Reclaiming My Gender at My Christian University and the Threat of Title IX Exemptions
Being transgender anywhere seems to prove to be a challenge in itself. But all the more in densely religious regions and communities, like the South, churches, and Christian colleges. When I came out as a girl and a lesbian halfway through my academic career at Eastern University, there was a lot of resistance. Some students harassed, gossiped, and one even assaulted me, professors asked invasive questions, and the administration asked equally invasive questions, like “which genitals do you have?” Logistically, it was nearly impossible for me to live off-campus, but by my senior year, I refused to live in a male dorm because it had so drastically deteriorated my mental health the years before that I had considered suicide. When I sought to change my gender with the university, I was met with more resistance. The ‘F’ on my PA State driver’s license was insufficient for the administration, despite the fact that they have no forms, statements, or guidelines on changing gender markers. Instead, they asked me to provide “medical documentation” that I’d had genital reassignment surgery, which, as I argue elsewhere, is a form of institutional sexual harassment. After seeking legal counsel through multiple avenues, I was repeatedly told, “Sorry. It’s a religious institution. We don’t want to get into that”--even though EU doesn’t have any exemptions from Title IX. Granted, the legal precedents for cases like mine aren’t good, even on a secular level, and cases with religious schools are even more grim. Nonetheless, the advice from peers and experts alike felt like “suck it up or leave.” But what secular undergraduate institution has Biblical Studies as a major? What if I wanted a Christian education? I concluded that, if the “pro-LGBTQ” organizations weren’t going to help me whatsoever, I need to be remain as loud and visible as I can. I published op-ed pieces in the newspaper and I began providing the university registrar with loads of papers, letters, and documents. All kinds of information that I felt was appropriate—that is, documentation other than “medical documentation of genital reassignment surgery.” I asked my general physician to write a generic letter, imploring the university to recognize and treat me as female in all respects; I asked my therapist to write a letter stating that it is in my best interests of mental health to be recognized and treated fully as a woman; and I pestered the administration, especially the Title IX coordinator, a lot in general. I even revealed how the university had subjected me to conditions (i.e. living in a hall that wasn’t my gender) that cause me and half of all trans people to contemplate or attempt suicide. I finally wrote an open letter and a petition. And it certainly helps to have an ally or two on the inside. The university realized the urgency of my situation and recognized my gender, perhaps because they realized that my mental health, academic performance, and very life are more valuable than petty culture wars. Since then, my mental health has drastically improved, my academic performance is much better, and there are far fewer mornings where I can’t get out of bed. It is unclear what “happened,” especially since no policies have actually changed. So, while I am the only trans person on campus who has this experience, non-binary students have no housing options at EU that recognizes their genders as real. Ultimately, I think my emphasis on the health and academic aspects of being gendered correctly were pivotal in the University slightly altering my housing. It was possible partly because I advocated so hard for myself and partly because my school doesn’t yet have an explicit Title IX exemption so there was a lot of gray space without an explicit policy. In this vein, #GiveBackIX is an effort to make Christian universities healthier and safer for all. LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty. It is a necessary effort particularly when secular “pro-LGBTQ” organizations ignore our unique experiences in religious communities. Students should not have to advocate on their own behalf for their right to be treated in ways that affirm their dignity as humans, that encourage us to excel academically, and that promote our best mental health and social acceptance. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our personal lives in order to fight for our right to have personal lives. We have no vendettas against Christianity—we just want the freedom to live well, healthily, and to practice our religion in genuine community with those around us.