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When Title IX Falls Short

When Title IX Falls Short

When Title IX Falls Short

The federal regulations known as Title IX are supposed to protect trans students from discrimination, but that's hard to put into practice, writes Eri Svenson.

Safety and dignity in education are human rights, and ensuring that transgender and gender-nonconforming/expansive youth have equal access to education is vital to their rights and safety. Unfortunately, too many schools are failing transgender youth by endorsing "separate but equal"-type accommodations and allowing discrimination to stand. The fact is that inclusivity policies are a necessity and anything less should not be an option.

Upholding trans students' rights falls under the jurisdiction of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits treating students differently on the basis of gender -- including trans and nonbinary. Title IX is designed to protect us from discrimination. Yet, as filing my own Title IX claim demonstrated, transphobia and gender-based discrimination are so insidious that the very legislation designed to protect me from the scrutiny, disrespect and harassment I face as a trans person are deeply insufficient.

My claim stemmed from a faculty member with whom I traveled on a trip to study abroad. Beginning in a class I'd taken with him the previous semester, the professor had always refused to use my personal pronouns. While he didn't misgender me, he used my name as a substitute for pronouns, which is a too-common practice that fails to affirm or respect my gender identity.

Tension built throughout the trip, but the breaking point happened after a week of the professor singling me out and making me feel deeply uncomfortable. While I don't know if the treatment was because of my gender, I was being bullied. He initiated a final conversation to further critique my behavior and bar me from an activity. During this conversation, he demeaned and threatened me, leaving me feeling terrified. During the exchange, the professor angrily told me, "I let you do whatever you wanted. I went out of my way to help you." I was confused by this, so he clarified that what he meant was that he addressed me by my chosen name (and my pronouns, which he patently did not do), implying that this was going the extra mile to accommodate me.

Let's be clear -- using a trans person's name and pronouns is not going the extra mile. Allowing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify is not an extraordinary act. Creating spaces in which trans people are safe is not a favor. These are human rights and educational rights, and they're non-negotiable.

Currently, many schools create policies that seek to accommodate trans students as special cases but maintain discriminatory policies as the status quo. These "solutions" resemble segregation-era "separate but equal" statutes. For example, allowing transgender students to use the locker room of the gender with which they identify only if they use a private changing area, as was deemed a solution by Illinois's District 211 in a high-profile Title IX case, stigmatizes transgender students. These efforts continue the human rights violations of transgender youth and are also unlawful. The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education determined that schools that enforce these type of policies are committing Title IX violations.

My friend and classmate, who is a trans man, structures his course schedule so that he can return home between classes to use the bathroom. He doesn't feel safe using the public men's rooms on campus. When the president of our college heard about this, he said that "as a straight man, I can understand why straight people would feel uncomfortable with trans people being in the same bathroom." How can we change the culture on campus when the president doesn't acknowledge -- let alone affirm -- our genders?

Personally, I waited months to file a Title IX case because my mentor, who I depended on for academic resources and opportunities, told me it would be reckless to do so, and if I did they could not have a relationship with me anymore. They warned me not to file a complaint against the professor because he is a "good ally." This left me feeling completely without options.

When I finally gathered the courage to file, the Title IX investigator told me that transphobia and race-based discrimination are "not really a big deal anymore." The filing process was wracked with mishandlings and violations. At the end of it, my only option was to appeal to the same college president who had publicly expressed his own discomfort with transgender people.

Educators whose efforts to accommodate transgender youth reinforce the bias against them are doing a disservice to students. Creating an affirming and safe educational space for all means affirming the identity of transgender students. Treating transgender students as irrevocably "other" will not stop the harassment and violence we face.

There are shameful statistics to back up the day-to-day discrimination trans students experience. For youth who came out as trans during their K-12 education, 78 percent reported being harassed, 35 percent reported being physically assaulted and 12 percent reported being victims of sexual violence. Fifteen percent dropped out because of these experiences. These heartbreaking educational realities must end.

Why do schools invest so much energy in keeping trans students separate and distinct from cis (cisgender, or cis, people identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) students? If there is a concern about cis people feeling uncomfortable, we must recognize that discomfort as part of the problem. To help address this, we should affirm trans youths' humanity and offer training on gender and sexual identity as part of comprehensive, LGBTQ-inclusive sexuality education. Schools need to increase education on these issues to change the transphobic culture on campuses.

Schools are required by federal law not to subject students to different treatment on the basis of sex, and trans youth have a right to authenticity, safety and community. To protect students' rights, we need policies that treat students' identities equally and include and affirm rather than segregate and tolerate.

In a perfect world, there would be no need to file a Title IX case. As it stands, we need to work toward a world in which the process for filing is just. When I filed my claim, I subjected myself to scrutiny, backlash and retaliation. People made me doubt myself. They made me feel that the ordeal was my fault.

I don't regret filing the Title IX claim. I only regret not filing it sooner. A cis student's discomfort does not trump a trans student's rights to safety, dignity and education.

ERI SVENSON (they/them/their) is a nonbinary trans/queer activist with Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health's Change, Heal, Act, Together Network.

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