How Title IX expanded to protect LGBT students

January 17, 2017, 1:21 PM

— -- Title IX, the law that provides women with equal access to all services at educational institutions, turns 44 years old in 2016. Known primarily for expanding access to women in athletics, Title IX has had a much broader impact in recent years. Since 2011, a series of federal mandates and court cases has expanded the reach of the law's protection.

It all started with a simple letter that made sexual violence a matter of Title IX law. The result was the inclusion of LGBT students under the law's protection.

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the division within the U.S. Department of Education that enforces Title IX, releases a Dear Colleague letter, a common strategy used by the government to address a specific issue or question.?The 2011 letter officially established sexual violence on college campuses as a Title IX issue, affirming it's a form of sexual harassment and obliging campuses to address it as a matter of equity and access.

The letter also required schools to have a Title IX coordinator on campus and set up a procedure for any complaints that are filed. As a result, universities and colleges must comply with Title IX as directed by the OCR's Dear Colleague letter in order to receive federal funding.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the division of the federal government that enforces laws making it illegal to discriminate against an employee because of their sex, race, age, etc, decides that the Civil Rights Act protects transgender individuals. The EEOC's ruling reads: "The term 'gender' encompasses not only a person's biological sex but also the cultural and social aspects associated with masculinity and femininity."

While this particular ruling doesn't directly affect Title IX, it builds a philosophy that paves the way for future expansions Title IX protections.

The OCR released guidance?for its 2011 Dear Colleague Letter. The document's language mirrors the wording laid out in the EEOC's 2012 decision to protect transgender individuals. The OCR wrote: "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."

The move expanded the reach of Title IX protections, making sex discrimination based on gender identity a violation of the law.

The new parameters regarding gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are included in the updated Title IX Resource Guide published by OCR, thus requiring colleges to provide equal access to LGBT students.

With expanded Title IX protection has come push-back and consequences. Some religious institutions have requested Title IX waivers from OCR to avoid punishment for not providing certain accommodations (such as gender-inclusive housing and restrooms) to the LGBT community.

The Department of Education has announced plans to create searchable database that reveals the names of colleges and universities who have been granted religious exemptions from federal civil rights protections.

And while the executive branch has expanded the reach of Title IX enforcement, the power of the law ultimately rests with the courts. Lawsuits involving these Title IX issues have already begun and could decide the weight of the new rules.

The U.S. Court of Appeals heard opening arguments in January 2016 in the case Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board . Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, is alleging his school is violating Title IX for not allowing him to use the men's bathroom. The court could hand down a ruling in the coming months.

Another case, Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, was resolved in an out-of-court settlement last month. The terms weren't disclosed. The plaintiff, a transgender male, had said he was wrongfully expelled and accused the school of violating his rights by banning his use of the men's locker rooms.

These cases address key remaining questions about the legality of anti-LGBT decisions.