Questioned for Being Transgender?

Central Piedmont student says her rights were violated when security questioned her and escorted her off campus for using the women's bathroom.

April 2, 2014

When the U.S. Education and Justice Departments last year found that a California school district violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by barring a transgender student from sex-specific facilities and activities, experts said that colleges needed to take note. Even though the case involved elementary and secondary education, the precedent apparently applied to higher education as well.

A case at Central Piedmont Community College may illuminate the conflicts between transgender students and some colleges.

Andraya Williams, a transgender student at the college, was detained by security officers and escorted off campus after she used the women's bathroom. The LGBTQ Law Center is demanding that the college apologize and affirm her right to use the women's bathroom, which would be consistent with her gender identity. If the college doesn't change its policies, the center plans to file a complaint with the U.S. Education Department, alleging Title IX violations.

But the college is defending its handling of the incident. Both the college and Williams agree that she was questioned by first one security officer and then several more after she used the women's bathroom. The college -- while refusing to say what gender it considers Williams to be -- says that its rules would bar someone who originally registered as a man and who subsequently identifies as a woman from using the women's bathroom.

Jeff Lowrance, a spokesman for the college, said that the officer approached a student who "she thought was a male dressed as a female going into a female bathroom. The officer approached the student and asked to see an ID, and student refused to provide one, and another officer came, and this time the student waved ID but didn't hand it over." At that point, other officers came and escorted the student (Lowrance didn't identify the student, but responded to questions about Williams) off the campus. The next day the student was told that she could continue her courses "in good standing.'

Lowrance said that this was not discrimination, but "simply a case of our security officer who didn't want to allow a male into the female bathroom."

Asked about bathroom access for transgender students, Lowrance said that they can use the bathrooms consistent with the gender identity that they had at the point they enrolled, or one of the relatively few gender-neutral bathrooms available. Lowrance said that the college was trying to include gender-neutral facilities in new facilities, but that much of the campus has only men's and women's rooms.

Sarah Demarest, who is Williams's lawyer, said that the case is about much more than the right to use the bathroom. She questioned why a student should be quizzed about her gender and asked for identification for using a bathroom, which students do all day long without such questions being asked. Demarest noted that Williams was questioned and escorted off campus in front of other students, placing her in danger of future harassment. Further, she said that the college had no right to judge Williams based "solely on gender nonconformity."

A statement by Williams about what happened said: "During this occurrence many students were walking by and they were staring at me. The officers, who are supposed to be protecting the student body, would not let me go and would not tell me what I had done wrong. l was humiliated and emotionally distraught by this."

Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride (which advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender students), noted that "best practices" for colleges that want to support transgender students include "gender-inclusive bathrooms" and letting transgender students change the way they are listed in college records if their identity has changed since enrolling. Such policies, he said, would have prevented the current situation at Central Piedmont.

More colleges are adopting such policies, he said. "Campuses can take responsibility for helping transgender students."


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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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