NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In late August, Representative John Ragan (R-Oak Ridge) sent letters to universities across Tennessee telling them materials they publish saying LGBTQ+ students are protected by federal Title IX laws could be in violation of state law.
The letter asked universities to respond by September 2. It asked them to describe changes they made to remove materials that said LGBTQ+ people were protected under the law. The University of Tennessee and East Tennessee State University received letters from the lawmaker.
Title IX is a federal law that protects people from discrimination in educational programs and activities on the basis of sex. According to the U.S. Department of Education, any college that receives federal funding must "operate its education program or activity in a nondiscriminatory manner free of discrimination based on sex including sexual orientation and gender identity."
The law covers recruitment activities, admissions, counseling, financial assistance, athletics, sex-based harassment, treatment of pregnant and parenting students, and the treatment of LGBTQ+ students. By violating the law, universities risk losing federal funding.
Ragan's letter said that on July 15, a federal court "enjoined and restrained" guidance from the department in June 2021 that told universities they needed to cover LGBTQ+ students under the nondiscrimination law. Essentially, a court told the Department of Education it could not act on its June 2021 guidance.
"As a result, college and university publications, policies and websites have no legal authorization or requirement to state or imply LGBTQI+ is a protected class under Title IX," the letter says.
That June 2021 guidance included ways schools can support transgender students, including what a student can do if they experience discrimination. It was sent to schools as part of the 49th anniversary of Title IX and as guidance for the impact of the Bostock v. Clayton County decision.
In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Title VII prohibits an employer from discriminating against a person based on their sexual orientation. The guidance was also sent out after several anti-LGBTQ+ laws went into effect in Tennessee.
It included sample situations that would warrant an investigation of discrimination. They included situations of transgender students being called slurs after asking to be called their preferred name, or situations where college professors and administrators did not act when a gay student is called slurs and is harassed to the point where they stop going to class.
Since the guidance was "enjoined and restrained," Ragan's letter says that "no modifications related to the 23 June 2021 letter from the US Department of Education are appropriate."
It also warns they could violate Tennessee laws. Some of those laws prohibit some transgender students from playing sports on teams aligning with their gender identity, or from using bathrooms that align with their gender identities.
Ragan previously introduced several anti-transgender bills, including one that would have effectively banned healthcare for transgender minors.
People who are allies for LGBTQ+ in East Tennessee believe Representative Ragan's letter could cause harm.
"Title IX protections are very important. Especially for the transgender community in particular, but the LGBT community in general", said Story VanNess, a program director for Knox Pride.
Representative Ragan sent his letter to eleven public universities. VanNess says college campuses for some LGBTQ Students serve as a haven for LGBTQ students.
"Colleges, for a lot of LGBTQ+ people, is the place where they can be free to figure themselves out, where they can learn, and see other queer people and start living their true authentic life. And that is invaluable," said VanNess.
"In summary, you are advised to immediately revoke and/or remove any publications, policies and website entries for which your institution is responsible that state or imply that LGBTQI+ students, etc., are a protected class under Title IX," the letter says.
UT's policies on Title IX apply to students "regardless of the Complainant’s or the Respondent’s sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. Prohibited Conduct can occur between individuals regardless of their relationship status and can occur between people of the same or of different sexes, sexual orientations, gender identities, or gender expressions."
It was updated on August 12 and has two resources for therapy and crisis intervention specifically for LGBTQ+ students. The college was recently ranked as the most unfriendly university to LGBTQ+ students across the U.S. by The Princeton Review.
ETSU's policy is similar, prohibiting discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct to several protected classes. It was effective as of October 2021.
It says "ETSU prohibits Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct based on any federally or state Protected Classes and includes race, color, or ethnicity; sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression; national origin; marital or parental status; religion; age; disability; veteran’s status; and/or genetic information in Education Programs or Activities and employment."
The university released a statement about Ragan's letter. It is available below.
“Chairman Ragan sent correspondence to each university president across the state outlining a series of concerns that he had as a result of a federal court action that placed a hold on the U.S. Department of Education's Dear Colleague Letter regarding Title IX. This letter directed Tennessee universities to amend the description of Title IX’s protections published online in order to comply with state law. As such, we have made that amendment to our website. However, ETSU has several policies that that prohibit [sic] discrimination and our university’s nondiscrimination policy remains unchanged. As you can see in ETSU’s policy published on our website, ETSU prohibits Discrimination, Harassment, and Sexual Misconduct based on any federally or state Protected Classes, and includes race, color, or ethnicity; sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression; national origin; marital or parental status; religion; age; disability; veteran’s status; and/or genetic information in Education Programs or Activities and employment. This Policy applies to all levels and areas of university operations and programs, to undergraduate and graduate students, administrators, faculty, staff, volunteers, vendors, and contractors.
The courts are currently determining whether sexual orientation and/or gender expression is considered a protected class under Title IX at universities across Tennessee and the nation. Regardless of that outcome, ETSU’s policy prohibiting discrimination of any kind remains in effect. Core to ETSU’s Mission and Values is the declaration that people come first, are treated with dignity and respect, and are encouraged to achieve their full potential.”