Transgender student and housing at George Fox University

George Fox University is a Christ-centered community. We affirm the dignity and humanity of every student – each of whom is an image bearer of God.

These commitments don’t always lead to easy answers in an increasingly complex world. But George Fox is very conscious of the need to approach difficult questions with grace, understanding and an abiding love for our students, faculty and staff.

Numerous media outlets have reported about the request of a female-to-male transgender student who has not had sex reassignment surgery to live in campus housing with men. Contrary to some reports, George Fox offered the student an on-campus single apartment in a broader complex. The student has declined the offer and instead is choosing to live off campus.

Summary

A transgender student who requested to move from female-only housing in April 2014 to male-only housing in September 2014 was instead offered a on-campus single apartment or the option to live off campus. After a local activist/attorney threatened federal intervention through a complaint to the Department of Education, George Fox sought a Title IX exemption to protect it from being forced to act in a manner inconsistent with the university’s religious convictions. That exemption was granted in May 2014. The complaint was closed without action. George Fox never received the complaint nor received official confirmation of its dismissal.

Supporting the Student

Throughout the 2013-14 school year, George Fox Office of Student Life staff met many times with this student to hear his story and offer support. Out of respect for the student’s wishes, university staff refers to the student using the masculine pronoun.

On many occasions, the student expressed to Student Life staff that he has felt safe, listened to, supported and cared for at George Fox – by students, faculty and Student Life staff. He has acknowledged that this is why he has chosen to remain at the university.

Title IX Exemption and Complaint

On May 23, 2014, the Department of Education granted George Fox University a religious exemption from the Title IX Education Amendments of 1972, specifically the provisions related to housing and facilities. The university sought this exemption to preserve its right to draw on its religious convictions to handle situations related to students experiencing gender identity issues. Other colleges have received similar Title IX exemptions in the past.

George Fox Housing Policy

Providing appropriate housing for transgender students continues to be a challenge at religious and non-religious institutions across the country. George Fox University has a two-year required, single-sex dorm policy it has developed in light of its religious convictions. It has the discretion to assign all students to appropriate housing. Common residence halls are single-sex, defined anatomically. We are committed to residential access, and it is consistent with our beliefs and our community values that a presurgical transgendered person will be provided on-campus housing in appropriate alternative housing well-connected to the residential community. That person also has the option to live off campus.

Challenging and changing complexities

The changing nature of the discussion of gender and sex has created complexities that colleges, religious and nonsectarian, have found challenging. 

Enacted in Congress in 1972, Title IX prohibits all discrimination “on the basis of sex” in education institutions that receive Title IV funds. Until very recently, education institutions in the United States have defined sex (gender) in terms of the biological differences that differentiate men from women.

In March of 2013, a high school senior and transgendered woman’s application to all-women Smith College was rejected for admission on the basis that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid indicated her gender as male. Smith had gained a private-school exemption for single-sex undergraduate admissions during the Title IX Education Amendments of 1972 legislative discussions. It is important to note that religious colleges were not the only ones to receive exemptions from Title IX as the law is written so that elite private men’s and women’s colleges can accept or reject any person on the basis of gender (see Kiera Feldman, “Who are Women’s Colleges For?”, New York Times, May 24, 2014). Colleges like Smith are rethinking how they will be a college that empowers women in an era of changing conceptions of gender. 

The rules for changing gender also differ widely across the United States. The New York Times article on Smith College noted that “to change gender on a birth certificate, most states . . . require documentation that sex-reassignment surgery has been performed.”  On U.S. passports and lesser federal documents, the policies also are very different and in a state of flux, as our federal government reconsiders its requirements for recognition of changes in gender. In the State of Oregon, applicants must provide documents showing that they

1. have undergone sex-reassignment surgery (“SRS”),

or

2. are a transsexual undergoing gender reassignment therapy with a qualified therapist and are living full time as the desired gender as part of gender reassignment therapy.

Among our 50 states, there are almost 50 different versions for the requirements for recognition of gender changes on driver’s licenses and birth certificates.

While George Fox is quite different than Smith, in this context the university faces the same issue. How does the changing definitions of gender and sex affect our understanding of men and women in our community? Because of the university’s religious commitments on sexuality and efforts to build community within a residential environment, the university has maintained single-sex dorms for more than 120 years.

Gender identity, a new addition to Title IX

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is charged with administering the law. The regulations OCR adopted under Title IX expressly permit universities to provide separate housing on the basis of sex. 

Until last year, OCR had not even hinted that the word “sex” in Title IX also meant “gender identity.” It was only on April 29, 2014, after the student filed his complaint, that OCR clearly stated that “Title IX’s sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity.”  To date, however, OCR has failed to explain what its new interpretation of Title IX actually requires. For example, no one knows whether OCR believes that Title IX requires universities to permit biological males who identify as female to play on women’s sports teams. Similarly, it is not at all clear whether a university must accede to every housing-related demand a transgender student makes or face federal intervention under Title IX.

In adopting Title IX, Congress respected religious liberty by declaring that the law’s restraints do not apply where they “would not be consistent with the religious tenets” of the school. OCR set up a mechanism under which religious universities may claim the exemption given them by Congress.

Consistent with our nation’s historical commitment to religious freedom, countless federal, state and local laws exempt religious individuals and organizations from laws that interfere with their religious exercise. In addition to Title IX, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 permits religious employers to consider religious belief and conduct in their personnel decisions. Conscientious objectors to military service and the swearing of oaths have received exemptions from the earliest days of our country.

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