What federally protected legal rights does a transgender student in the U.S. have re gender pronouns used in referring to the student?

This question was inspired by the recent discussion of gender pronouns at Academia Meta.

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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's about the legalese of a specific geographic region and not about academia.
    – Cape Code
    Oct 5, 2016 at 6:09
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    @CapeCode: It’s about a legal question in the academic setting, very relevant to many academics. Similarly, it’s not universal in geographical scope, but its scope is large enough to include a very significant fraction of users here. Browsing the [legal-issues] tag shows plenty of similar questions that were well-received and produced useful answers.
    – PLL
    Oct 5, 2016 at 8:02
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    @CapeCode then we can close all the questions in the legal issues tag, because by definition they only apply to a specific geographic region (unless there are academic war crimes :) ).
    – Davidmh
    Oct 5, 2016 at 9:55
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    @scaaahu I find it very clear. Legal rights as given by whichever jurisdiction falls into that. From the answer, it seems federal law applies here, but if it were regulated by state law, a good answer would say "this depends on the state, this is how it is in Indiana, check your state".
    – Davidmh
    Oct 5, 2016 at 9:58
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    @Davidmh Agreed. I'm strongly in favor of closing all legal-related questions.
    – Cape Code
    Oct 5, 2016 at 11:20

2 Answers 2


I think another answer here is misleading, so I am writing to clarify what federally protected rights transgender students in the U.S. can reasonably expect at this time.

As things currently stand:

  • The federal government is not allowed to pursue Title IX investigations that interpret Title IX's sex discrimination prohibition to include discrimination based on gender identity.
  • The Department of Justice and Department of Education have rescinded guidance (issued by the previous administration) that instructed schools to treat discrimination based on gender identity as a Title IX issue.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court may indicate later this year whether Title IX protections apply to transgender students who face discrimination based on gender identity.

Previous federal guidance in the Dear Colleague letter of May 2016 considered discrimination based on gender identity to be sex-based discrimination. According to this interpretation, Title IX protections would then apply to transgender students who are subject to discrimination because of their gender identity. This would certainly not have required school employees to use gender-neutral language as a general rule, but that letter did support e.g.

  • a student's right to ask school employees and contractors to use pronouns consistent with their gender identity,
  • the school's Title IX responsibility to mitigate (to the degree that they can) the harassment of students due to gender identity. There is legal precedent (see footnote 9 in the document linked above) to suggest that persistent misgendering can be considered sex-based harassment if it is severe or pervasive: "Persistent failure to use the employee’s correct name and pronoun may constitute unlawful, sex-based harassment if such conduct is either severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment"

However, this interpretation - that Title IX protections apply to gender identity - was challenged in the courts in Texas v United States. An August 2016 injunction bars the federal government from enforcing the interpretation of Title IX put forth in the Dear Colleague letter:

Defendants are enjoined from enforcing the Guidelines against Plaintiffs and their respective schools, school boards, and other public, educationally-based institutions. Further, while this injunction remains in place, Defendants are enjoined from initiating, continuing, or concluding any investigation based on Defendants’ interpretation that the definition of sex includes gender identity in Title IX’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex.

The U.S. Department of Justice indicated an intent to appeal that Texas decision, and in November 2016, asked for a partial stay on the injunction, arguing that the injunction should only apply to the states involved in the lawsuit. A hearing on that motion for a partial stay would have taken place in February 2017. However, the new administration's Department of Justice withdrew that motion just before the scheduled hearing, noting that the "parties are currently considering how best to proceed in this appeal." Shortly afterwards, the Department of Justice and Department of Education issued a new Dear Colleague letter withdrawing the guidance in the May 2016 letter.

Meanwhile, in March 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a related case, in which they may decide whether Title IX protections apply to gender identity. This case, too, is complicated by the withdrawal of the May 2016 letter, a move that has been communicated to the court.

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    I appreciate the time and effort you took to write this in a balanced and accurate way; the result is a clear and helpful answer.
    – Tom Church
    Oct 7, 2016 at 0:28
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    I had not seen the Texas injunction. Had I known about it I would have waited to post my question, and my answer. It was not my intention to introduce a legal polemic here at Academia SE. ... That said, having now looked at the Texas injunction you found; I have to say it appears to be about bathrooms, not pronouns. Also note that the injunction is apparently not having the broad, sweeping effect intended. In some recent cases, the Texas injunction was found to be of limited relevance. Oct 7, 2016 at 4:20
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    @aparente001 This isn't the right place for discussing the US legal system; if you want to learn how to correctly interpret the injunction (or the other documents you've cited in your answer), or if you think I've misstated something and want to get a second opinion, take it to Law.
    – ff524
    Oct 7, 2016 at 4:24
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    @ff524 - I made no assertion you misstated anything. The injunction certainly makes things more messy, and more polemical than I thought this topic would be. I agree fine legal points have no place on this site. I thought this was a straightforward Q & A, as I was unaware of the Texas challenge. ... The injunction order is itself complex, but judging from some cases that have been ruled on since it was released, it has not prevented parents from continuing to advocate strongly and successfully for their transgender children's right to use the bathroom of choice. Further responses will ... Oct 7, 2016 at 4:31
  • have to wait until tomorrow.... Good night. Oct 7, 2016 at 4:31

As recently clarified by a "Dear Colleague" letter from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, under Title IX, in educational institutions receiving public funding, transgender students have the right to be referred to by their chosen gender pronouns. Also, educational institutions must "take reasonable steps to protect students’ privacy related to their transgender status, including their birth name or sex assigned at birth. [...] A school may maintain records with this information, but such records should be kept confidential."

For additional clarification, also see OCR's accompanying publication, "Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices for Supporting Transgender Students".

In the referenced Meta discussion, one user asserted, "Gendered pronouns are not offensive content with respect to the Be Nice policy that all Stack Exchange users are required to follow."

That may be true -- after all, Stack Exchange sites are not subject to Title IX -- but as the above-cited guidance from OCR shows, using a non-preferred gendered pronoun in a public educational setting is not only offensive to a transgender individual, if it is done on a public campus, it could result in the institution losing public funding [bold text added 10/6/16 to be more precise].

Edit 10/5/16, response to comment

Note that Title IX [...] does not require gender neutral pronouns as a general rule.

The Dear Colleague letter recognizes that "gender transition can happen swiftly or over a long duration of time." Recognizing that a student may feel gender fluid during the process of transition, and recognizing students' right to privacy, the take-home message that I got from the OCR documents is that when in doubt, avoidance of gendered pronouns can be the most sensitive course of action.

While the OCR documents cited do not state this explicitly, they do support it. The "Examples of Policies and Emerging Practices" include, as positive examples, the following quotes from state and district policies:

  • "If you are unsure about a student’s preferred name or pronouns, it is appropriate to privately and tactfully ask the student what they prefer to be called." (DCPS)

  • [Faculty and staff training should include] “gender-neutral language and practices.” (Massachusetts)

  • “As with most other issues involved with creating a safe and supportive environment for transgender students, the best course is to engage the student, and possibly the parent, with respect to name and pronoun use, and agree on a plan to reflect the individual needs of each student to initiate that name and pronoun use within the school." (New York)

  • [Schools are advised to] "collect or maintain information about students’ gender only when necessary." (Massachusetts)

  • “When speaking with other staff members, parents, guardians, or third parties, school staff should not disclose a student’s preferred name, pronoun, or other confidential information pertaining to the student’s transgender or gender nonconforming status without the student’s permission." (Chicago)

It can be challenging to speak or write in English without gendered pronouns! OCR demonstrates that with a little effort, it can be done without confusion, and without too much awkwardness: http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/investigations/more/02131220-a.pdf

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    I think your final claim ("if it is done on a public campus, it is also illegal") is still an open question. The Obama administration, which is charged with executing the law, has interpreted Title IX a certain way; but unless I'm mistaken, that interpretation has been challenged, and the challenge is still making its way through the Federal courts (which are charged with interpreting the law, and whose interpretation, once available, will supersede that of the executive branch).
    – ruakh
    Oct 5, 2016 at 5:21
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    I find your last two paragraphs to be somewhat out of place here. If you want to make a statement about site policy, please do so in the referenced meta discussion. (Also note that Title IX, like Stack Exchange, does not require gender neutral pronouns as a general rule. Gendered pronouns are not generally "illegal" in a public educational setting - the documents you cite only suggest that intentional misgendering after being asked to use specific pronouns preferred by that individual are a potential Title IX violation.)
    – ff524
    Oct 5, 2016 at 6:00
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    You may want to clarify that "a student has the right to be referred to by their chosen gender pronouns" really means "the school has the obligation to refer to a student by their preferred gender pronouns when asked to do so by the student". I mean, of course the student has the right to be referred to by their preferred pronouns, can you imagine if it were forbidden for the student to be referred to by their preferred pronouns?
    – user9646
    Oct 5, 2016 at 8:12
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    @ff524 I find this whole Q&A to be out of place here. This isn't law.SE, this is academia.SE.
    – Seth
    Oct 5, 2016 at 8:57
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    You seem to be more intent on making a statement about site policy than actually helping transgender readers understand their rights. (To the point of implying that transgender students should expect that everyone at their institutions will use gender neutral pronouns as a general rule, or that schools will lose federal funding if they do not use gender neutral pronouns as a general rule, which is just not accurate.) I have downvoted this answer because many parts of it are misleading and potentially detrimental to transgender students who are actually trying to understand their rights.
    – ff524
    Oct 6, 2016 at 19:28

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