UH Commits to Anti-Discrimination Policy

Lassner vows to continue Title IX protections in spite of feds

News Editor Nick Carrion

Photographer Elizabeth Lough

Title IX Office

One of the recent and more controversial actions of Donald Trump’s presidential administration is a directive stating that Title IX protections do not apply to transgender students. Title IX refers to an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965, and deals with sexual discrimination on college campuses. Originally dealing with collegiate athletics, Title IX has been interpreted to cover almost all areas of college life.

However, as is often the case with civil rights laws, the wording of the law is left a little vague. Many groups - transgender students among them - aren’t listed specifically, and the idea of “sexual discrimination” is left fairly open to interpretation. Under the Obama administration, the Department of Justice issued what is known as a directive - not a law, rather a recommendation - stating that Title IX protections should be interpreted as applying to those who identify as a gender different from the one listed on their birth certificate.

In late February, the Trump administration issued a directive effectively reversing the previous one carried out by Obama. At the heart of the controversy is the issue of bathroom choice. The previous directive interpreted Title IX to mean that transgender students on college campuses that receive federal funding are allowed to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, while the current ruling would require them to use the bathroom of their gender at birth. Supporters believe it would make campuses safer for women by keeping potential predators out of women’s restrooms, while opponents say it unfairly discriminates against transgender students.

University of Hawaii system president David Lassner recently issued a statement asserting UH’s commitment against all forms of discrimination, and reiterated the school system’s pro-LGBTQ+ policy. In an email announcement, Lassner stated, “Regardless of what the federal government compels nationwide through compliance requirements, UH remains steadfast in our commitment to nondiscrimination and prevention of sexual harassment, including protections for transgender, gender non-conforming and LGBTQ+ individuals.”

He continues with a bit of history regarding the University of Hawaii’s policy on these issues. “The University of Hawaii initiated our program of protections for our LGBTQ+ community before the initial federal guidance, and our protections remain in place across the UH system regardless of this federal action. Our protection includes but is not limited to: access to learning environments that are free of discrimination, bullying and harassment; access to restrooms and changing facilities and use of preferred names on university records and ID’s.”

Clearly, a pro-LGBTQ policy is nothing new for the UH system. In fact, as Ke Kalahea reported last November, the Fall 2016 semester saw the opening of the UH Hilo’s LGBTQ+ Center. The center’s coordinator, Laura Sherwood, reiterates the center’s purpose and why it was opened.

“It came out of the Women’s Center. So it wasn’t that there weren’t resources for the LGBTQ community, it was that it was under the umbrella of the Women’s Center. And so then after the Orlando shooting there was just such a push for a specific center for the community, and it was like, ‘Okay, let’s open a center.’”

Sherwood continued, saying that “we’re a second semester in and it’s just been about building the center, building our presence, letting people know that we have resources on campus, that there is an LGBTQ center now. We’re doing safe zone training out of the center. Pride [Hilo] meets here, at least once a week they have their meetings here.”

Although the center is still relatively new, Sherwood says that the campus community has quickly embraced it. “There are people that stop by all the time, and then there’s a fairly large group that comes here pretty regularly. And I think people are still getting to know what it is. So we’re putting more of a presence in Campus Center, and doing events and things like that to get people involved.”

As coordinator for a center that specifically supports the LGBTQ+ community on campus, Sherwood is directly affected by Trump’s rescinding of Obama’s directive. Her position also gives her a unique perspective on how it affects students here on campus. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t believe that students will see much of an impact across the UH system.

“No, because our Title IX, regardless of what the Trump administration does or says, [we] still will honor - we’re a non-discriminating state. And the president [of the UH system] of course sent out the email. Regardless of what’s happening politically, we continue to honor people and will back our gender policy and Title IX. That means that we will not discriminate based on that. Title IX will still cover transgender people. So in that way, it doesn’t really impact us personally.”

While Trump’s new directive may not change the way things are done at UH Hilo, Sherwood adds that the presidential policy is still discomforting news for many.

“Of course it impacts people, constantly hearing about this in the media, and the fear of what’s happening. And individuals that are transgender, what that means to them, producing anxiety and fear in them, and having to be more in the spotlight of, why are they not equal as far as our government? And why are they not protected? So there is some anxiety for individuals, but I haven’t seen it per se on campus.”

So what happens when an organization, like a school, disobeys a federal directive? Like many public universities, the UH system receives much of its funding from the federal government. And the president has previously expressed a willingness to withdraw funding from ‘sanctuary cities’ and other institutions that disobey federal policy, although so far the administration not taken steps to punish any particular institution. Sherwood thinks it unlikely that UH will see any repercussions for defying the directive. In any case, her LGBTQ Center will certainly not be affected.

“This position is not funded under the federal government. This was put into place under other funds, maybe a grant or something. So this position is not federally funded.”

Sherwood admits that while her office operates independently from any federal funds, the same cannot be said of UH Hilo’s Title IX office, which declined to comment due to the complicated privacy laws that govern their department. She says it is possible, but unlikely, that the federal government will turn its eye their way.

“Title IX on the other hand, those positions probably are [federally funded]. But if they’re enforcing something, you know we’re so far removed from Washington, D.C. I don’t think that they’re going to pay attention to us. But these are very disheartening things, especially when it comes to women’s rights and reproductive things, and all the things that have been proposed. It’s concerning for everyone.”

Regardless of political beliefs, Sherwood contends that the actions of the new president are bringing more people into the political discussion than before. “I think everyone’s on heightened awareness, and people that don’t normally pay attention to the news are now. You can’t not be aware.”