Pitt’s transgender policies have fluctuated in the past few years, following — and at times preceding — national controversy regarding bathroom rights.
In response to what The New York Times called “a searing national debate over transgender rights,” the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released a directive on May 13 guiding U.S. public schools to allow all students to use the bathroom of their choice.
President Barack Obama backed the statement on May 16, saying the directive represents the administration’s best judgment on how to aid schools struggling with bathroom guidelines.
Following Obama’s entrance into the ring, Reuters reported on may 25 that 11 states, including Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana and Georgia, are suing the president for “rewriting the laws based on administrative fiat.”
But before schools were trying to decide how to best approach the controversial topic and the U.S. government was coming up with guidance, Pitt published guidelines of its own.
Pitt’s Gender Guidelines
The Gender Transitioning Guidelines, available on the Pitt website under Student Health, explain the steps supervisors, professors, students and administrators should take in order to support one another, specifically those transitioning genders.
Pam Connelly, associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, said the University’s guidelines are not reactionary, but rather come from a commitment to the community.
“Over 13,000 people work at Pitt … this includes transgender people,” Connelly said in an email. “The guidelines were created to assist our employees transitioning in the workplace, to express support and to make that transition as smooth as possible.”
For the past few years, universities across the country have, in fact, reacted to the heightened tension regarding transgender rights.
In keeping with the evolving nature of diversity and inclusion measures nationwide, Pitt has made changes to its policies regarding transgender students, faculty and staff, including a new policy that allows everyone to use the bathroom of their choice while on campus.
The Gender Transitioning Guidelines, written by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, explain how to act respectfully when someone is mid-transition and changes their name or pronouns.
The “Words You May Hear” section of the guidelines defines common vocabulary related to gender and transitioning, such as, “Gender Non-Conforming: Gender non-conforming people have, or are perceived to have, gender characteristics and/or behaviors that do not conform to traditional or societal expectations.”
According to Connelly, the University developed the guidelines throughout 2015 and published the list in January 2016.
“We didn’t find any single policy or guideline that fit our needs, so we created the University guidelines,” Connelly said.
The University’s efforts to be more inclusive have evolved over time, albeit not always fluidly.
In 2015, the University told The Pitt News it encouraged faculty, staff and students to use the restroom corresponding to whatever gender they identify with. Students responded with confusion, asking what bathroom gender nonconforming and nonbinary people should use.
In response, The Pitt News reported that the University changed the language of its bathroom policy and began opening more unisex or single-stall bathrooms.
Not all state-related universities have the liberty to change their policies one way or the other — at least not without breaking the law.
When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law stating residents could only use public bathrooms corresponding to their sex at birth, he set off alarms around the country.
Of course, in an era of fast-paced technology and instant media posts, that specific sound-off was just one of many in a week, but it rang nonetheless, then re-rang, then rang again, taking shape in opinionated editorials, Facebook posts, tweets and TV news specials.
The Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, or HB2, has been critiqued by some as an explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ measure — a position for which North Carolina is known — and immediately garnered national attention.
Some argue that letting people select the bathroom of their choice will encourage sexual deviancy while others say the rights of transgender people are being infringed upon, which could create dangerous situations for them.
Perhaps highest on the list of appropriate stakeholders regarding the law’s ramifications is the state’s public universities.
University of North Carolina President Margaret Spellings released a statement in mid-April countering complaints from students that the University was supporting the law.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she wrote. She said she had contacted state leaders, advising them against instating it.
One day later, Sheri Everts, the chancellor of Appalachian State University, issued a similar statement addressing students who were occupying an administrative building in protest.
She noted her opposition to HB2, but said she had no option — as the administrator of a public university — but to comply with it.
Pitt’s Gender Transitioning Team
Pitt’s own history regarding bathroom rights has been varied. In 2012, a Pitt official said students had to use the bathroom corresponding to their birth sex, causing a stir on and off campus. That same year Pitt expelled Seamus Johnston, a Pitt Johnstown student and transgender man, for continually using a bathroom that did not correspond with the sex on his birth certificate.
Johnston sued the University, and his case was settled out of court this past March — four years later.
In just a few short years, Pitt has reversed many of its gender-related rules.
Around the same time as it revised its bathroom policy, Pitt also announced the opening of its first gender-neutral dorm. Kenyon Bonner, now the dean of students, said the dorm was something the University had been “focusing on … for quite a while” and was not a result of Johnston’s lawsuit.
Connelly said the gender transitioning guidelines were not a response to the Johnston case but noted a lot of “activity” in the realm of universities adapting to the needs of transgender people. She highlighted Pitt’s various responses, which include the creation of a gender transitioning team.
The team is not so much a set structure as a group of professionals from Pitt’s Student Health Center who are ready to help students and faculty with the process of transitioning, according to Marian Vanek, director of the University Student Health Service.
“We take a team approach in caring for all of our students, including students who are transitioning,” Vanek said. “So the transgender care team is more of a concept that we deploy across the board to meet individual health care needs.”
She added that one of the physicians in Student Health is training in “subspecialty services for transitioning people” that will allow the the Wellness Center to offer hormone therapy treatments.
One of the doctors in the Wellness Center, Melanie Gold, was previously trained to offer hormone therapy, but when Gold left sometime within the past two years, trans students were left without a health care professional trained to administer hormone therapy, The Pitt News reported in February.
Connelly said she expects the gender transition guidelines to continue changing as the Office of Diversity Inclusion learns more about the transgender community.
“We expect that the guidelines will continue to evolve as continued progress in this area is made,” Connelly said.