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“Dear Colleague”

“Dear Colleague”

Mary M. Doyle Roche


On May 13, 2016, the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released together the “Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students” guidelines for schools about how to protect the civil rights and dignity of transgender students ( “Dear Colleague” summarizes the “Title IX obligations regarding transgender students,” which prohibits discrimination based on sex, gender identity, or trans status. Moreover, “for the purposes of Title IX and its implementing regulations … a school must not treat a transgender student differently from the way it treats other students of the same gender identity.” They acknowledge that while this practice may make other students uncomfortable, “As consistently recognized in civil rights cases, the desire to accommodate others’ discomfort cannot justify a policy that singles out and disadvantages a particular class of students.” The guidelines aim to: insure a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students; provide direction on issues regarding identification documents, names; and identify sex-segregated activities and facilities (restrooms and locker rooms, athletics, single-sex classes, single-sex schools, overnight accommodations, etc.).


The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Office of Safe and Healthy Students released also Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students ( taken from school districts that have sought to resolve the challenges faced by transgender students and the conflicts that can occur within schools.


Since release of the guidelines, a number of states (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) have joined a lawsuit in opposition to expansion of Title IX to transgender students. Arguments against compliance range from the desire to maintain states’ rights to protesting what they view as an incorrect interpretation of Title IX protections. These developments occur amidst media headlines and debates about state laws prohibiting trans men and women from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Using public restrooms and other accommodations have become matters of privacy rights, political freedom, and religious liberty. The unfortunate result is further marginalization of transgender persons who already confront discrimination, bullying, and violent hate crimes.


Sex and gender are complex realities. Scholars from a variety of disciplines in the natural and social sciences continue to help us understand these aspects of human experience while brave transgender children and adults share their stories. Our vocabulary is expanding and gaining greater nuance: sex, natal sex, sex assigned at birth, gender identity, gender expression, gender roles, gender nonconforming, gender transition, sexual orientation, transgender, cis-gender, intersex. We are called again to consider the diversity of creation and the dignity and mystery of human persons –each created in God’s image and likeness.


Once I realized how little I knew I sought to learn more about the experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming persons and their families from Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner, 2012) and from Amy Ellis Nutt’s Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family (Random House, 2015). For young Nicole Maines the bathroom was a flashpoint, though not for the other girls in her school, who knew her from before her transition and accepted her as the girl she was all along. But a boy, who had been manipulated by his grandfather to enter the girls’ bathroom whenever Nicole did in order to prove some twisted point, was a bullying menace. Sadly, school administrators catered to adult fears and misunderstandings about transgender persons. The Maines’ family has since mustered with “the kind of courage that makes other people feel brave” to challenge the school and have become advocates for transgender rights.


These texts were only a beginning for my understanding of this complexity. I turned to my colleague, KJ Rawson, Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Transgender Digital Archive ( to recommend summer reading for me. I will be spending time with his recommendations: Susan Stryker, Transgender History (Seal Press, 2008); Jennifer Finney Boylan, She’s Not There (Broadway, 2003); and Cris Beam, Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers (Harcourt, 2007). As one ninety-one-year-old mother of a trans woman reminds us, “It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know” and as Catholic theological ethicists searching what the tradition might offer to the issues of our time, we often turn to stories such as these for wisdom. Dear colleagues, would you join me in reading them?