By Daniel Borgen with Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
An African-American transgender student–who’ll be a junior at George Fox University next year–has been denied on-campus housing at the Oregon college. Jayce M., from Portland, Ore., has medically and socially transitioned and has started his legal transition. Jayce’s attorney, Portlander Paul Southwick, filed a Title IX discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Friday morning.
As of Friday morning, the university has not responded to requests for comment. George Fox University is a Christian university of liberal arts and sciences located in Newberg, Ore.
In a letter obtained by PQ Monthly, Mark Pothoff, Dean of Community Life, who partnered with Brad Lau, Vice-President for Student Life, along with four members of the Board of Trustees before making the decision, outlined the institution’s denial–and their rationale. The school is in the process of adding to their housing policy that they will house students by his/her biological birth sex–which, according to college officials, needs more time to be developed, and to “coincide with a theological and philosophical statement.”
In lieu of on-campus housing, college officials offered “conditional” approval for Jayce–to live off-campus with male students for the 2014-15 school year. The conditional approval, according to the letter from college officials, is a “one-year exception”–and subject to change at any time. In order to receive “full approval” to live off-campus with male students, Jayce must meet a variety of requirements before June 1–including legally changing his name and gender for the following items: his driver’s license, his social security card, and his birth certificate. (The demand about his birth certificate was later rescinded.)
Additionally, school officials–at first–insisted they “must meet with” all of Jayce’s potential roommates in order to “affirm they understand his story, are willing to live with him,” and that his roommates “have informed their parents about this living arrangement.”
Pothoff did present another option: “If you desire to only live on-campus, we may be able to provide a single room for you, although we agreed this was not a good option (though we would certainly do our best to connect you with the larger community if you were in a single room).”
“I recognize this decision may be controversial to some people in our community,” Pothoff writes. “However, I think you’ve provided good rationale that caused us to reconsider the initial decision. […] Jayce, I’m glad you’re at Fox and I want to continue to see you be successful here.”
But apparently Jayce’s success has its conditions.
Southwick, himself a George Fox alum, sheds light on the particulars regarding the violation of Jayce’s rights: “The university violated Jayce’s rights under Title IX because they denied him on-campus housing on the basis of his sex, gender identity and transgender status. The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division (DOJ) recently determined that “[a]ll students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are protected from sex-based discrimination under Title IX and Title IV.” (Emphasis added.) This law, according to Southwick, extends to religious institutions: “Although some religious institutions are exempt from Title IX coverage with regard to admissions, all institutions must treat their students without discrimination on the basis of sex with respect to non-admissions decisions, including student housing.”
George Fox, who on Thursday denied Jayce’s last appeal on the matter, refused to meet with Southwick and Jayce to resolve his housing situation informally. Despite pleas from Jayce and his mother–including a direct appeal to the President–the university continued to deny Jayce’s request for on-campus housing. The school did, eventually–and after meetings with Jayce and his mother–remove the off-campus requirement that Jayce’s friends inform their parents that they are living with a transgender student, since that would have been a violation of Jayce’s privacy rights, and that he change the sex listed on his birth certificate, according to Southwick. (He was born in Tennessee, which remains one of the few states that makes it impossible for transgender people to change their sex on their birth certificate.)
Jayce talked with PQ Monthly about his experience. “While I appreciate university administrators meeting with me regarding my housing requests, their ultimate decision makes me feel rejected, misunderstood, and punished for something I cannot change,” he said. “It also makes me anxious and nervous about where I’ll be able to live next year–and the year after that–especially if their housing policy based on ‘biological birth sex’ goes into effect.”
“I have a supportive community at George Fox, including my friends, faculty members and the students who are part of the unofficial LGBT & Allies club on campus called Common Ground,” Jayce added. “I’m also not the only trans student on campus. I love the people at George Fox University. The students and faculty have been very supportive of me. I’d like to be able to live on campus with my friends next year.”
In addition to the Title IX discrimination violations, it seems the college’s decision violates the Oregon Equality Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in public accommodations and housing. While there are religious exemptions included in the act, they do not apply to Jayce’s circumstances, said Southwick.
“The letter received by Jayce regarding his housing request is infuriating, cruel, and in its own perverse way, fascinating,” writes PQ’s Leela Ginelle. “The inequality experienced by transgender students at the school can be measured by the volume of hoops the school has created for Jayce to jump through, and the degree of paternalism in which they’re presented.”
She continues: “According to Pothoff, the school is ‘in the process’ of implementing a retrograde policy of ‘housing’ (his word) students according to their ‘biological sex,’ a policy that would deny Jayce of his affirmed gender while living at the school. Pothoff mentions that he’d offered to allow Jayce to live in a single room, a quarantining option, popular among large organizations, who often offer transgender people their own bathrooms when they can to minimize the discomfort of the transphobes in their midst, while magnifying that of the transpeople.
While it appears the university oversees its students’ housing arrangements regardless of their gender, the implication in Pothoff’s statement that Jayce might attempt to deceive his potential roommates regarding his gender is pretty classic transphobia, as is Pothoff’s stipulation that the parents of Jayce’s potential roommates must give their approval to his living with them.
Perhaps the most remarkable part about the letter is Pothoff’s expressing fear that his decision will strike some at George Fox as ‘controversial’ because of its liberality. Newberg is certainly a long way from Portland. While Pothoff’s letter does not provide all the facts of the case, it clearly demonstrates that Jayce has been treated as unequal to his classmates. From Pothoff’s tone it appears he has acted in good faith in seeking a solution, but it’s impossible to imagine a cisgender student being subjected to the requirements and trials Jayce has been presented. Likewise, the rules the university is in the process of drafting sound equally, if not more, limiting than those Pothoff concocted.
Jayce is trying to be himself. The university, in its policing of his gender and its intrusions into his private life, is not letting him.”
In a bright spot, Jayce’s mother–who’s been incredibly supportive–has started an online petition at change.org. “I am speaking out for my African-American, transgender son, Jayce,” she writes. “Jayce wants to live with his male friends in on-campus housing next year, but George Fox University refused to allow it because Jayce is transgender.” You can find her petition here.
PQ also reached out to Basic Rights Oregon for their perspective on similar housing issues. BRO’s Jeana Frazzini had this to say: “At Basic Rights Oregon we work every day to address the challenges faced by LGBT folks, especially transgender Oregonians, in accessing basic needs like housing, health care and public accommodations. I can’t comment on the specifics of the case, but we believe that no one should face barriers in housing for who they are, or who they love. These barriers compromise the safety and well-being of our community, and are felt most acutely by transgender people of color.”
UPDATE 3:15 PM APRIL 4:
George Fox University published a response on their website this afternoon:
April 4, 2014 – George Fox University is a Christ-centered community. We affirm the dignity and humanity of every student – each of whom is an image bearer of God.
These commitments don’t always lead to easy answers in an increasingly complex world. But George Fox is very conscious of the need to approach difficult questions with grace, understanding and an abiding love for our students, faculty and staff. This is why we are disappointed in how the situation has escalated.
A petition posted online yesterday accuses the university of denying appropriate housing to a transgender student. The petition – created in coordination with a Portland attorney and activist – does not give a complete picture of this complex situation.
Both religious and non-religious universities are struggling with appropriate ways to support their transgender students. Over the past several months, George Fox Student Life staff has spent many hours with this student hearing his story and offering support. Out of respect for the student’s wishes, university staff refers to the student using the male pronoun. At this time, the student has not legally changed genders.
On many occasions, the student has expressed to Student Life staff that he has felt safe, listened to, supported and cared for at George Fox – by students, faculty and Student Life staff. He has acknowledged that this is why he has chosen to remain at the university.
George Fox strives to be a Christ-centered community and our residential facilities are single sex because of our theological commitments. The student’s request to switch from female-only on-campus housing to male-only on-campus housing is one that many institutions would struggle with.
While the university did not grant his request to live on campus with males, the student was not denied on-campus housing. He was offered the option of an on-campus single apartment with a commitment from Student Life to ensuring he stayed socially connected to the community.
The university has researched the student’s attorney’s legal claims and believes they are without merit, especially given the religious nature of the university.
The university has made many efforts to provide support and accommodation for the student and remains committed to his academic, physical and spiritual welfare.
Paul Southwick, who works at Davis Wright Tremaine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and found here. Photos by Benjamin Lachman.