The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit late last month decided to side with a professor who deliberately misgendered his student. For an entire semester, Shawnee State University professor Nicholas K. Meriwether refused to use female titles and pronouns although the student told him that this is how she should be addressed. The court explained that the law demands respecting the professor’s freedoms: academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of religion. This, the court clarified, entails allowing the professor to express his belief that “God created human beings as either male or female,” and that sex cannot be changed.
Then the Department of Justice published a statement saying the law forbids any discrimination against students based on their gender identity. The DOJ concluded that “the best reading of Title IX’s prohibition on discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ is that it includes discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.”
Freedom arguments have limits
It is difficult to reconcile these conflicting representations of the legal duties we owe to our LGBTQ students. As a professor and a legal scholar, I believe that it is so because the DOJ’s statement better reflects the law, while the 6th Circuit decision fails to limit the reach of misplaced freedom arguments. At question here is the dignity of our students and not the freedoms of their professors.
Students hold a variety of gender identities, whether professors like it or not. Their presence in our classrooms, actual or virtual, is the reality and not, as the court framed it, “a hotly contested issue,” or “a matter of public concern.” The legal (and moral) issue is how we should address them.
For many of us, the answer is obvious: Our behavior aligns with our students’ sense of themselves. We are fully committed to finding out how they identify and address them accordingly. We do this willingly and effortlessly, not only because of Title IX’s legal command or because of our role as their educators, but also, perhaps more so, since we deeply respect them as fellow humans.
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That, however, is not how professor Meriwether sees the issue. Because he defines himself as a “devout Christian,” he had refused to address his student as a woman.Despite her petitions, Meriwether continued “teaching” while misgendering her, knowingly and publicly denying her identity time after time, misusing his power in the classroom. And he did all that to express his religious disapproval of any gender identity that differs from one’s sex as assigned at birth.
When his university pressed him to stop misgendering, as required under its policies, professor Meriwether made two proposals. One was to address the student only by her last name while continuing to use titles and pronouns for the rest of the class. The other was to address the student adequately but add a statement to his syllabus, “noting that he was doing so under compulsion and setting forth his personal and religious beliefs about gender identity.”
Humiliating someone is not ‘win-win’
It is hard to tell which proposal is more insulting for transgender students, the one that verbally singles them out in every class or the other, which denies their dignity in writing on the official syllabus. The court, however, completely ignored this demeaning effect. Instead, it framed both ideas as efforts to “compromise,” noting that the one Meriwether chose to use throughout the semester, routinely treating the student differently, “seemed like a win-win.”
Worse, the 6th Circuit dismissed the university’s suggestion to accommodate Meriwether’s beliefs by encouraging him to treat everyone equally while avoiding titles and pronouns altogether. The court stated that such a policy is “impossible to comply with.” Yet, based on decades of teaching, I beg to differ.
Dread in my stomach:Every time I pull out my ID, I deadname myself. Transgender people can’t live like this.
If professors cannot fully support and empower their students, they should at least avoid intentionally humiliating them by addressing all of them by their first names. They can say, for example, “Ann, can you please take this question?” or start with “as Ben just said,” or ask, “Do you all agree with Sky?” In this way, professors can dignify their students without passing judgment on their gender identities or misrepresenting their own beliefs.
Conversely, by purposely and continuously violating students’ gender identity, professors engage in acts of humiliation, recognized by researchers as resulting in “the most intense of human emotions,” mental health complications and even suicide. With all due respect to religious beliefs and the freedom to express them, those cannot legally justify hurting others. This is particularly true in the classroom setting — where students are most vulnerable to pressure from their professors and peers.
Dr. Hila Keren (she/her) is the associate dean for Research, the Paul E. Treusch Chair and professor of Law at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. She writes about social justice, equality and the interaction between law and emotions. She can be reached at [email protected]