.
According to the U.S. Transgender Survey, trans people already face high levels of discrimination in higher education: Nearly 1 in 4 transgender students who were out while attending college or vocational school faced verbal, physical, or sexual harassment for being transgender. This mistreatment is often even worse when the message that LGBTQ students are not welcome is coming from the college administration, like what happened at my own college.
Title IX — the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination on college campuses — doesn’t only require schools to make sure that transgender students have the same access to educational opportunities as other students, it also provides recourse in the event of sexual harassment or sexual assault.
That law applies to religious and non-religious schools alike, but religious schools can request broad exemptions to any of Title IX’s protections — including its nondiscrimination protections for transgender students — by asking the Department of Education. That already makes it much harder for transgender students who want to get a religious education, but the Trump administration is trying to make it even worse.
You’ve probably already heard that a new proposal from the Department of Education that would make it easier for schools to sweep sexual assault and harassment under the rug — something that would disproportionately affect transgender students. But you may not have heard that the Department of Education snuck another provision into that proposed regulation: a proposal that religious schools can claim an exemption from Title IX without even notifying the Department of Education beforehand.
Here’s a simple fact: transgender people who wish to seek out a religious education should be free to do so, without facing harassment, discrimination, academic consequences, or expulsion. But this new proposal opens these students up to sweeping discrimination. Without requiring schools to notify the Department of Education of their religious objections in advance, students have no way of knowing if their school is going to discriminate against them, meaning that a student who is outed as transgender midway through their degree can be kicked out of school without advance notice and with few, if any, legal options.
The same goes for students who access reproductive health care, LGBQ students, or even students who are simply perceived as not conforming to traditional gender roles. In fact, under this proposal, many schools can use religious objections as a retroactive excuse to justify discrimination only after a complaint has been filed against them..
The Trump administration has already taken steps towards giving a sweeping license to discriminate to employers and health care providers, trying to allow them to disguise prejudice as religious freedom. But being transgender and being a person of faith are far from mutually exclusive — nearly two thirds of transgender people in the U.S. Transgender Survey have been a member of a faith community. But many face rejection because of who they are, alienating them from what was important source of support and strength.
This proposal from the Department of Education will further serve to push away more transgender people from religious communities, and force many to choose between an education and their faith. Making it even harder for transgender students to get a religious education without fear of discrimination and mistreatment is wrong — and trying to sneak that harmful provision into an already dangerous regulation attacking survivors of sexual assault is downright immoral. Join us in urging Secretary DeVos to reject this rule.