When I learned recently that George Fox University (GFU), a Christian university named for the founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), had denied appropriate housing to one of its students, Jayce, who happens to be transgender, all of my usual hackles were raised. A transman who requests to be housed among other men should be granted that housing. This is both consistent with and affirming of his gender identity. Anything less is unsupportive and discriminatory. Period. I am angry, disappointed, and also, I am unsurprised.
This story hits a little closer to home, too, because GFU is affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and I am a Quaker. There is a distinction, however, between GFU’s Quaker denomination and mine, so it’s not quite the same as my home community rejecting me, but it was worth mentioning. We are connected by history, by some overlap in community, and by some theology (albeit with some stark differences). This story has rippled out into my Quaker communities, with liberal Friends decrying the injustice, probably further driving a wedge between our more liberal tradition and that of our fellow Friends across the theological divide.
The Quakerism that I practice emphasizes the inward spiritual experience over scripture and other outward rules or creeds. My own experience of coming out as transgender has been deeply spiritual for me, as I have followed my inner sense of Truth and wholeness and accepted the path ahead as one where I had to come out and transition. This process for me both requires and is essential to my faith as a Quaker. The Quakerism GFU is affiliated with places scripture above the inward experience. Perhaps this contributes to the issue at hand, though there is no scripture I am aware of that calls for discrimination against transgender people.
GFU’s behavior in this situation has been reprehensible. Jayce, with the help of a lawyer, filed a Title IX complaint with the US Department of Education (ED). While in negotiations with Jayce and his lawyer, GFU filed a request for a religious exemption with ED without informing Jayce that they were doing this. While religious exemption requests usually take years, ED granted GFU an exemption in an unprecedented two months. This also contributes to a dangerous precedent, giving license to universities to discriminate against transgender students, an already at-risk population, despite Title IX. What a slap in the face on top of a punch in the gut. In Jayce’s own words: “But I’m not giving up. I deserve to be treated like the other men on campus. Apparently, the university disagrees, as they have made clear by forcing me to live off-campus. The university is operating under the doctrine of ‘separate but equal,’ and the religious exemption they received now gives the government’s stamp of approval to what they are doing. My own tax dollars will fund the university’s discrimination against me. I don’t understand it and I don’t think it is fair.”
Additionally, this ordeal prompted GFU to update its housing policy:
Providing appropriate housing for transgender students continues to be a challenge at religious and non-religious institutions across the country. George Fox University has a two-year required, single-sex dorm policy it has developed in light of its religious convictions. It has the discretion to assign all students to appropriate housing. Common residence halls are single-sex, defined anatomically. We are committed to residential access, and it is consistent with our beliefs and our community values that a presurgical transgendered person will be provided on-campus housing in appropriate alternative housing well-connected to the residential community. That person also has the option to live off campus.
Firstly, throughout their discussion of how to handle transgender students, GFU frequently refers to their ‘religious convictions’ without giving any explanation as to what these convictions are or how they actually apply. I wonder if they were held to a higher standard at all with their application to the federal Department of Education (probably not). These days, in the US, we seem to give Christian institutions a free pass to claim “religious convictions” as a reason to discriminate (see: Hobby Lobby), with practically zero accountability as to what those convictions actually are or whether or not they are fairly practiced. I never want to see “religious convictions” cited as a reason for anything without further explanation ever again.
Additionally, two pastors from the Quaker tradition most closely affiliated with GFU, have spoken out against the idea that their religion grants them authority to discriminate in this way. Dr. C. Wess Daniels and Mike Huber of Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends (Quakers) said:
As pastors in NW Yearly Meeting, we urge George Fox University to provide safe housing for Jayce M,” they write. “It is our understanding that our ‘Faith and Practice’ provides no theological grounds whatsoever for excluding transgender students from housing consistent with their gender identity. As Quakers, the biblical teaching that men and women are created in the image of God convicts us that ‘… all persons have equal value and are created in the image of God’ (Vision, Mission and Values: 1). The theological framework of our Faith & Practice affirms the inherent dignity of all people, regardless of their gender identity[.]
Theology aside, I just need to vent for a moment about this sentence in GFU’s housing policy: “Common residence halls are single sex, defined anatomically.” My reaction to this sentence is one where I feel my stomach tighten, I feel my pulse rise, and I have a strong urge to yell out a loud, frustrated groaning sound that eventually converges to sound like the word ‘no’. In lieu of yelling or writing in all caps, I will write sternly: If you are not asking for a physician’s note describing every single student’s anatomy prior to making housing decisions, you are *not* defining housing options based on anatomy. Also: A trans* person’s anatomy and medical history are not anyone else’s [expletive redacted] business, *especially* not university administrators’. The only reason the university knows of Jayce’s anatomy is because he happens to be transitioning while enrolled as a student. Otherwise they would have no idea about his anatomy, and he would remain under no obligation to disclose. (Also, I will note, that GFU claims that transgender people can be housed appropriately only after genital surgery, which in addition to being an inappropriately invasive requirement and none of their business, is also not a procedure covered by their student health insurance.) (One more note: This whole situation completely ignores the existence of transgender people who do not identify as exclusively male or female, and also does not really clearly address how this situation might be different for a transman who does not medically transition in any way.)
I say all of this to point out the discriminatory nature of this decision, in case it wasn’t already obvious: GFU does not require all of its students to disclose their anatomy. Would they deny an intersex student with uncommon anatomy whose gender happens to visibly align with the culturally dominant binary of male or female if the university happened to know of their uncommon anatomy? What if a cisgender man with common anatomy had a horrific accident that led to his genital anatomy becoming uncommon? Is he supposed to report that to the administration and change his housing accordingly, his gender identity rendered irrelevant? (Also, let’s not forget to point out that if this housing policy is supposed to prevent sexual activity, then that also denies the existence of queer people.)
Despite how horrifying many aspects of this situation are, I am choosing to remain hopeful. I do not wish to unequivocally condemn GFU as awful and discriminatory and therefore a lost cause. I am not in the business of unequivocal condemnation, and as I wrote about recently, generally condemning those who oppress me usually leads me to condemn myself right along with them. While we’re speaking of faith, my faith calls me to compassion.
It helps me to try to imagine where GFU’s administrators are coming from. They have probably not had much exposure to folks who do not easily fit into the gender binary that they’ve been taught their whole lives. They probably feel pressure to conform to a moral code that has no space for these kinds of identities, and erring on the side of social caution means finding ways to exclude, rather than seeking to adapt the code to fit reality. I imagine they are afraid, whether they know it or not – a lot of their extreme reactions read as panic to me. Quick! Get that religious exemption so we can stop having to fret about this! Don’t tell Jayce or his lawyer, because that way we can stay in complete control of the situation! Perhaps I can find it in my heart to humor them and their ‘debate’ about the validity of identities such as mine. At least, maybe I can do this on good days, because lending validity to a debate about my identity suggests that I might not be who I know I am, which is ridiculous and transphobic, and a battle I am tired of fighting.
So, as we Friends say, I am holding them in the Light, and hoping that they will in time come to see the harm they are doing.