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How Could Title IX Protect Transgender Children?

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Key Takeaways

  • The Title IX statute refers to a broad anti-discrimination law which protects people in educational institutions on the basis of sex.
  • Title IX is often associated with sports, and this recent interpretation prevents trans youth from being excluded in sports or activities that align with their gender identity.
  • A variety of anti-trans bills have been proposed or passed that will not be stifled by federal protections under the Title IX statute but could be challenged under other precedents or deemed unconstitutional for other reasons.

This past June, the Supreme Court issued an interpretation that declares that Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity, noting that these aspects of life are inherently connected to the concept of sex. This new interpretation protects many vulnerable queer people, including transgender athletes.

Transgender people, whose marginalized gender identities place them at increased risk for discrimination, have been targeted by legislation in recent years that bars their access to appropriate bathrooms and changing facilities, prevents necessary medical treatment, and has interfered with their ability to compete in sports.

But under this new interpretation of Title IX protections, trans youth who seek to join an activity at school must not be prohibited from full participation on the basis of their gender identity.

What Is Title IX?

Title IX was enacted in 1972, protecting students and employees in educational institutions from discrimination on the basis of sex. In following years, several attempts were made to limit Title IX’s impact—proposing changes that would exempt athletic departments from compliance.

This adjacent topic has continued to drive conversations about Title IX to the point that most people associate the term with college sports—but the law is not actually specific to sports and protects students in all grade levels from any discrimination on the basis of sex.

Title IX

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.

— Title IX

Under Title IX, students and employees are protected from discrimination on and off campus and while participating in any academic, athletic, or extracurricular programming associated with the school. Remy Green, an attorney and partner at the civil rights firm Cohen & Green, explains, “Sports are, in many ways, an inseparable part of schools,” and this makes issues regarding student athletes and participation in school sports relevant to Title IX.

Remy Green, Civil Rights Attorney

Fundamentally, if a school is involved, an issue could be a Title IX issue.

— Remy Green, Civil Rights Attorney

Any school that receives federal funding must be compliant with Title IX standards. Although some schools do not receive federal funding, most do—including private schools.

Trans Youth Face Harsh Discrimination

Previously, individual states and institutions could decide how transgender people within their jurisdictions were treated. 2021 already broke records in May as the year in which the highest number of anti-queer bills were introduced. Transgender youth were especially targeted.

Among the many bills which were passed, two reduced the impact of queer-affirming education in schools, four allowed medical providers to refuse to treat queer people, and one prohibited trans youth from accessing necessary medications. Seven prevented trans youth from participating in sports—with arguments focusing on whether or not to include trans girls.

Discrimination in Sports

In 2011, the NCAA began allowing trans athletes to compete in ways that align with their gender identity only if those athletes use hormone-adjusting medication for at least one year prior to participation. But hormones are not an accurate or equitable way to ensure that athletes do not possess unfair advantages—as all bodies have diverse makeups and a person’s genetic material or reproductive system is not an appropriate or useful indicator of their athletic ability.

Experts criticize measurement-based parameters—such as testosterone levels or medical procedures that alter the body—even though these stipulations have been included in some proposed legislation. They note that biological sex is much more complicated than the oversimplified ways people attempt to use to categorize athletes for the purpose of competitions. People of all gender experiences have diverse athletic abilities, and there is no evidence that transgender girls participating in sports have an unfair advantage.

At the Olympic level, athletes must meet specific hormonal standards to compete in women's competitions. These standards prove to be arbitrary after even cisgender women have been barred from participation because their natural levels of testosterone are too high. This experience debunks fallacies about the binary nature of sex as these rules continue to discriminate against various cisgender, transgender, and intersex athletes.

Some anti-trans statutes, including sports bans, were struck down in the wake of this new Title IX interpretation—but others are still being challenged. Some discriminatory laws allow medical providers to refuse to treat trans and queer people. More than 250 bills have been introduced, including over 100 that specifically discriminate against transgender people. Youth could be most impacted, as many of these bills attempt to eliminate their access to affirming medical care, restrooms, and sports.

Green underlines that when it comes to issues protected under Title IX, the federal law will override a state or institution’s attempt to discriminate, which means that trans youth should have more freedoms at school. Still, as battles occur in court, those in hostile school environments are stuck in limbo and might lack access to what they need.

Know Your Rights

It might be confusing to understand exactly how Title IX applies, and non-compliant institutions might try to argue that a specific situation doesn’t count. Green underlines that Title IX applies when someone’s experience with an educational institution is fundamentally changed due to the discrimination.

Green recommends organizing a “Know Your Rights” event by reaching out to local civil rights lawyers or progressive organizations who can inform the community. Similarly, online resources like Know Your IX help students, faculty, and advocates understand protections, how to seek help when reporting discrimination, and how to change school policies. Protections pertain to situations well-beyond the sports arena. For example, teachers are required to use a student’s pronouns and chosen name.

Green explains that compliance to Title IX standards is monitored by specific governing bodies, but that those with authority are not usually aware of noncompliance unless a complaint is filed. To simplify jargon surrounding the complaint process, Green says more directly, “Basically, the process is to first bring your complaint to [the institution] and see if they’ll fix it first,” and if they don’t, a more formal grievance process, which could include legal action, can occur.

Per rules from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, any school or district receiving federal funding must have at least one Title IX coordinator and are required to make sure coordinators are visible and accessible to the community. This person is a resource to those who need information about their rights and should help schools remain in compliance with Title IX standards. Institutions must openly publish their anti-discrimination policies along with procedures for filing a complaint, ensuring that these processes are understood by students, employees, and advocates.

If leaders are made aware of an environment or event which includes sex-based discrimination or hostility, immediate action is required to end the discrimination, ensure it does not continue in the future, and pursue proper accountability.

Affirming Trans Youth Protects Their Mental Health

Transgender youth are less likely to participate in sports than their queer, cisgender counterparts. Overall, queer youth report that they do not feel safe in these environments, noting that they’ve experienced anti-queer harassment on the playing field and in locker rooms and weren’t offered adequate support or intervention when it occurred.

This highlights that queer and trans youth might be sacrificing their interests to avoid discrimination or harassment. Queer youth are already especially vulnerable, with 75% of queer youth reporting that they’ve encountered discrimination. 70% of trans and nonbinary youth reported symptoms of major depression disorder and 77% reported symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.

Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC

At the root of every single mental health issue is the experience of being invalidated or not seen. Humans are social by nature and mental health issues develop in a social context.

— Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC

More than half of trans and nonbinary youth have considered suicide, but this number decreases dramatically when they have access to spaces that affirm their gender identities. Jen Perry, MA, MSEd, LPC, a counselor and life coach, adds, “It is well known that queer youth have high rates of mental health issues including suicide relative to the rest of the population. This isn’t because they are queer.” Rather, she says, it’s because they are invalidated and lack affirmation.

Harassment, hostility, and discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity is now prohibited in schools under Title IX protections, but private clubs can make their own rules about participation. Opportunities are especially limited for nonbinary youth. They might sometimes participate in sports or activities by choosing a gender-segregated team to participate with, but these athletes often lose visibility and affirmation when they have to align only with either a group of boys or a group of girls.

Coaches and community leaders developing programs outside of school systems should remember that queer youth cannot benefit from the positive impacts of participation in sports or teams if these environments do not become safer or more affirming. To accomplish this, leaders must become dedicated to protecting and affirming queer youth in their programs and refuse to tolerate problematic policies, bullying, or other forms of discrimination.

Allies should still be on the lookout for problematic legislation which could impact queer people. Learning about legislation that impacts queer people at the state level is important, but legislation is not the only thing that threatens the lives and well-being of trans people. Look out for subtle or covert transphobia. Misperceptions about trans people, most especially trans-feminine people, place trans people at increased risk for domestic violence, hate crimes, homelessness, mental health concerns, and other experiences of marginalization.

What This Means For You

If you or someone you love is queer, you have the right to safety in educational settings and can pursue affirming activities through these institutions under Title IX protections. The statute does not extend beyond educational institutions, but advocates can and should educate the wider community on issues that impact trans and queer people and promote policies and programs that protect and affirm marginalized people.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Education. U.S. Department of Education confirms Title IX protects students from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Published June 16, 2021.

  2. Human Rights Campaign. 2021 Officially becomes worst year in recent history for LGBTQ state legislative attacks as unprecedented number of states enact record-shattering number of anti-LGBTQ measures into law. Published May 7, 2021.

  3. American Civil Liberties Union. Hecox v. Little - Safer declaration. April 30, 2020.

  4. Sapiens. Sex in sport: men don’t always have the advantage. Published June 10, 2021.

  5. LGBTQ Nation. Two more cis Black women banned from Olympics for their natural testosterone levels. Published July 2, 2021.

  6. Department of Education. Nondiscrimination on the basis of sex in education programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. Fed Regist. 2020;85:30026-30579. Codified at 34 CFR §106.

  7. The Trevor Project. Research brief: LGBTQ youth sports participation. Published June 23, 2020.

  8. The Trevor Project. National survey on LGBTQ youth mental health 2021. Published May 11, 2021.