Published: July 8, 2024 By

Beginning Aug. 1, LGBTQ+ students across the United States are poised to earn unprecedented federal protection from discrimination under a sweeping overhaul of the federal law known as Title IX. That is, if the new rules take effect.

For more than a half-century, Title IX has protected students at publicly funded colleges and K-12 schools from discrimination “on the basis of sex.” The new rules explicitly clarify that this includes bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity, expanding the definition of harassment and compelling schools to swiftly address it.

Chelsea Grey

Assistant Professor Chelsea Kilimnik

In a firestorm of dissent, at least 20 states have taken steps to keep the rules from going into effect, and numerous lawsuits allege government overreach. Meanwhile, some mental health professionals say the changes could vastly improve campus life for students who often feel marginalized.

“This is a policy that says, ‘You belong here. You have a right to be here. And you as a person are protected,’” said Chelsea Kilimnik, an assistant professor of psychology at CU Boulder’s Renee Crown Wellness Institute who studies the experiences of minoritized students on college campuses. She notes that CU policies have already, for years, exceeded Title IX requirements in protecting LGBTQ+ students. “But for this to come out at a federal level sends a huge message of acceptance that has not been there before.”

CU Boulder Today sat down with Kilimnik, a licensed clinical psychologist, to discuss the new rules, a recent surge in anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and how communities can support LGBTQ+ students year-round.

What might change at U.S. schools under the new rules?

One example is around pronouns. In some places, there is no consequence for using the wrong pronouns. So if I went by they/them pronouns and individuals kept calling me “she,” I would have no recourse. Under the new policy, that would be considered discrimination or even harassment. Things like having enough gender-neutral restrooms at school might also come into play and ensuring individuals can use the gendered facilities that align with their gender identity, like a trans woman being able to use the women’s restroom.

It could also help prevent the “outing” of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These forms of harassment and discrimination would now be open to standardized procedures of investigation and consequence.

Notably, the changes do not cover whether gender diverse students will be able to participate or compete on sports teams that align with their gender identity.

CU pride sticker

Supporting LGBTQ+ students at CU

Since 2011, university nondiscrimination policies for all CU campuses have included sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression and pregnancy as protected-class identities. Incidents involving harassing or discriminatory conduct can be reported to the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) on the Boulder campus.

The Renée Crown Wellness Institute, in partnership with Boulder Valley Health Center, offers a Sex Ed Summer Camp for middle school students that includes coverage of sex ed topics applicable to all gender and sexual orientation identities.

The Also Our Campus program works with intersectional students from diverse backgrounds to understand experiences of belonging and harm on campus.

The Mind Body Voice program is working to modify and update their body image and eating disorder prevention program for youth to be more LGBTQ+ inclusive.

The CU Pride Office offers numerous services, including the CU Name Change Program, which offers peer mentor and financial support for the process of legally changing your name.

Can a federal policy change like this really impact individuals?

Yes. There's a ton of research out there showing that when individuals from minoritized groups feel like they belong, they have lower suicide rates, lower depression rates and better school retention rates.

In our own campus study, we are finding that belonging cues a sense of safety. When it’s not there, people feel they have to be on eggshells, sort of self-monitoring all the time: Is this a space that I'm welcome, or do I have to have my guard up? We see a lot less resource using and a lot less institutional trust. When you are a minoritized group on campus, belonging can be harder to come by, so these federal policies can really help—as long as they are not just about checking a box.

There has been a lot of angry rhetoric directed toward the LGBTQ+ community lately. How does that impact students?

Research shows that higher rates of intolerance expressed in a community are associated with higher rates of violence. When we see things like the burning-of-the-Pride-flag calls from members of the Republican Party in Colorado, what we're seeing is a very vocal group encouraging hate crimes.

And the increasing rhetoric against trans or nonbinary or queer individuals in many areas is essentially a call for microaggressions and intolerance. These are all directed toward individuals who already have huge barriers to feeling safe and just adds to negative mental health. We do see a rise in people joining together to fight back. But for individuals who aren't yet out, we see more fear and more silencing and more barriers to getting involved.

Pride month is over. What can the community do to support LGBTQ+ students year-round?

Displaying symbols of pride in the community, on campus or around town is really important. Offering inclusive services and programming in our community organizations, institutions and businesses. Educating about LGBTQ+ issues early on is important, too. At the Crown Institute, we also work closely with a number of our campus and community partners to make sure our research includes diverse voices. (See box.)

What advice do you have for students struggling with identity-related issues?

Find one person who you can talk to openly—someone you trust. Maybe it's a teacher, maybe it's a peer, maybe it's a friend who doesn’t share your gender identity or someone you meet at a Pride event who you feel just gets it. Use the people around you to be supports when you're struggling. When we stay to ourselves and keep silent, we are at the greatest risk.

CU Boulder Today regularly publishes Q&As with our faculty members weighing in on news topics through the lens of their scholarly expertise and research/creative work. The responses here reflect the knowledge and interpretations of the expert and should not be considered the university position on the issue. All publication content is subject to edits for clarity, brevity and university style guidelines.