Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ latest proposed Title IX guidelines continue the Trump administration’s attack on LGBTQ rights—and leave transgender and queer students in danger.
Title IX, a groundbreaking 1972 civil rights law, protects students from denial to access to education on the basis of sex. The law originally sought to allow female students more opportunities to pursue education in fields that had traditionally been closed to women, like law and medicine. Title IX provides protection on the basis of sex that works in tandem with other civil rights such as protection from racial discrimination (Title VII) and protection for people with disabilities (Title II).
Since then, Title IX has been responsible for ensuring that schools have sports programs that people of all genders can participate in—guaranteeing access to benefits, programs and activities that are part and parcel of receiving an education and ensuring that students can obtain an education without enduring sexual harassment and abuse.
Though DeVos and the Department of Education purport to care about survivors, the changes they seek to make to Title IX show that survivors, particularly survivors who are not straight or cisgender, are at the bottom of their list of concerns. Higher up on that list? Saving schools money, protecting rapists and abusers, restricting access to healing and justice through Title IX protections for survivors and “religious freedom”—the calling card for the right which has permeated nearly every regulation put forth by the Trump administration.
The administration’s changes to Title IX are no exception. Under DeVos’ proposed rules, schools can opt out of Title IX enforcement entirely without notifying her department, leaving students in the dark about whether their schools protect their equal access to education—or not. You read that right: The Trump administration wants to allow schools that receive federal funding to opt out of protecting students without telling students. Or their own officers. Or anyone.
Title IX is far from perfect—but the law has advanced and fostered equitable access to education for people of all genders and given survivors of sexual violence a means of addressing harm with their institutions to seek the relief they deserve to continue to learn.
Since her appointment in Fall 2017, the Education Secretary has done everything in her power to turn back the clock on the advancements made by Title IX—with a specific eye towards ignoring, erasing and disempowering LGBTQ communities. DeVos immediately rolled back Obama-era guidance on transgender inclusion, making schools more dangerous for LGBTQ students. Schools are no longer advised to use the name and pronoun of students’ choosing, to allow students to attend school events like prom dressed in the attire that most fits their chosen gender presentation or to let students use the bathroom of their choice.
That was just the beginning. The Trump administration’s latest proposed changes to Title IX are horrifying—restricting reportable harassment to conduct that occurs on campus, limiting who students can report harassment to, requiring named harassers and rapists to potentially cross-examine survivors during live hearings and more. While these and other proposed changes are harmful to all students, none of the changes operate as the free pass to discriminate against LGBTQ students like the religious exemption.
Imagine that a queer student chooses to pursue their college degree at an institution that aligns with their religious denomination, and even though nothing in the admissions material or student handbook says that LGBTQ students are not welcome, this student gets harassed in class one day for being queer. Perhaps another student makes offensive comments about this student’s sexuality or appearance; perhaps other students join in; perhaps this goes on for days, then weeks, until the student no longer feels safe going to class. Knowing this is a violation of their Title IX rights, the student reports this conduct to their school through the proper channels.
Now, imagine that the school receives this complaint—but decides that protecting students from harassment because of their sexuality is not in line with the school’s religious values. Under the proposed guidelines, the school cites a religious exemption and the case is dismissed. The student gets no relief from harassment, and no professors, students or administrators are disciplined for committing or allowing this conduct.
Not convinced? Consider another dangerous scenario: Imagine what happens to a student who is assaulted by another student at a school which has a code of conduct explicitly prohibiting homosexuality. If their assault included a sexual act that would be considered homosexual conduct, the survivor can file a complaint—but the school can then dismiss it, citing a religious exemption, and the student could be disciplined. In situations like these, survivors must face not only the repercussions of violence, but the risk of being outed, disciplined and otherwise further traumatized.
But it gets worse. Imagine that a student did not choose a religiously affiliated school, but is attending because they are a legacy student or it is the only school that offered enough financial aid—and when harassment occurs, this student is expelled for disclosing their gender identity. Imagine that the student is in sixth grade, is transgender and is bullied for using the bathroom of their choice. Imagine that they are a queer athlete recruited to play on a Division I basketball team, but lose their spot after they are outed when filing a Title IX complaint. Imagine that they are bisexual and afraid to report their assault by a person of a different gender for fear they will be more likely to be disciplined due to systemic homophobia.
This is the reality under DeVos’ guidelines. The proposed rule gives schools a free pass to discriminate and block access to civil rights protections for trans and queer students. The Department’s no-notice religious exemption is an escape hatch—schools claim the exemption after a report and evade any responsibility.
The good news is that the no-notice religious exemption is not yet the law. The Department of Education is legally required to hear feedback from the public on the proposed rule through a process known as notice-and-comment, and the comment period is open now for these proposed changes to Title IX and continues through January 28. The Department must respond to comments, and the text of the proposed law can still be changed if we make our voices heard.
LGBTQ youth deserve better. Queer and trans students are not an exception or an anomaly. We are here and we will not be erased. Tell Betsy DeVos to keep her #HandsOffIX using the notice-and-comment tools and resources provided by End Rape on Campus and Know Your IX. Visit HandsOffIX.org for resources.