Screenshot from the NYCLU via Twitter
On Feb. 22, 2017, President Trump sent a message to the transgender population of America: their right to be free from discrimination is not important enough to be enforced at the federal level. In Trump’s eyes, the validity of a transgender individual’s identity and their rights are open for debate.
Undoing the work of President Obama, Trump and his administration rescinded protections for transgender students that previously allowed them to use the bathroom which aligned with their gender identification. He even overrode the advice of his secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, who believed that this regulation could potentially cause harm to transgender students.
Though the federal guidance from Trump does not explicitly make it illegal for transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, it no longer prevents universities and colleges from denying students this right. It is now up to the discretion of each university.
In researching the legality of this federal guidance, I was struck by the contradiction between the protections and rights of the student outlined under Title IX and the recent rescinding of transgender rights.
The goal of Title IX is to “prohibit sex or gender discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” What then gives President Trump the right to perpetuate the discrimination of transgender students on the basis of their gender identity?
I had the opportunity to speak with UCLA’s Title IX coordinator, Jessica Price, regarding the importance of Title IX, what this recent federal action may mean for UCLA students, and the steps we must take in order to continue to protect the rights of all students.
Price expressed how her job goes beyond providing students with the resources to file complaints of sexual assault or discrimination. She described the role of Title IX as being “the moral compass of the university.” What this implies is that often the situations that arise are not black and white.
Unfortunately, this is true of the recent federal guidance. The discrepancy arises, as Price explained, from “the different interpretations of what ‘gender identity’ means.” As is implied from the issuance of Trump’s federal guidance, he does not perceive a transgender individual’s gender identity as 100% valid, nor does he believe that transgender students should always be granted the same rights as their cisgender counterparts. Therefore, he is leaving it up to each university to enforce its own beliefs on its campus. That is why it is imperative to have actively involved Title IX representatives on every university campus who are willing and prepared to fulfill the necessary role of “moral compass” when laws or actions enacted by the federal government work to strip students of certain rights, and thus attack them on a moral basis.
Although Price was clear that this would not directly affect the rights of transgender students at UCLA since California universities operate under the belief that Title IX invariably protects the rights of transgender individuals, this represents a disheartening rollback in human rights and acceptance. As Price stated, “It is sad that the federal government is taking a step back from a previously strong position.”
Back in 2015, we saw the monumental federal legalization of same-sex marriage under the Obama administration. This helped spread the notion that all human beings deserve the right to be respected and accepted. However, before this was implemented nationwide, certain states had already begun legalizing same-sex marriage. Several studies found that in these states, students were seven percent less likely to commit suicide. The most notable decline in suicide attempts was by students identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT).
Regardless of one’s political views or stances on LGBT rights, any human possessing compassion, sympathy, and humanity can identify less young people taking their own lives as positive progress. This trend has been directly linked to LGBT youth feeling more accepted by their communities by whom they often feel stigmatized and pre-judged. The legalization of same-sex marriage was a breath of fresh air for these individuals that gave them hope and literally made it easier to breathe each and every day. So why is the current administration working to stifle this new-found hope?
Perhaps it is to decrease the epidemic of sexual assaults committed by transgender people in public restrooms?
The truth is, this epidemic does not exist. In fact, there is no evidence at all to support the belief that allowing transgender individuals to use the bathroom coinciding with their identity increases the risk of sexual assault.
If anything, what people should be focusing on is the fact that it has been shown that about 50% of transgender and bisexual women will become victims of sexual violence in their lifetime, compared to 35% of heterosexual women and 29% of heterosexual men. The LGBT community already faces increased rates of poverty, stigma, and marginalization, thus putting them at higher risk for these acts of violence. To be part of another minority as well only increases the chance of violence. For example, 24% of transgender American Indians, 18% of transgender people who identify as multiracial, 17% of transgender Asians, and 15% of Black transgender individuals have experienced sexual assault in K-12 education settings. Sexual assault rates are therefore higher for transgender students belonging to minority racial groups, indicating an exponential risk at the intersection of minority identities.
The recent federal guidance places an emphasis on protecting heterosexual, cis-normative individuals while ignoring the trans population proven to be much more at risk when it comes to sexual assault. While it is of course important to protect all individuals against sexual assault, this guidance keeps those belonging to the cis-normative population in power and continues to oppress the LGBT population.
A quote has been circulating recently that reads, “It was never about bathrooms, just like it was never about water fountains.” Just as laws of segregation were implemented to continue the systemic oppression of African Americans in America, the federal government’s stance on trans rights serves to perpetuate the idea that trans individuals are not worthy of all of the same human rights as their heteronormative counterparts, and therefore must be oppressed by a heteronormative world.
I asked Price if she believes this is just about bathrooms. She replied, “No. This is a matter of respect and discrimination.” She continued on to say that it is imperative that we make people in our community “understand that when people say they have a preferred gender, we must respect that in order to prevent potential hostility towards trans individuals.”
She noted the great danger associated with outing students as a result of this federal guidance. Students who are themselves struggling to come to terms with their own sexuality will suddenly have to have their previously closeted or discrete sexualities documented via rosters, class lists, and more. This is a terrifying prospect for many students, as coming out is something that many of them are nowhere near ready to do, nor is it something that should ever be forced upon an individual.
The drop in suicide attempts by LGBT teens in 2015 was most likely a result of LGBT youth beginning to feel accepted by their communities. For the sake of preserving LGBT lives, let us not go back to a state of non-acceptance.
In response to this recent action, the Title IX office has launched weekly office hours for students to stop by on an informal basis with any concerns they might have. Price was adamant in expressing the accessibility of the Title IX office for addressing various student concerns, not only for filing cases of sexual assault. In fact, the Title IX office is working closely with the LGBT Resource Center at UCLA to identify students in need and to promote advocacy within the broader Los Angeles community as well.
If you or someone you know would like to set up an appointment to meet with Ms. Price, please email Cathy Bell, Administrative Analyst for the Title IX Office, at [email protected].
UCLA students are very fortunate to have such extensive resources available to them. Unfortunately, this is not the case with many other students across the country. Now, more than ever, advocacy is necessary. Transgender rights are human rights, and it is the responsibility of all LGBT allies to fight until we see concrete progress that actually proves this sentiment to be true.