Back in early 2011, Domaine Javier was on track to fulfill her childhood dream of becoming a nurse. She had been accepted to California Baptist University's nursing program with a pair of scholarships, one academic and one for music based on her audition for the university's woman's chorus.
But things started to unravel before she even began classes. In April 2011, Javier revealed that she was transgender in an episode of an MTV show called "True Life." In July, she received a letter from the university accusing her of fraud because she had given her gender as female on her admissions application. A few months later, she was expelled.
This week, Javier filed a lawsuit in Riverside, Calif., against the university, accusing it of violations of California's Unruh Civil Rights Act and breach of contract. While many other cases have explored similar issues related to the lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender community and religiously affiliated institutions, the laws are least tested when they come to transgender individuals.
Javier's dispute with the university stems back to a typically routine question on her admissions application. Along with writing about her academic goals (a Bachelor of Science in Nursing) and religious affiliation (Catholic), she was asked to indicate her gender. There were two check boxes, labeled "male" and "female." Javier was born male, but she has thought of herself as female for as long as she can remember, and she's presented as a girl since she was 13. She checked "female."
The lawsuit contends that Javier's explusion is covered by California's civil rights protections and argues that she has lost roughly a half-million dollars in scholarships and future wages as a result of the school's actions. But she said the case is about more than the money she believes she is owed.
"I believe that education is for everyone, regardless of their gender," Javier wrote in an email this week. "Everyone deserves a shot at a bright future. CBU deprived me of this right and treated me unfairly -- something no one deserves."
Neither California Baptist University nor its outside counsel handling the lawsuit responded to requests for comment.
Like many other religiously affiliated institutions, the school forbids same-sex relationships, through a policy banning "sexual conduct outside of marriage, as defined by the State of California." However, Javier's complaint asserts that there is no school policy that mentions transgender students. While some schools, such as Brown University, have shifted their policies in recent years to become more inclusive of transgender students, there has been little similar movement among Christian colleges and universities, according to Paul Southwick, the lawyer representing Javier.
"I think that there is a lack of discussion within Christian higher education on what to do with transgender persons, because they don't fit in traditional categories that we can deal with -- like you can't engage in homosexual conduct, or we believe in marriage between a man and a woman only," Southwick said. "But in terms of transgender persons who aren't necessarily engaging in any behavior, there really hasn't been much of a discussion or a policy, and they really get left in a very uncertain position."
Suzanne Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School who specializes in sexuality and gender law, said the university could have a more difficult time defending itself against Javier's lawsuit than against an anti-gay discrimination case. "While the position against same-sex sexual relations in some religions is widely known, I don't think the same is true for positions regarding gender identify," she said.
The school's position may also be difficult to defend, Goldberg said, because it appears to set up a Catch-22 for transgender students.
"There is no indication from these facts that the student intended to misrepresent herself or her identity to the school," said Goldberg after reviewing the complaint. "In fact, as the complaint points out, to represent herself as male would have also created the appearance of fraud. It's a we-win-you-lose framework."