American universities have been at the forefront of cultural change for decades.
From free speech movements at Berkeley in the 1960s to a student carrying her mattress around campus to raise awareness of sexual assault, many of our country’s biggest social movements have started at the collegiate level. And movements for transgender rights may be the next frontier we cross.
When President Trump’s Justice and Education departments announced their joint reversal of the Title IX executive guidelines late last month, they dealt a swift blow to the basic rights of transgender students across the country.
Trump’s actions are a giant step backwards. When the Obama administration announced the expanded protection in May 2016, it felt like a battle — at least the most basic of legal struggles — was won. Trump’s changes have left many in the LGBTQ+ community, especially transgender students at local schools, distraught. But Pitt’s response was reassuring.
“In the wake of this announcement, I want to clarify that our current policies and practices regarding protection from discrimination based on gender and gender identity, including specific policies and practices regarding access to university facilities, remain unchanged,” wrote Pamela Connelly, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, in a mass email to the student body last month.
Pitt updated its current gender nondiscrimination policy in 2015 after the University settled a contentious gender discrimination lawsuit with Seamus Johnston, a transgender student who Pitt Johnstown expelled in 2012 for continually using the male locker room. The extensive criticism Pitt received after the case was undoubtedly a big factor in the updated standards that are now keeping it well in line with some of the country’s most LGBTQ-friendly universities.
“The University’s current policy regarding bathrooms… is great and aligns well with the current best practices at [other] universities,” said Peter Crouch, the president of the Rainbow Alliance, one of Pitt’s most visible LGBTQ+ organizations. There are 18 buildings on Pitt’s Oakland campus that have single-occupancy restrooms available for use regardless of the user’s gender identity.
And Pitt has other academic departments and social features that illustrate its active commitment to accommodating all students, similar to other universities with solid reputations for their LGBTQ+ resources in the U.S. The City University of New York, Rutgers University and the University of Pennsylvania all offer options for students to pursue interests in LGBTQ+ studies on an academic level, as does Pitt through the Gender and Women’s Studies program. San Diego State University has hosted a Lavender Graduation — a ceremony that specifically honors LGBTQ+ graduates — for the last eight years, and Pitt also started one last year.
Tufts University offers queer-friendly housing on campus, called the Rainbow House, that is meant to provide a safe and comfortable living environment for all sexual and gender identities on campus. While Pitt has no on-campus housing designated specifically for queer students, the University did make gender-neutral housing available in the Ruskin Hall apartments in fall 2016, empowering students to live in a way that expresses and confirms their gender regardless of sex assigned at birth.
“While [no queer-friendly housing] is not a huge problem, [Ruskin] has been able to accommodate all students, which is great,” said Crouch on Pitt’s updated living options.
Pitt also allows students to easily change their official name and pronouns to their preferred ones on their University diploma and other official documents, including issuing a new Panther Card at no charge. The whole process can even be done from your laptop.
“That still is a great step because it helps students feel safer and know that the University is on their side if there is an incident,” said Crouch, referring to the University’s update of their existing policies.
In addition to name changing and pronoun use, the University has enabled trans students to begin their gender confirmation process here on campus. The Student Health Center can provide consultation, prescription and maintenance for students interested in cross gender hormonal therapy, and the Student Health Services pharmacy can fill these prescriptions right on campus. With this access to medication comes the valuable assistance of Health Center nurses, who have been trained to teach patients how to self-administer hormonal medications.
It’s a relief to watch this shift toward nondiscrimination and see how Pitt is signaling to the city at large that equality is the new norm and that anything less is unacceptable.
Yet on a national level, Trump has signaled that he and his administration won’t be loyal to LGBTQ+ students in controversial cases. It is important now more than ever to note that just because there is a formal repeal of guidelines, it doesn’t mean we have to stop acting inclusively in our daily lives.
And, according to Crouch, it seems like we haven’t.
“In general, regardless of the current administration, public opinion is generally trending towards acceptance as more people become aware that trans people aren’t some sort of scary threat to others’ safety — that they’re just regular people,” he said.
Even with young people on college campuses working so hard to normalize these practices, there is still more to be done. In order to create sustainable change, it’s important to make sure these resources are normalized throughout society, and not just in our collegiate bubble.
And doing so now is the only option. Just as it did for the civil rights movement or protests of the Vietnam War, history will not reflect kindly on those who choose to ignore transgender rights at this critical time.
Christian primarily writes on social justice and campus issues for The Pitt News.
Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.