Gender identity under Title IX
Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination "on the basis of sex" in educational programs that receive financial assistance from the federal government. The Obama administration determined that this phrase is ambiguous and, in the absence of clarification from Congress, interpreted it to cover discrimination on the basis of both assigned sex and gender identity. The Trump administration said that access to facilities based on gender identity should be left to the states and local school districts to decide.
The validity of the executive's position is being tested in the federal courts.
Congress kept the core provision of Title IX very brief, only one sentence long. The interpretation and implementation of Title IX was left to the executive, whom Congress expressly "authorized and directed to effectuate the [statute] by issuing rules, regulations, or orders of general applicability which shall be consistent with achievement of [its] objectives . . . ."
President Nixon initially directed the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) to carry this out. In 1980, HEW was split into two separate agencies —the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Education (DOE). Responsibility for Title IX enforcement in educational institutions was delegated to DOE's Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
The views of the Obama administration
The Obama administration's efforts to apply Title IX to gender-based discrimination go back to President Obama's first term in office. In an October 2010 "Dear Colleague" letter, OCR issued guidance on the intersection between discrimination on the basis of sex and harassment on the basis of transgender status. Specifically, OCR stated that, although Title IX does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, "[t]he fact that the harassment [of a hypothetical gender non-conforming student] includes anti‐LGBT comments or is partly based on the target's actual or perceived sexual orientation does not relieve a school of its obligation under Title IX to investigate and remedy overlapping sexual harassment or gender‐based harassment." In a 2014 Q&A document, OCR wrote unequivocally that "Title IX's sex discrimination prohibition extends to claims of discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity and OCR accepts such complaints for investigation."
Simultaneously with evolving regulatory guidance, OCR started conducting enforcement actions under Title IX against school districts where discrimination based on gender identity was alleged to have taken place. For example, in 2013, OCR reached a settlement with the Arcadia (Calif.) Unified School District, stemming from the complaint by a transgender boy, who was denied the use of boys' restrooms and locker rooms and was required to sleep alone in a separate cabin on an overnight school trip. In reaching the conclusion that Title IX applied to the facts of the Arcadia case, OCR took the position that gender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, and that the scope of Title IX should be analyzed in light of parallel precedent under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of "sex" in an employment context, and which had previously been interpreted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2012 to encompass discrimination based on gender identity.
2016 Dear Colleague letter
On May 13, 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and DOE issued joint guidance to educational institutions on the scope of Title IX, in the form of a Dear Colleague letter and an accompanying compendium of actual policies and practices, which had previously been enacted in various schools throughout the U.S. The guidance formalized the administration's previously stated view that Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity.
In practical terms, the administration instructed schools that Title IX's prohibition on discrimination means that schools must:
- provide an environment free of harassment,
- honor transgender students' preferred names and pronouns,
- permit all students to participate in sex-segregated activities and use sex-segregated facilities (including bathrooms, locker rooms, and overnight accommodations) in accordance with their gender identity, and
- protect transgender students' privacy by avoiding non-consensual disclosure of their gender status.
The guidance permitted a limited exception for athletics, where accommodating transgender students would impair "the competitive fairness or physical safety of the sport".
Reactions to the Dear Colleague letter were sharply polarized. Head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta expressed hope that the guidance would give transgender students "a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow". First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray spoke approvingly of the guidance, saying that it "reaffirms a basic human right". Chad Griffin of the Human Rights Campaign said that the guidance "sen[t] a message that every student deserves to be treated fairly and supported by their teachers and schools".
Conservative politicians voiced opposition to the letter. Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick urged school officials to disregard the administration's Title IX guidance, which he considered "blackmail". Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called on the federal government to take no position on discrimination against transgender students, which in his view should be an issue for the states. Rep. Brian Babin [R-TX] introduced HR 5294 to invalidate the "Dear Colleague" letter until superseded by an Act of Congress. In 2016 (HR 5812), and again in 2017 (HR 2796) after the prior bill had died in committee, Rep. Pete Olson [R-TX] introduced federal legislation which would limit gender identity to biological assignation, which would remove the ability to apply federal civil rights protections to transgender individuals. Olson stated the legislation was in reaction to "the Obama Administration strongly [overreaching] by unilaterally redefining the definition of “sex” with respect to the Civil Rights Act outside of the lawmaking process." Olson went on to call on Congress to "reject the notion of false power stolen from Congress by a White House seeking to impose social policy on America."
The views of the Trump administration
In February 2017, the Department of Justice and Department of Education under the Trump administration withdrew the guidance on gender identity issued by the Obama administration. A letter issued by the departments cited a need to "more completely consider the legal issues involved", and stated that "there must be due regard for the primary role of the States and local school districts in establishing education policy".
G. G. v. Gloucester County School Board
Starting in 2010, OCR brought a number of successful enforcement actions under Title IX on behalf of students who were subject to harassment or discrimination on the basis of their gender identity, gender expression, or failure to conform to gender stereotypes. Eight of the cases were settled in favor of the students. Several private lawsuits were brought as well on similar grounds. In 2016, the Fourth Circuit became the first Court of Appeals to rule on the scope of Title IX as applied to transgender students, in the case of Virginia high school student Gavin Grimm (G. G. v. Gloucester County School Board).
Grimm came out as a transgender boy while a student at Gloucester High School in Virginia. After he began using male facilities, the Gloucester County School Board passed a policy resolution requiring that access to changing rooms and bathrooms "shall be limited to the corresponding biological genders, and students with gender identity issues shall be provided an alternative appropriate private facility". At the school board meeting, speakers addressing the board called Grimm a "freak" and compared him to a dog. When he refused to use the girls' bathroom, Grimm was offered the use of some broom closets that had been retrofitted into unisex bathrooms. Grimm refused to use those as well, opting to use a bathroom in the school nurse's office.
Grimm obtained legal representation from the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school under Title IX and referred the case to the DOJ. The federal government agreed to intervene in the case on Grimm's behalf, writing to the court that Title IX "prohibits discrimination based on sex, including gender identity, transgender status, and nonconformity to sex stereotypes".
Judge Robert G. Doumar of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed Grimm's Title IX claim and denied his request for an injunction. In his ruling, Judge Doumar held that Title IX's operative provision should be read narrowly to cover discrimination on the basis of genetic "sex" only, and not gender identity or expression. During the proceedings in the District Court, Judge Doumar made a number of idiosyncratic statements from the bench, saying that being transgender is a "mental disorder", delivering off-topic criticism of the federal government on the issues of marijuana enforcement and sanctuary cities, and explaining that Grimm is a female who "wants to be male". In reviewing the case, the Court of Appeals criticized Judge Doumar's conduct in the courtroom, writing that his "extraneous remarks [and] suppositions . . . marred the hearing".
Grimm appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. On April 19, 2016, a three-judge panel of that court overturned Judge Doumar's decision with respect to Title IX. In their ruling, two of the three panel members agreed with the government's position that the statute is ambiguous, and held that its interpretation of the scope of Title IX is entitled to "deference and is to be accorded controlling weight" under Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. and Auer v. Robbins. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals sent the case back to the District Court for further proceedings under a broader reading of Title IX. The school board moved for rehearing en banc, but the Fourth Circuit declined to rehear the case. On June 23, Judge Doumar issued a preliminary injunction in Grimm's favor.
The Supreme Court stayed the Circuit Court's decision in August 2016, and in October 2016, it agreed to take up the case. The Court reversed its decision to hear the case on March 6, 2017, and vacated the judgment in Grimm's favor citing the Trump administration's withdrawal of the reading of Title IX relied on by the Fourth Circuit.
Relevance to the North Carolina litigation
Before being vacated by the Supreme Court, the ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals had controlling status in federal courts located in the states served by the Fourth Circuit – Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina – and was expected to influence the litigation over North Carolina's anti-LGBT law, the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. The Fourth Circuit ruling would have served as controlling precedent in the North Carolina litigation with respect to Title IX only – and not with respect to Title VII claims (discrimination in the employment context). The two statutes are closely linked, however: according to Duke University School of Law professor Katharine T. Bartlett, "it would be inconceivable [that courts] would decide that transgender bias is sex discrimination under Title IX, but not under Title VII."
On March 23, 2016, North Carolina enacted the Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act. Among the provisions of the Act is a requirement on North Carolina schools to prohibit transgender students from using bathroom and changing facilities corresponding to their gender identity. On May 4, 2016, the federal government notified Gov. Pat McCrory, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, and the University of North Carolina system that the Act violates Title IX (inter alia), and asked North Carolina not to implement it. Failure to comply could result in the loss of billions of dollars in federal funding to the state, including $1.4 billion for the UNC system and $800 million for federally backed student loans.
On May 9, 2016, North Carolina and the federal government filed suits against each other. McCrory filed one lawsuit and Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore filed a second lawsuit against the United States, both in the Eastern District of North Carolina (assigned to Judge Terrence Boyle), seeking declaratory judgment that the Act was not discriminatory. The DOJ filed suit against North Carolina in the Middle District of North Carolina (assigned to Judge Thomas D. Schroeder), asking the court to stop the state from discriminating against transgender people based, in part, on Title IX. Attorney General Loretta Lynch described the lawsuit:
This action is about a great deal more than just bathrooms[.] This is about the dignity and respect we accord our fellow citizens, and the laws that we, as a people and as a country, have enacted to protect them – indeed, to protect all of us. It's about the founding ideals that have led this country – haltingly but inexorably – in the direction of fairness, inclusion, and equality for all Americans. This is not a time to act out of fear. This is a time to summon our national virtues of inclusivity, diversity, compassion, and open-mindedness. What we must not do – what we must never do – is turn on our neighbors, our family members, our fellow Americans, for something they cannot control, and deny what makes them human.
Texas v. United States
On May 25, 2016, eleven states sued to the federal government in the Northern District of Texas in at attempt to overturn the Dear Colleague letter and other administration efforts to protect transgender students under Title IX. Joining lead plaintiff Texas were the states of Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin. In their complaint, the plaintiff states alleged that by "rewriting" Title IX to cover discrimination on the basis of gender identity, the federal government had "conspired to turn . . . educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over commonsense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights". The case was assigned to Judge Reed Charles O'Connor.
After the suit was filed, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urged schools to disregard the DOE's Title IX guidance and refuse to allow transgender students to use the facilities consistent with their gender identity.
- Public Law No. 92‑318, 86 Stat. 235 (June 23, 1972), codified at 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681–1688
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