Pitt lacks written policy on transgender showers

Em Maier | March 19, 2012    

Alice Haas has a problem. She does not know where to shower at Pitt because she is a transgender… Alice Haas has a problem. She does not know where to shower at Pitt because she is a transgender student. And she is not alone.

“It should be none of the University’s business what there is in between my legs,” Haas, a junior, said.

The issue stems from the desire of University officials, who have no written policy, not to discriminate against transgender individuals, while still respecting others who use the showers. Students said this  lack of a policy creates confusion as to which facilites can be used by whom because the University’s policy currently provides for two different guidelines based on whether or not the shower facilities in question are open or private.

The existing policy

Jane Feuer, chairperson of Pitt’s Anti-Discriminatory Policies Committee — a standing committee in the University Senate — said that currently, cases regarding the use of University bathrooms by transgender persons are addressed at an individual level.

SBG member Julie Hallinan said that she and Tricia Dougherty, the president of Rainbow Alliance, are the only two students who sit on the ADP committee, but they do not have voting powers.

“[Cases]  tend to be taken on a case-by-case individual [basis]. The question is, ‘What is gender identity and expression? What does that mean?’ We need to look at what’s being done nationally,” Feuer said.

Robert Hill, vice chancellor for public affairs, said in a statement, “We work closely with any student who has a special housing request and try to address individual needs on a case-by-case basis, and our plan is to continue to do so.”

On Feb. 21, the ADP committee discussed the use of gender-specific restroom facilities on campus, as well as gender in relation to housing, health insurance and restroom and changing facilities.

Feuer said Pitt currently has an unwritten policy regarding bathroom use. In open showering facilities, such as a locker room, individuals must shower in accordance to their natal sex. But in private facilities, such as apartment-style residencies, they may shower in the facility of the gender with which they identify.

The voting members of the committee unanimously passed a resolution in order to “clarify the policy by stating that it should operate according to the sex with which the person identifies now, not the natal sex. We also asked that this policy apply to regional campuses,” Feuer said.

While the committee passed the resolution, Feuer said that some members of the administration, whom she would not name, told her that allowing transgender individuals to use public showers not of their natal sex was “too radical” for Pitt.

Hallinan disagreed with the University’s assesment.

“The fact that the University said, ‘You’re too radical’ was heartbreaking … that you don’t have a place here — to transgendered individuals, to any students. It’s terrible,” Hallinan said.

Feuer said there is still a widely shared opinion “that Pitt was not ready to allow for transgender persons to use the shower of their chosen sex in cases of public showers.” Public showers include open facilities, such as those found in locker rooms or gymnasiums.

Vice Provost Patricia Beeson informed the committee that this policy applied to the regional campuses as well.

Feuer elaborated on the distinction between open, public showers, which don’t have doors or curtain rods , compared to private and public non-open areas.

“Many feel that public showering is a different situation from restrooms with private stalls. I think our committee was suggesting that perhaps it is not so different. We know that in the past, racial discrimination often took the form of segregated facilities. It’s a very difficult issue,” she said. “The transgendered community supports the chosen sex, which goes against old ways of thinking about sexuality.”

She said it’s important to consider the feelings of natal sex individuals, who may not be comfortable in an open-shower environment.

“It’s very hard to accept changes in your way of thinking,” Feuer said.

The ADP has worked for two years to determine the best application of the University’s nondiscrimination policy to transgender members of the Pitt community. The nondiscrimination policy forbids discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation, gender identity and expression,” a clause added in 2008.

Currently, Pitt’s housing policy does not allow for co-ed and gender-neutral room assignments, even as colleges across the country, including Pitt’s neighbor Carnegie Mellon, have changed their policies to allow students the option of picking their roommates regardless of sex.

Discussion at Pitt

Discussions regarding policies relevant to transgender individuals are not new to the committee; members have voiced concerns numerous times as they deliberated possible policies over the past year.

“A lot of people from all segments of the University — faculty and students — [have] a feeling that there should be more of a policy so there would be procedures, rather thana case-by-case basis,” Feuer said.

The committee agreed to petition the University Senate to establish a University-wide ad hoc committee, which would report back to the ADP for potential further action regarding more complicated issues, including housing, health insurance and facilities.

The committee would initiate an investigation of the policy, examining how such matters relate to the transgender community. The resolution would be passed to the faculty after the ad hoc committee submits its report.

Hallinan and Feuer both commented on recent changes, saying that the University has begun plans to build new facilities with gender-neutral policies in mind, though it hasn’t determined specific changes.

Feuer and Dougherty both said intolerant people could make it uncomfortable or even dangerous for transgender individuals to enter gendered restrooms.

“That’s the problem. There will be these incidents when a person will try to evict a [transgender individual]. That’s not a practice supported here, but most people don’t know that,” Feuer said.

Carol Mohamed, director of Pitt’s Office of Affirmative Action, Diversity and Inclusion, which implements these policies, declined to comment on the issue.

Currently, transgender students at Pitt can use the restroom of their gender identity and be fully protected by the nondiscrimination policy as long as they have a note from their physician, Haas and Hallinan said.

“These are baby steps,” Hallinan said. “It’s the first step into accepting transgendered students as any other students.”

Hallinan and Dougherty both attended the ADP meeting in February.

“Somewhere along the way, people forgot that we are talking about actual students who need tangible things so that they can thrive here at Pitt,” Dougherty said in an email, which also mentioned the lack of a transgender housing policy at Pitt.

“I’m hopeful that with constant education and communication, especially with administration, the changes that need to be made and have thus far been ignored will eventually be made. The question is really how many more Pitt students will be forced to live in an unsupported, unsafe environment before the necessary change happens.”

Hallinan agreed, but ended on a hopeful note.

“It makes me optimistic that in the future, we can assimilate transgendered showers into housing,” she said. “This is going to keep coming up, and we’re not going to let it go.”

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