FAQ About Transgender Students at Colleges and Universities

Does federal law protect me as a transgender college student?

Yes, Title IX of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has stated that Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination encompasses gender identity. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the DOE affirmed that transgender students should not be singled out to use a separate, designated restroom or made to room separately (see “The Federal Government Protects Trans Students” on page 42). They must be treated in accordance with the student’s gender identity for all purposes. That means transgender women should be treated like cisgender women, and transgender men must be treated like cisgender men.

This applies to transgender students in K-12 as well as at colleges and universities.

Also, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of student educational records and also gives current and former students the right to amend those records to match their legal documents if they are “inaccurate, misleading, or in violation of the student’s rights of privacy.” Once a student reaches 18, their parents do not have access to these records unless the student grants permission. (For more information, see “A Transgender Advocate’s Guide To Updating and Amending School Records”.)

What state or local laws protect me?

Some jurisdictions outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex and/or gender identity in public accommodations, which includes public schools and other educational institutions. Many states also have anti-bullying laws, such as the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) in New York and California’s School Success and Opportunities Act. These laws state that a student’s gender identity must always be respected, which is especially important in single-sex restrooms and single-sex sports.

Two recent K-12 school victories in Maine and Colorado have set the stage for how students at all levels should be treated at all educational institutions. These involved transgender girls who were initially denied access to girls’ restrooms; both states have prohibitions on such discrimination, but the schools argued that these didn’t apply.

In January 2014, the Maine Supreme Court found that singling out a transgender student and forcing her to use a restroom separate from cisgender girls was discrimination under Maine state law. The Colorado ruling came in 2013, when that state’s Department of Civil Rights found that forcing a six-year-old student to use the nurse’s restroom was discrimination on the basis of gender identity—and that telling her to “disregard her identity while performing one of the most essential human functions constitutes severe and pervasive treatment, and creates an environment that is objectively and subjectively hostile, intimidating or offensive.”

Can a religious institution discriminate against me because I am transgender?

Educational institutions that receive federal funding are prohibited by Title IX from discriminating on the basis of sex, which includes gender identity. The law does, however, include a loophole for religious-based schools to claim exemption. In 2014, the DOE granted such exemptions to three colleges: George Fox University in Oregon, Spring Arbor University in Michigan and Simpson University in California.

Advocates are very concerned about the increasing use of religious exemptions to avoid antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people and other marginalized groups—a tactic highlighted in June 2014 in the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling targeting reproductive rights.

Can a single-sex college reject my application based on the fact that I’m transgender?

Title IX allows certain kinds of educational institutions to admit students of only one “sex,” including all-women’s colleges. In December 2014, the DOE issued its third official guidance on this issue, this time affirming that “All students, including transgender students and students who do not conform to sex stereotypes, are protected from sex-based discrimination under Title IX. Under Title IX, a recipient generally must treat transgender students consistent with their gender identity in all aspects of the planning, implementation, enrollment, operation, and evaluation of single-sex classes.” This applies to single-sex institutions, as well. Some colleges, including Mills, Mount Holyoke and Simmons, have created policies that are specifically inclusive of transgender students. If you or someone you know has been rejected on the basis of gender identity, please contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at lambdalegal.org/help.

As a transgender student, do I have the right to be placed in campus housing according to my gender identity?

Yes, you have that right as long as your college or university is subject to Title IX and hasn’t specifically exempted itself from this requirement. You should know that institutions frequently use the gender marker on the application to inform campus records and practices. Find out if your college or university offers gender-inclusive housing as an option; this is particularly important for gender-nonconforming (GNC) students. Some state nondiscrimination laws also protect this right. If you or someone you know has been denied gender-appropriate housing, please contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at lambdalegal.org/help.

As a transgender student, do I have the right to use restrooms and locker rooms on campus in accordance with my gender identity?

Yes, your restroom and locker-room rights are much like your housing rights: You are protected if your college or university is subject to Title IX and hasn’t specifically exempted itself. You might also be protected under state or local nondiscrimination laws. Find out if your institution has gender-inclusive (not single-sex) restrooms; these can be particularly important for GNC students. (For more information, see the Trans Policy Clearinghouse (TPC).) If you or someone you know has been denied gender-appropriate restroom use, please contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at lambdalegal.org/help.

What should I do to change the name or gender marker on my student ID, transcript or diploma?

First, check to see if your college or university already has a procedure in place for allowing name and gender marker changes on student records. More than a hundred institutions now allow students to indicate their chosen name on school records regardless of whether they have legally changed their name. Others require you to legally change your name and gender marker on other documents, such as your state ID, passport or birth certificate, before they will amend certain educational records. (For more information, visit the Trans Policy Clearinghouse (TPC).)

If your campus does not have a stated procedure for allowing name and gender marker changes, or if you do not or cannot meet the requirements of existing policy, the Registrar’s Office may be willing to work with you to change your educational records. In approaching the Registrar, you may want to enlist the support of an ally such as a staff member, faculty or ideally an LGBT resource professional. You may also want to bring some helpful materials, including Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Toolkit, in order to help your school understand how important it is to be able to update your educational records.

If an informal approach is unsuccessful, we recommend sending administrators a letter (such as this one) that outlines the legal and practical reasons why your educational documents should be amended.

Whether you visit in person or send a letter, consider citing FERPA, the federal law that protects the privacy of student educational records and also gives current and former students the right to amend those records to match their legal documents.

For more information: Contact Lambda Legal at 212- 809-8585, 120 Wall Street, 19th Floor, New York, NY 10005-3904. If you feel you have experienced discrimination, call our Legal Help Desk toll-free at 866-542-8336 or go to www.lambdalegal.org/help.