It took Xander nearly a decade to try community college again.
The incoming American River College student first attempted higher education in North Carolina in 2013. But navigating campus as a man who is transgender was a nightmare, said Xander, who’s now 30 and asked to use his first name only because he did not want to publicly reveal that he is trans.
In the classroom, he said, people refused to call him Xander. Classmates misgendered him, deadnamed him — using his former name from before he transitioned — and told him he was in the wrong bathroom. He never knew when a confrontation might escalate to violence. Eventually, he said, he began living a double life, taking on different personas inside and outside the school walls.
“I was out to my friends, but at school I gave up with letting people deadname me and misgender me, like it wasn’t worth the fight anymore,” Xander said. “And it wasn’t worth the risk.”
Xander’s experiences mirror those of other transgender students in the U.S.; according to an April survey by The Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law, more than a third of transgender people report experiencing bullying or harassment in college.
President Joe Biden’s administration aims to protect students who identify as transgender and nonbinary from discrimination under new rules proposed in June and now making their way through the Education Department’s lengthy rulemaking process. If finalized, the changes to Title IX, the 50-year-old civil rights law, would clarify that its ban on discrimination on the basis of sex extends to sexual orientation and gender identity.
So what impact will the expanded protections have on college campuses in California, a state that has already passed laws barring discrimination based on gender identity and gender expression?
Legally, not so much, say civil rights lawyers. But the proposed guidelines will remove ambiguity about what Title IX covers and put more responsibility on schools to address discrimination, they say. Students and college employees who advocate for LGBTQ rights told the CalMatters College Journalism Network that while they applaud the change in federal policy, campuses must go beyond the letter of the law to ensure that they are safe and welcoming places for transgender and nonbinary people to learn.
“What we see is that queer and trans students generally feel less welcome on their college campuses and more concerned about their physical safety, but also their emotional safety,” said Emilie Mitchell, dean of social and behavioral sciences at Cosumnes River College and co-organizer of an annual LGBTQ+ summit for the state’s community colleges. “Are they going to be mistreated in a classroom? Is their identity going to be a class topic for debate?” The new rules are reassuring, she said, because they give “a lot less wiggle room to people who might want to behave in really destructive ways towards the queer and trans community.”
Among other changes, the guidelines require colleges to monitor their campuses for gender discrimination and “take prompt and effective action” to fix it — stronger language than the previous requirement to be “not deliberately indifferent.” And by explicitly writing in protections, they ensure that anti-LGBTQ discrimination can be handled under Title IX instead of being rerouted to other disciplinary processes, said Kel O’Hara, a staff attorney at Equal Rights Advocates, a legal and advocacy organization specializing in gender issues.
The new rules also could lead the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to investigate more gender discrimination complaints against schools, said Carly Mee, a civil rights attorney at Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold, PLLC.
“It’s important to have an external mechanism where you can go and file that complaint and say, ‘My school is not protecting my rights,’” she added. “That will be a big deal for trans and nonbinary students.”
The Education Department has already issued informal guidance saying that Title IX protections apply to gender and sexual orientation, but a federal judge in July temporarily blocked the department from enforcing that interpretation in 20 states that sued, saying the advice conflicted with anti-trans laws they’d already passed. Controversy has erupted in a number of states over whether transgender students should be allowed to participate on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity; the Biden administration has said it will issue a separate Title IX rule specifically addressing athletics.
Attorneys with the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation argued in a September op-ed in The Hill that the new rules would “pose a severe threat to free speech” by censoring viewpoints such as that of a professor who “declines to use a student’s preferred pronoun because of her religious beliefs.”