As I write this, the United States Department of Education is poised to release its proposed new regulations on Title IX. They will include regulations consistent with the Supreme Court's 2020 “Bostock Decision,” incorporating gay and transgender individuals within the longstanding civil rights protections from gender bias. The usual comment period will be offered before the proposed regulations are rewritten and/or imposed as law.
This past February, I spoke with our presidents at our Annual Meeting about these matters and distributed resources to help engage these questions on campus (available on the ACCU presidents-only website). Our campuses will have varying stances and implementations of these regulations, not least of which because their states and localities have varying requirements to which they must submit. Lawsuits will inevitably be filed to test the new regulations across higher education in areas as diverse as campus housing, athletic participation, record-keeping, hiring, pronoun usage and more. It bodes to be a rather controverted period ahead as society and our campuses think through these matters.
For myself, I’ve been thinking about the individuals entrusted to our care during such periods of public controversy.
Back in 2004, I had been a university president for barely eight weeks when six students came to see me. One introduced himself and said that he had spent his life trying to get people to recognize him as being of the male gender. He told me that he needed help with two things while at the university. First, he asked if we could create some single-person bathrooms that he could use. Secondly, he asked if there was any way we could add a line in our classroom rosters for a student’s “preferred name”. It was hard every time he took a new course and the professor started calling out an obviously female name and he had to answer while his classmates looked at him with a range of reactions.
That was it. Two requests. I told the young man and his supportive friends that I needed a little time to learn more about both issues and asked them to come back in a week.
We learned we could turn a utility closet between the men’s and women’s bathrooms into a very nice, single-use bathroom. I also promised that every new building or reconstruction on campus would provide single-use bathrooms as part of the design. Happily, it was cheap and easy to add another line to the professors’ class rosters with students’ preferred names.
Surprisingly, it was the parents of young children who most praised the new single-use bathrooms. Many students, including our international students, were grateful to tell their professors their preferred names. I had wondered if accommodating a transgender student would lead to campus upset, but the explosion never came. The kindness for one group turned out to be a kindness for more.
The following spring, a recently accepted high school senior who couldn’t honestly identify as either end of the gender spectrum came with parents in tow and asked how to manage campus housing. Our dorms were mixed gender overall, but individual apartments were all-men or all-women. We offered the student a single, and the student was happy. No explosion there either.
Those situations were new to me. In time, these students educated me. They told me of just knowing at a very early age that they didn’t fit. I heard their stories from their earliest childhood of resisting the ways their families wanted to dress them or wanting to play with children whose genders did not match "their own". They are the ones who taught me to separate out gender identity from sexual attraction: two utterly and completely different things.
One thing I never heard from students was the term “ideology”. It was only later that the faculty introduced me to Queer Theory. I read some of it, finding it overwhelmingly and needlessly jargonistic. Too much verbiage for too few insights. Pretty quickly, I got the main points and stopped reading the genre. Maybe it’s gotten better since then, I don’t know. I did know that the students were asking for the most basic of kindnesses, and I didn’t need theory to be kind.
When Cardinal Francis George asked me about these populations once, I remember reflecting that this was a rather new social debate, without much scientific research yet available, and was going to require time for Church and society to think through. In the meantime, it seemed to me that helping a human being go to the bathroom in peace or feel respected or safe on campus wasn't unreasonable, even as the larger issues were welcomed, studied and debated. I still feel that way.
I’m told that first-rate scientific work on gender is being done at places like Princeton and USC these days. I’m also aware that one of our preeminent Catholic research universities is assembling scholars from across the nation to pull together all that we know to date about gender, and – by extension – all we don’t yet know. This is new research territory.
Part of the reason I’ve been thinking of this lately was seeing Fr. James Keenan's recent article in NCR and then seeing Pope Francis’ praise of the book Hidden Mercy (Michael O’Loughlin, Broadleaf Books).
The latter is the story of Catholic hospitals, religious, and parishes who took care of the dying during the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when others wouldn’t, and when society was debating the morality issues while these men and women were dying. The book reads quickly, and I found it quite moving. I also saw a lesson for the gender debates today.
It seems to me that there’s a time and place for debate, and our universities are as well situated as any to bring knowledge, research, and faith to bear on those debates. But there’s also a time for stepping aside from the debates and simply being kind.
For now, I’m encouraging my university colleagues to tease apart fraught social controversy from the opportunities when we can simply offer kindness. The science and theory of all this can and should be debated. In the meantime, we know these students by name, and our job is a simpler one – we create conditions where students can study and academically succeed.
Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, CM, is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
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