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Religion, biology, culture collide on campus

Religious schools look to exemption on transgender issues.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: ADAM WICKHAM - Kole Myrick, a transgender man who starts classes soon at  Marylhurst University, advocates for awareness and resources for transgender issues on college campuses.When Jaycen Marcus returned to campus for his sophomore year, he wanted to live in the men’s dorms with his friends, but George Fox University said they wouldn’t allow it.

Marcus is a transgender man who started his freshman year at the private Christian college in Newberg as the gender he was assigned at birth — female. By the end of his first year, he was feeling depressed about not being who he truly was, and decided he had to transition to an outwardly male appearance.

“Obviously being who you are, you can’t wait,” Marcus says.

But George Fox, citing its religious beliefs, did not acknowledge Marcus as a man for housing purposes, and wouldn’t allow him to live in a men’s dorm.

“I started feeling insecure, depressed and anxious about being a male living with females,” Marcus says.

From 2013-14 the university provided Marcus a single apartment on campus while it studied and evaluated his request. During that time, Marcus hired a lawyer and filed a complaint against George Fox with the U.S. Department of Education.

This prompted the university to put transgender policies into place as well as seek an exemption to Title IX. The university requested the exemption because it says it conflicts with the university’s religious beliefs on “sexual morality.”

The federal law is commonly known for giving females more opportunity in school sports, but Title IX actually prohibits any discrimination on the basis of sex for any federally funded educational program or activity.

Marcus and George Fox aren’t the only individuals and campuses wrestling with transgender issues and the intersection of religion, culture and biology. On Sunday, a federal judge in Texas took the unusual step of a temporary nationwide block to the Obama administration’s interpretation of Title IX for transgender people.

Colleges are now back to interpreting the law as they wish, pending further litigation.

With classes starting soon, some Oregon colleges are adopting policies to accommodate transgender people and these issues, while others are taking the opposite approach.

Exemption granted

George Fox was granted an exemption in May 2014 to Title IX provisions for housing, bathrooms and athletics by the U.S. Department of Education.

George Fox’s position statement on being transgender says, “complete physical and emotional wholeness for humanity will never fully occur on Earth. Humans’ experiences of sex and gender may not always be as the Creator originally designed.”

“No one is forced to attend a private religious college,” says Rob Felton, the George Fox public information director. “Students choose George Fox because it is a Christian college offering a great education. George Fox welcomes students from all backgrounds, but I don't think it would surprise anyone that a Christian college would have different community expectations than a public or secular private college.”

Marcus says he chose George Fox in part because he saw the “church part as a plus.”

But Marcus was never able to live in an all-male dorm. The school took more than a year to respond and eventually said, even if he went through a full transition, he couldn’t live with males because he was born biologically female, Marcus says.

“It made me feel that what I needed for myself wasn’t recognized or valued,” Marcus says. “It made me feel like who I was, was less than everybody else because what everyone else was receiving, I wasn’t receiving.”

Marcus plans to finish his few courses left at George Fox in order to complete his degree.

Transgender issues nationwide

The combination of the Obama administration’s 2014 interpretation of Title IX with the country legalizing gay marriage last year has created a more open dialogue for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) issues.

“Up until five to eight years ago, most campuses wouldn’t talk about the T in LGBT — it was silent,” says Shane Windmeyer, the executive director of Campus Pride, a national nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina, that develops resources, programs and services to support LGBTQ students.

After the Obama administration expanded its interpretation of Title IX and threatened to cut off federal education funding for those that didn’t comply, many religious colleges started requesting an exemption from the law.

Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Patty Murray of Washington, both Democrats, called for the U.S. Department of Education to release names and applications of the schools requesting exemptions. Wyden, in a press release, said students, parents and taxpayers have a right to know who those colleges are and why they are requesting exemptions. The list was released in May, and included two Portland-area universities: George Fox and Multnomah University.

Multnomah is a nondenominational Christian university in Northeast Portland. Its president, G. Craig Williford, requested an exemption in February 2015 and is still waiting on a response.

Multnomah’s exemption request to the U.S. Department of Education stated, “The university believes that sexual relations of any kind outside these confines of heterosexual marriage are inconsistent with the teaching of scripture. … we cannot support or encourage an individual to live in conflict with biblical principles. Moreover, any individual who violates campus standards for biblical living is subject to discipline, including expulsion.”

Multnomah University declined to comment for this article.

How schools are responding

Kole Myrick, a transgender man, has concerns about starting at Marylhurst University, a Catholic institution, this fall.

He doesn’t want to have to explain who he is to new people and worry about whether or not his teachers are going to acknowledge his gender and where he is going to go to the bathroom in between classes.

“I want to do my education,” Myrick says. “I don’t want to have to teach everybody how to exist in a world where there are queer people and trans people, and stuff like that.”

Myrick was a part of developing the Queer Resource Center at Portland Community College’s southeast campus, where he earned two associate's degrees. He says having a center like the one at PCC provides a safe place for LBGTQ students and faculty to go, and it also takes the pressure off of the student to teach everyone on campus about transgender issues.

“Someone needs to understand that LGBTQ students have other barriers in front of them that cisgender students are not going to have,” Myrick says. Cisgender is a term describing people who are not transgender — people who have been born into the body that matches their gender identity.

Portland State University also has a Queer Resource Center on its campuses. Both PSU and PCC have a “preferred name” system, which allows a transgender student, who has not had a legal name change or started to transition, to be acknowledged by the name and gender they identify with on school forms and on class roster lists.

Myrick says this provides safety for the student and doesn’t forcibly out them in class.

PSU allows transgender students to live in on-campus housing and dorm rooms with roommates based on the gender they know themselves as and not the gender they were assigned at birth, says Craig Leets, the director of Queer Student Services at PSU.

He says PSU also is one of the first universities to offer transgender-inclusive health care for students to aid their transition through hormones and/or surgical procedures.

“We’re working to remove barriers so students can just focus on their education,” Leets says.

Some not seeking exemption

Some religious universities don’t see the need for an exemption from Title IX.

Marylhurst was founded by nuns but focuses its curriculum on liberal arts and adult degree completion. The campus life at Marylhurst is different then the average four-year university, says Joan Jagodnik, the director of student services for Marylhurst. It does not have on-campus housing and half of its students take online courses only. Although they don’t have an LGBTQ center or group on campus, they do have gender-neutral bathrooms.

The University of Portland, a large Catholic university, has gender-neutral bathrooms and two LGBTQ support groups. UP did not respond to inquires as to what their transgender policy on housing is.

Gender and religion

One thing that is difficult for some to understand is the difference between gender identity and sex, Marcus says.

Sex is biological and gender is socially constructed, Myrick says. He explains gender identity in three different ways.

First you receive your biological gender based upon physical genitalia given at birth by a doctor, Myrick says. You are also socially given a gender based on your lifestyle and the set of rules on gender norms, he says. The most important one is the gender you identify as, Myrick says — what you believe yourself to be. He says your body can exhibit one gender physically, but your brain doesn’t recognize that at all. Whenever it sees the body there is a disconnect — “that’s not me, that’s not what’s supposed to be showing,” Myrick says.

“With religion, you have choices,” Myrick says. “I have no choice. I have the choice of either living authentically or living a lie to make somebody else more comfortable, and that’s not a choice. No one’s choosing this. No one in their right mind is choosing this. You don’t choose any of this stuff, but with a religion you can choose to worship or not worship, believe or not believe.”

Separation of church and state provision

Title IX spells out that federal law “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity.” Both George Fox and Multnomah University receive federal funding for student tuition and research.

But such colleges point to the The Code of Federal Regulations, which says Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that Title IX laws would not be consistent with the religious beliefs of the organization.

George Fox, Multnomah University and religious universities all over the country have used the Code of Federal Regulation as their ticket out of having to uphold certain aspects of Title IX.