Under Trump and DeVos, Trans Students Face ‘Spiritual Violence’ at Religious Schools
Transgender and gender non-conforming students at religious colleges and universities live in hiding, afraid to come out for fear of discrimination or disciplinary action.
Sam Schwimmer made it through just two semesters at Biola University, a Christian evangelical school in Southern California, before leaving. For a genderqueer student who had yet to come out, that was long enough.
“I felt incredibly trapped,” Schwimmer, who attended Biola during the 2015-2016 school year, told The Daily Beast. “I originally went to the school because I thought it was going to be a good community for me, until I was actually there and realized how I still had to watch everything that I was doing.”
Schwimmer, who uses both gender-neutral and male pronouns, is not alone in their experience.
Transgender and gender non-conforming students at religious colleges and universities in the United States continue to live in hiding, afraid to come out for fear of facing discrimination or disciplinary action.
Now, under President Trump, recourse for these students under Title IX seems even further out of reach than it already did.
When Schwimmer was at Biola University, the school had applied for an exemption from Title IX, a civil rights law that the Obama administration and several federal courts have interpreted as protecting transgender people from discrimination.
“That made things dangerous for [transgender and gender non-conforming] students because of the knowledge that they could be kicked out for their identity,” Schwimmer said. “It’s the main reason why I didn’t come out as genderqueer at the time.”
But because the Trump administration has rescinded Obama-era Title IX guidance on transgender student rights—and because Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education is reportedly dismissing many Title IX complaints from transgender students—the situation has grown even worse for this vulnerable group of young adults.
A recent study by Clark University psychology professor Dr. Abbie Goldberg published in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, offers early insight on the experiences of transgender and gender non-conforming students at religious institutions.
Her survey of 507 students, mostly undergraduates in the United States, turned up a small number—21–who were attending religiously-affiliated institutions.
Goldberg told The Daily Beast that many of these students must have heard about the survey through online transgender communities—because although the researcher did reach out directly to religious institutions, she did so with the expectation that they “probably would never share this information with students.”
That expectation was warranted. Religiously-affiliated colleges and universities in the United States are, on paper, some of the worst places to be transgender.
As Goldberg writes in her study, “relatively few of these institutions” have inclusive policies in place, making them “seemingly very inhospitable places for trans students.”
Goldberg didn’t hear back from many students at these religious institutions, but what she did learn from their responses to her survey was troubling: “Most of them realize that this is not an ideal community for them, but most of them felt that there weren’t a lot of opportunities to get out,” she told The Daily Beast.
Some students have scholarships they could not afford to lose, Goldberg said, and others will only be financially supported by their families if they attended a particular religious school.
Still more have gender-based scholarships which could be jeopardized if they were to come out as transgender or gender non-conforming.
In some cases, too, religious colleges have codes of conduct in place under which such students could be expelled or disciplined if they were open about their gender identity.
Biola, for one, says that it “does not expel students on the basis of their gender identity,” as a university spokesperson told The Daily Beast.
“As a private faith-based institution, students make a choice to enroll at the school and adhere to the university’s code of conduct such as abstaining from alcohol and premarital sex,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “If a student is openly transgender or gender non-conforming, the university would walk alongside that student and offer support to them as they seek to live according to biblical teachings and abide by Biola’s community standards.”
Those community standards do not make direct reference to LGBT identity but they do make broad mention of “sins of the heart” and “practices that Scripture forbids.” They also give the university clear license to “revoke admittance” to anyone who “does not conform” to “the expressed principles, policies, and expectations of the University.”
But even where outright expulsion is not a risk, many other types of obstacles stand in the way of transgender and gender non-conforming students on religious campuses.
“There are a lot of constrains on their ability to be out,” Goldberg observed, adding, “If you go to the counseling center, it’s going to be religious counselors. You can’t talk to your family, because they’re religious. So there’s a lot of isolation for these students.”
Many of these students are seriously grappling with their gender identity for the first time after initially trying to ignore it.
“You can force those feelings and that awareness down only for so long until it kind of bubbles up,” Goldberg explained. That was certainly the case with Schwimmer, who told The Daily Beast they “just suppressed” being genderqueer at first in order to “focus on it later, for lack of a better phrase.”
Once that self-knowledge does “bubble up,” transgender and gender non-conforming students at religious schools suffer in the absence of resources to help them. Goldberg told The Daily Beast that “they tended to score very high on measures of stress.”
Conversely, her study found that transgender and gender non-conforming students fared much better at schools that had non-discrimination protections, transgender-friendly restrooms, and accessible methods of changing one’s name in university systems.
The presence of these and other transgender-inclusive policies was “related to a greater sense of belonging and more positive perceptions of campus climate,” as Goldberg observes in her study.
In the absence of those supports, most transgender and gender non-conforming students at religious colleges, as Goldberg told The Daily Beast, rely on “some sort of an underground LGBT group but it’s usually not university- or college-sanctioned and, if it’s recognized at all, it’s often under very tight control.”
At Biola, for example, the Biola Queer Underground offered quiet support to LGBT students before going public and changing its name to Biolans’ Equal Ground in 2015, as the Chimes, Biola’s student newspaper, reported.
When asked about Biolans’ Equal Ground, a Biola spokesperson said that it is “not a Biola-sponsored or endorsed group,” adding that the school “has a sanctioned group for LGBT students that provides a caring and supportive community where students can journey together as they learn to live authentically and discover what it means to live as a faithful follower of Jesus.” (That group is called The Dwelling, and the university says that it provides a space where students can work on “reconciling their faith and life circumstances as they grow in discipleship to Christ.”)
The language used by Biolans’ Equal Ground, by contrast, is more straightforwardly affirming of LGBT identity.
Schwimmer now serves as the executive director of the unofficial organization, helping students find the support that the former Biolan so sorely needed a few years back.
“For my year on campus, I regularly thought and wondered how it would be different or how I would have processed things differently had there been helpful resources on campus,” they told The Daily Beast. “But since I didn’t have that opportunity, it was always just a concept.”
Soulforce, an LGBT activist group that has focused in recent years on the issue of Title IX exemptions at Christian schools, believes that groups like Biolans’ Equal Ground have taken on added significance in the Trump era.
Now that the White House has seemingly stopped defending the rights of transgender students, says Soulforce communications director Yazmeen Nuñez, the struggle has shifted to a “school-to-school basis, trying to push internally for change.”
“We’ve really transitioned from a national government that has been able to provide blanket protections that schools have to individually opt out of—to really being in a place where now individual students and communities at individual schools have to figure out how to navigate their campuses and change their campus culture,” Nuñez told The Daily Beast.
During the Obama years, the Title IX fight to protect transgender college students—and LGBT students more broadly—largely took place on the national stage.
Three years ago, the Human Rights Campaign published a report listing the over four dozen universities and colleges that had asked for Title IX religious exemptions on the grounds that “application of the law would conflict with specific tents of the religion.”
Then, in 2016, the LGBT advocacy group succeeded in pressuring the Department of Education to post a list of institutions on its website that had obtained an exemption. The original link to that list is now dead.
HRC legal director Sarah Warbelow assured The Daily Beast that the information is still online, even if it is now “a little harder to find.” But the public-facing version of the list, she added, “has not been updated since December of 2018.”
Indeed, because the Trump administration has backed away from transgender-inclusive interpretations of Title IX—most notably in the February 2017 rescinding of an Obama-era letter—some religious schools may now see such exemptions as redundant.
After all, they have effectively been given a green light from the federal government to exclude or marginalize transgender students with a greatly diminished fear of reprisal.
Religious universities tend to frame the Title IX exemption issue as one of religious freedom.
A Biola spokesperson told The Daily Beast, for example, that they did not seek a Title IX exemption from the Department of Education “because the university wants to expel or discipline transgender students,” but in order to “allow the university to make decisions based on its religious values relating to the provision of restroom and locker room facilities, participation on athletic teams, housing, and behavioral rules.”
There is a wide range of possible mistreatment, then, that transgender students might face at a religious schools like Biola that falls short of official university discipline, like being barred from restrooms that match one’s gender, or being required to live in campus housing according to one’s birth-assigned sex rather than one’s gender. Those policies could vary widely depending on the specific school.
The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, an umbrella organization whose hundred-plus members include Biola, told The Daily Beast in a statement that they have “not issued official guidance regarding transgender students” and that “institutions vary in their specific practices based on their religious traditions and beliefs.” (The CCCU did say that their member institutions “in recent years have reviewed anti-bullying and non-harassment policies” and that they “are continually learning more regarding how to care for the wellbeing of their transgender students.”)
For transgender and gender non-conforming students at religious schools who do find themselves in conflict with the administration, turning to the federal government for help is a less viable option than it used to be.
Warbelow told The Daily Beast that “Title IX protects transgender people from discrimination in education, and that’s true whether or not the Trump administration wants to recognize that the courts have overwhelmingly made this determination.”
But going to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights with an official complaint is now largely seen as an unfruitful course of action.
HRC, Warbelow said, still “encourage[s] students to file complaints at OCR” because it may prompt the university to resolve the situation—and because it adds to the pressure being put on OCR to address discrimination—but not because it’s likely to lead to intervention.
When asked about the issue of Title IX exemptions, a Biola spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “campuses are still subject to investigation by the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.”
But given recent headlines like, say, The Washington Post’s “Education Department no longer investigating transgender bathroom complaints,” it is now widely known that religious institutions of higher education have much less to fear from the OCR under Trump than they might have during the Obama years—a time when Attorney General Loretta Lynch promised the transgender community that the Department of Justice “will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”
“These exemptions that these schools have filed for are no longer necessary legally in order for the institutions to defend themselves against claims of discrimination based on Title IX infractions,” Nuñez said. “It doesn’t have any more teeth.”
That makes the short-term future a challenging one for transgender and gender non-conforming students at religious places of higher learning.
Many are likely living in the same state of “constant fear and anxiety” that Schwimmer vividly remembers. Of course, one of the first steps in drawing attention to their plight would be learning more about it.
Goldberg would like to see more research on their experiences, even if obtaining a large sample would be challenging because of how closeted they tend to be.
“Future work is needed that explores how trans students at colleges affiliated with conservative religions survive and thrive, given that they receive little institutional support and often encounter administrative opposition to their presence,” Goldberg notes in her study.
Soulforce and other LGBT advocacy groups—in addition to directly supporting students on religious campuses—have also been putting pressure on the NCAA to stop hosting championship games at schools that marginalize LGBT people.
HRC has submitted still-pending Freedom of Information Act requests, asking the Department of Education to publicize recent records around Title IX exemptions at religious colleges.
But until concrete changes start to take hold at these campuses, transgender students at these campuses will continue suffering, too many of them in silence.
“It’s really heartbreaking to know that a young person who is 18 years old or younger could decide to invest four years into an institution only to have their heart broken and their relationship to their God severed by spiritual violence,” said Nuñez. “They feel isolated. They feel like God doesn’t love them for who they are.”