The Trump administration is making it more difficult for the federal government to address and resolve complaints about transgender discrimination filed by students on Kenyon’s campus.
On Feb. 22, 2017, President Donald Trump revoked a set of 2016 Department of Education (DoE) guidelines that outlined how schools could create a non-discriminatory environment for transgender students. They rescinded the guidelines because they did not “contain extensive legal analysis … nor did they undergo any formal process.”
The 2016 guidelines, laid out by the Obama administration in a “Dear Colleague Letter” (DCL), stated that prohibiting transgender students from using restrooms that align with their gender identity violates Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination. It also advised schools on how to respect trans students’ pronouns, protect their identities and address allegations of harassment on campus.
This decision has complicated transgender Kenyon students’ ability to rely on the federal government to protect them, according to Kenyon Civil Rights/Title IX Coordinator Samantha Hughes. If someone files a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) stating that Kenyon is not fulfilling its Title IX-sanctioned obligation to transgender students, it is now unclear how the OCR will respond, Hughes said.
“Now that [the DCL is] off the table, it makes it a bit harder for [Kenyon’s OCR] to know what the DoE will say we failed to do,” Hughes said. The DoE has not offered any new guidance.
Ez Raider-Roth ’19, a nonbinary student who is managing Unity House next year, is “disappointed and a little scared” about the revoking of the DCL.
“The rollback accompanied a week in which four trans women of color were murdered, which was a pretty clear cause and effect, I think,” Raider-Roth said.
President Sean Decatur, Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Bonham ’92 and Hughes all affirmed Kenyon’s continued commitment to its transgender students despite the new policy.
Since the DCL did not change Kenyon’s policies, it will not have a large impact on the College, according to Bonham.
Kenyon faces its own tensions over the administration’s ability to protect transgender students, Robin-Phalen Rayson ’18, who is trans, said.
“Saying ‘we’re not like that’ or ‘we’re better than that’ … I can’t say that I believe that,” Rayson said. Rayson also questioned the “cisgender administration’s ability to accurately anticipate the needs of transgender students.”
“I think a lot of these changes occur when transgender students bring them up, and then there is a response,” Rayson said. “We are always going to be the catalyst of action and the administration is always going to be reactive. That’s … shifting the labor onto trans students.”
A nonbinary student who spoke to the Collegian on the condition of anonymity, echoed this sentiment. “Kenyon is pretty good about allowing student groups to form and support each other, but they seem to let all the students do the legwork,” they said.
Hughes expressed frustration with the fact that students do not frequently address their concerns with her office.
“I really want to hear from students because that’s why I’m here,” Hughes said. “I’m dealing with the information that I have. I would certainly like to have more.”
Hughes cited Kenyon’s gender-inclusive restroom policy as an example of the administration’s commitment to trans students. There are many gender-inclusive restrooms in residences and academic buildings, Hughes said.
“The way that we talk about trans issues in this country is all about bathrooms, but it’s not just about bathrooms,” Raider-Roth said. It’s “especially [about] hospitals and doctors’ offices,” according to Raider-Roth.
The Cox Health Center has no staff members that specialize in trans health issues. Bonham said she is “not aware” of any formal process by which Kenyon health specialists are trained in trans medical care.
Raider-Roth noted that there are two counselors that “have experience with LGBTQ issues and that’s only because they themselves identify as queer.”
Tatenda Makwemberi, the counselor who was hired to help students with diverse and underrepresented identities, left Kenyon a few weeks ago. The administration has launched the search for a new counselor and is focusing on finding someone who can provide care for students with traditionally underserved and/or underrepresented identities.
Another effort Decatur cited to prove Kenyon’s commitment to its trans students is the “progress this year on our database system so that preferred names can be altered and changed within the student information system,” he said. At the end of last semester, with prompting from Kenyon administrators, Registrar Ellen Harbourt began to include students’ preferred names in the class lists that she disseminates to faculty members. If students wish to change their preferred name for these lists, they can email Harbourt. A couple of students have followed up on this offer, Harbourt said.
Raider-Roth, Rayson and the anonymous student all warned against calling Kenyon a place where transphobia does not exist.
“It’s the way professors say ‘he or she’ instead of ‘they,’” the anonymous student said. “It’s the way people suddenly stop talking to you because they feel too pressured to perform political correctness — in other words, respect — as if I’m not performing gendered stereotypes to ease their discomfort.”
Raider-Roth, too, emphasized the constant nature of transphobia. “I get misgendered every day,” Raider-Roth said. “It’s not so much overt discrimination so much as I’ll walk into a room and people will back away. That, in and of itself, is as hurtful as being called a f–.”