As part of her project Title IX at 50: Educate & Advocate, Distinguished Professor of Humanics Kathleen Mangano interviewed Title IX expert Erin Buzuvis — a professor of law and the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at Western New England University — about the implications of the civil rights law. A webcast of the full interview can be viewed at springfield.edu/TitleIXat50. An excerpt of their conversation follows.
How does Title IX specifically protect transgender and gender nonconforming students and the LBGTQ community?
That’s a perfectly reasonable question. The word “specifically” is what makes it challenging. There is definitely an evolution of interpretation and understanding on that question. At a general level, Title IX’s prohibition against sex discrimination means that, in anything where people are admitted of all sexes and it’s just transgender people who are excluded, that’s going to violate Title IX. Where there is some debate is how trans students should be treated in single-sex facilities and single-sex programs. So, is it discrimination under Title IX to say [to a trans woman], “Ok, you can come to our college, and you can play a sport, but you can’t play women’s sports”?
I believe that there is a very persuasive and reasonable interpretation of Title IX that does give rights to trans students to be treated as the gender with which they identify for purpose of participating in sports, using locker rooms and bathrooms and being assigned to dormitories. There are people who disagree that interpretation, and there’s also some gray area to what extent any kind of conditions can be imposed on a transgender student’s participation in athletics. So, for example, at the college level, there has historically been some requirement that a trans woman competing in women’s sports will have undergone some transition with hormones to make her body more similar to a cisgender woman’s body. On the other hand, in the K-12 context, where Title IX also applies, requiring students to undergo medical treatment that they might not be ready to decide about for the purposes of athletics sounds like a much higher burden on the student for athletics, which are much less competitive and more participatory.
Different government entities will have a role in shaping this clarification. It might be that the Department of Education eventually takes a look at this and clarifies it. If that doesn’t happen, or even if it does, there is also a role for the courts to play here, as states with bans on trans women and girls participation in sports are being challenged in court. The outcome of those cases, the judicial decisions that are going to come from those cases, are going to also shape the rights of trans students.
What are the arguments against Title IX?
I don’t think that people are out there arguing that Title IX should be completely withdrawn. We are seeing arguments that have to do with the scope of protections that exist under Title IX. Some of the hot-button issues are Title IX’s application outside of the context of athletics. There is currently debate in the political sphere – and actually an ongoing effort to revise Title IX’s regulations — that largely has to do with how schools treat situations of sexual misconduct between students. There are people who believe that schools should have the leeway to suspend and expel students who engage in sexual misconduct. The counter argument to that isn’t so much that schools shouldn’t be able to expel students who engage in sexual misconduct but that they should have to go through criminal-trial-type procedures in order to reach that conclusion. So I wouldn’t say it’s an argument against Title IX, but how strongly does Title IX protect students who have been victims of sexual misconduct?
How can we advocate for Title IX?
Until there is pressure on an institution to actually consider whether they are in compliance with one of three prongs of Title IX, colleges and universities – and K-12 institutions as well — often put that off. it’s not going to happen until somebody pushes their feet to the fire and triggers an honest self-analysis.
My advocacy advice is for everybody [reading this] to take one institution that they care about and start doing some digging into a basic compliance analysis. Who the Title IX coordinator of any institution is should be available on the school’s website. Oftentimes, the Title IX coordinators are really focused on sexual misconduct and other pieces. But they should be able to get information about how that institution is complying in terms of athletics.
Anyone can file a complaint at the Department of Education. On the Office for Civil Rights website there is a link that will take you to a complaint form. You don’t have to have a specific connection to an institution. You can describe what you think is a violation of Title IX in your own words. They are required to read it. They can start an investigation based on a complaint from a member of the public. Putting more pressure on athletic departments that way is a way that we can help close the compliance gaps that remain even 50 years after Title IX’s passage.
Photo Courtesy Springfield College