By Emma Campbell
On March 29, 33 LGBTQ+ college students filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Education, alleging they “faced discrimination at 25 federally funded Christian colleges and universities in 18 states,” reported NBC News.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the students by the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, an organization that advocates for LGBTQ+ students at religious colleges and universities funded by taxpayers.
Luke Wilson, a former student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., told NBC that he received conversion therapy from a student club, and saw an ad on campus that promised to help those “struggling with same-sex attraction.”
Director of REAP Paul Southwick told NBC that many LGBTQ+ students often enroll at religious colleges because of pressure from their “fundamentalist Christian families.”
“The natural consequence of that is that — gay or straight — a lot of them will end up at Christian colleges, and when they’re there, they’re treated inhumanely and subjected to these dangerous and abusive policies and practices,” he said.
Washington College is not a faith-based institution, and Title IX protects LGBTQ+ students who face harassment based on sexual and gender-based identities. Like all colleges and universities in the U.S., WC is obligated to respond to sexual violence or harassment regardless of orientation, gender identity, and gender presentation. However, just because WC complies with the protections against harassment provided by Title IX does not mean it is the gold standard for LGBTQ+ student advocacy in higher education.
“I personally haven’t had any negative interactions regarding my sexuality at WC, but I think not being harassed is a very low bar to set,” sophomore Secretary of Encouraging Respect of Sexuality Avery Castellani said. “WC needs to [be] actively involved in making its campus inclusive instead of relying solely on clubs like EROS and SAGE, whose social circles only extend so far.”
Not being discriminated against should not be an ideal for LGBTQ+ students at WC; it should be an expectation. There may not be student-run conversion therapy on campus, but there is still a glaring lack of simple understanding for students in this community.
“I think there are a lot of efforts to be inclusive to LGBTQ+ students [at WC], but these efforts can sometimes fall short,” senior President of EROS Sam Robinson said. “For example, I know some of my peers have had difficulties with the preferred name change process through the registrar’s office, which can be discouraging and potentially triggering to those who do not go by their name assigned at birth. In addition, it can feel like other students don’t make an effort to reach out to LGBTQ+ students. I am very fortunate to not have faced discrimination because of my sexuality during my time here, but I have friends who have had negative experiences with administration or other students.”
On JobX, many WC students are forced to apply for positions under their deadnames. Deadnaming is the use of the former name of any transgender or non-binary person without their express consent — a tremendously harmful occurrence that may subject the target to stress, harassment, and discrimination.
Though this administrative lapse is not intentional, it is still discriminatory, and has a negative impact on numerous WC students.
“I know for me personally, having to apply for on-campus jobs with my deadname really sucks because it means whoever I work for is going to automatically know my deadname,” junior Teddy Friedline said. “Even if I trust them, that’s still just not information I want anyone to have. That’s not me anymore. Or even worse, if they’re expecting an application from me, they might not know it’s from me because it’s under my deadname. It’s just…uncomfortable, sort of perpetually.”
By allowing this perpetual discomfort to go unaddressed, WC is directly violating the protections stipulated in Title IX. According to the Title IX resource guide published by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, “Title IX protects students, employees, applicants for admission and employment, and other persons from all forms of sex discrimination, including discrimination based on gender identity or failure to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity or femininity.”
Additionally, WC faculty and administration should make more concentrated efforts to normalize the use of correct pronouns. There is still important work that needs to be done in order to de-stigmatize those who deviate from traditionally used pronouns — as well as taking away the misguided assumption that preferred pronouns are only used by transgender people.
“I appreciate professors who make an effort to learn their students’ preferred names and pronouns, which I feel should be the standard by now,” Robinson said. “Also, just being open to learning more about LGBTQ+ issues and addressing their own potential biases with an open mind. If relevant and appropriate, it would be great for more professors and departments to incorporate LGBTQ+ content into their curriculums.”
Just as WC is working to integrate racial diversity into course curriculums and campus culture — the Asterisk Initiative, for instance, seeks to “reckon honestly with previously unacknowledged history surrounding African Americans,” according to its website — it should also acknowledge the issues directly impacting LGBTQ+ students, especially if real change may spark from these conversations.
“I think students outside of the LGBTQ+ community should remember the importance of practicing good allyship,” Robinson said. “Listening to your queer friends and classmates and advocating for better policies on their behalf is incredibly valuable. As such a small campus, we have a lot of power to make the change we want to see.”
Though LGBTQ+ students have spaces on campus — namely, EROS and Supporting All Gender Experiences, or SAGE — there is still a lack of clarity surrounding issues impacting this community, and not enough communication from administration as to how these issues are being addressed. For example, WC has long been in need of gender-neutral bathrooms. Though WC committed to expanding gender-neutral bathrooms across campus in an email from the President’s Office sent on Feb. 11, there haven’t been any updates about the project since then.
“I know bathrooms aren’t the only transgender issue, but having so few gender-neutral bathrooms [is] a pain,” Friedline said. “Sometimes I think the number of resources on campus for LGBTQ+ students is low, but it’s very possible I just don’t know about them because they aren’t advertised as well or I’m just not in their target audience for whatever reason.”
WC needs to improve in publicizing resources for its LGBTQ+ students, which could be accomplished by utilizing social media platforms or by sending regular updates regarding the status of projects like the gender-neutral bathroom expansion. Our classrooms can be made more inclusive by requiring students to share preferred pronouns during roll call, and, as Robinson said, incorporating more LGBTQ+ content into course curriculums. Allyship requires more than just allowing people to exist; it also necessitates action and communication.
“It’s really overwhelmingly simple, if you think about it,” Castellani said. “LGBTQ+ rights are basic human rights. We are not less deserving of respect or support based on who we love and shouldn’t have to come up with grand arguments for why we should be advocated for when the answer is pretty black and white.”
Featured Photo caption: A lawsuit filed on March 29 alleged that LGBTQ+ students faced discrimination at 25 federally funded Christian colleges and universities, sparking national discourse relating to treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals in higher education. Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.