Now that the semester is over, I’m beginning to catch up on bits and pieces of trans news that I’d marked for a closer look when I had time. One item that had caught my eye was a blog post from Jacobin about the guidelines issued in April by the Department of Education suggesting that transgender students are among the groups that Title IX protects from sexual violence. In the post, “An Unlikely Transgender Rights Vanguard,” Kate Redburn writes,
As welcome, and indeed necessary, as queer legal protections are, we should be cautious about endorsing the discretionary interpretation of law by agencies. There’s nothing to say that they couldn’t just as easily have had opposite findings in these cases, thus perpetuating legal discrimination without any input from Congress, the President, or the courts. As the court wrote above, it’s a subversion of the democratic system.
….In fact, Tuesday’s DOE announcement isn’t even the first time in the past few years that an agency has interpreted federal law to protect trans* and queer people without the cover of court precedent: A series of decisions at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects against gender identity-based and gender presentation-based discrimination.
….When the Employment Non-Discrimination Act has failed to pass for nearly a decade, these advances feel like a rare step forward in the fight against transphobia. They also raise troubling questions about administrative discretion and authority.
I don’t agree with Redburn’s assessment (nor, by the way, do I agree that queer includes trans, but that’s a discussion for another day). Regulations and especially administrative guidance documents like this interpretation of Title IX are part of the political process, albeit one step removed, and they change back and forth as administrations change. And to me, it’s reasonable to interpret the language of Title IX, passed in 1972 (“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance”) to include students whose gender identity or gender expression is not traditionally associated with their birth sex–i.e. transgender students.
But the DOE interpretation might not seem reasonable to everyone, and the larger argument that important political matters ought to be decided in the legislative arena has merit. Bringing those who haven’t made up their mind into the conversation can provide a better foundation in the long run. Gayle Trotter, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, agrees with Redburn on this. In a discussion about the Title IX announcement, she pointed out that people have difficulty accepting “the fact that our society has changed and our culture has changed….and part of it is because these edicts come down that are not part of the political process, that have not been debated, and people feel like they are left out of the debate.”
There is another area where the Obama administration has relied on regulations, rules and guidance documents rather than legislation: climate change. Just like LGBT friendly legislation, bills on climate change have gotten nowhere in the Republican led House. So just this week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations that would interpret the meaning of “air pollution” in the 1970 Clean Air Act to include greenhouse gasses. The resulting policy changes would be far-reaching, and I’m all for them.
But I’m waiting for Jacobin to publish a post condemning these new clean air regulations as subversions of the democratic process. If put in place, they would have a much greater economic effect than a letter to schools pointing out that if they fail to protect trans kids from being bullied or beat up at school, they might be violating Title IX. If the democratic process only occurs in the legislative arena (I don’t necessarily agree), when is democratic deliberation required and when is it not? Where’s the consistency?