Shiloh Betancourt had dreams of becoming an entertainment lawyer. Those dreams came to a screeching halt, she says, during her first year of law school at California Western School of Law in San Diego when she says the rampant discrimination began for her being a transgender woman.
On Jan. 7, Betancourt filed a lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court against the law school for discrimination, harassment and retaliation by administrators including Cal Western’s assistant dean for Student and Diversity Services, Susan Finster.
“I did not expect to receive this type of treatment from a city that is welcoming to so much diversity,” Betancourt told NBC 7. “And, Cal Western made an impression on me that the school was an LGBTQ-friendly institution. But sadly, that was not my experience at the law school.”
According to the lawsuit, Betancourt says the discrimination began a few days after the January 2017 semester began when during a meeting with one of her professors, the professor asked her what her name was before she transitioned from male to female.
Referring to a person's name before they transitioned is considered "deadnaming" and highly offensive in the transgender community because it invalidates their identity.
For Betancourt, the question was minor but was the first clue about a differential treatment she says she experienced in the coming months. She visited the school’s Diversity Services Office for help in hopes to quell what the lawsuit says was her ongoing gender dysphoria. Staff in the office, according to the lawsuit, told her they do not provide services for transgender students.
The treatment, Betancourt says, followed her. In the following weeks, she began to feel a “dismissive” attitude from her tutor.
“Betancourt observed how [the tutor] was very engaged and focused while helping other students but disinterested and detached to Betancourt,” reads the lawsuit.
The discrimination soon began to come from students as well, according to Betancourt’s lawsuit. She overheard other students call her a “he-she” and the gender-specific noun “amigo” in reference to her nationality.
According to the lawsuit, during the following semester, Betancourt’s tutor said that he “cannot stand the sight of gay people.”
Betancourt filed a complaint, which she said was supposed to be confidential. Soon after, however, she says she discovered that her complaint had been shared with staff, resulting in additional mistreatment from other tutors as well as Finster.
One such incident allegedly occurred in February 2018. Betancourt wore a sweater and short skirt to school. When Finster saw her, she allegedly said, according to the lawsuit, “I know how you stay warm because my son also stays warm because he has a lot of testosterone.”
Betancourt said she finished her first year at the top 13 percent of her class but was forced to drop out due to medical conditions caused by the discrimination. She has since transferred to Arizona State University Law School.
Commenting on her lawsuit, Betancourt told NBC 7 that it was her "impression that law school was a place where diversity was respected."
"It was my understanding that lawyers had a more sophisticated sense of respect for diversity and inclusion," she siad. "But I was shocked to experience otherwise.”
Betancourt said her experience mirrors what so many in the transgender community face daily.
“When society targets us with mockery and forces us to ‘come out,’ it effectively stuns our growth, denies our humanity and way too often it ends our lives. We become disposable props.”
She hopes her lawsuit will help others “see that transgender people are not that much different than they are,” she said. “We are just human beings. Although we are different, we have similar dreams and needs: to be respected contributing members of society. Many of us are judges, teachers, doctors, lawyers, politicians and scientists.”
Messages left with Cal Western School of Law were not returned in time for publication. This story will be updated if and when the school responds.
UPDATE – January 11, 2019: Marilyn Jordan, a spokesperson for the California Western School of Law responded to the complaint saying, “California Western denies the allegations made in the civil complaint filed by former student Shiloh Bentacourt. The law school will defend its good name vigorously in response to her complaint and is confident that the evidence will show that it did not violate Ms. Bentacourt’s rights.”
To read the school's full statement, click here.