Pitt’s transgender policy conflicts with city, county policies

By Em Maier

The director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations said Pitt’s transgender policy is… The director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations said Pitt’s transgender policy is “very concerning.”

Charles Morrison, the director of the commission that Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appointed, studies and investigates complaints of alleged discrimination in employment, housing and public accomodations within the city limits. His commission has the power to issue subpoenas to aid investigations and hearings on any policy that discriminates against a person for things such as sex and sexual orientation.

“According to the city code, ‘Sex is the gender of a person, as perceived, presumed or assumed by others, including those who are changing or have changed their gender identification,’” Morrison said. “From what it sounds like, the University is not in accord with [the code].”

Pitt spokesman Robert Hill said in a statement that “The University of Pittsburgh will not discriminate on the basis of gender identity and expression.”

He said that transgender students must use the facilities that match the sex on their birth certificates.

“This does not represent a change in policy; rather, it is an articulation of a long-standing University practice concerning the use of restroom and locker room facilities,” he said.

The office of the University General Counsel declined to comment on the issue.

At a March 20 meeting of the Anti-Discriminatory Policies Committee — one of the standing committees of the University Senate — a Pitt representative delivered news of the new standard concerning transgender students.

Sources present at the meeting said the representative, who the Pitt administration declined to identify, announced that students would have to use public gendered facilities, such as bathrooms, that align with the sex listed on their birth certificates.

But in some states, it is impossible to change the sex on a birth certificate, and in Pennsylvania a transgender person must first have sex-reassignment surgery before the state will alter a birth certificate.

City and county policies differ from Pitt’s. Where Pitt defines gender or sex as what is listed on one’s birth certificate — a designation which frequently aligns with one’s natal sex — Pittsburgh and Allegheny County consider sex to be one’s gender as perceived by others.

Morrison said that his commission typically acts only upon receiving report of a concern stating that an organization or institutional policy has acted in a damaging or hurtful way. From there, the committee launches an investigation to determine the validity of the complaint and closely examines the wording and implementation of the questioned policy.

Morrison said that conciliation is the initial goal, but litigation often occurs, creating another set of complexities. As of Monday afternoon, no one had lodged any complaints to the commission about Pitt’s policy, and the commission does not currently have plans to launch an investigation into the transgender policy.

“The commission can initiate its own action, but it’s best if we have a victim, so to speak,” Morrison said, adding that a report can act as a “trigger” for the human relations commission to pursue a remedy for the individual.

Both the city and Allegheny County have comparable concepts of gender, using identified gender rather than natal sex.

“The city and the county have similar definitions, while the state does not. The state just says if you’re male or female, that’s all.” Morrison said.

Shannon Powers, from the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, said that the state’s Human Relations Act prohibits discrimination based on sex. However, the state does not define what constitutes sex or gender.

“[The Act] does not define sex further, not in terms of, ‘Is it biological sex assigned at birth?’ or another definition. It doesn’t go into specifics,” Powers said.

Powers elaborated, explaining that the term has never needed to be defined before.

“There have not been any complaints based on sex involving transgendered individuals that ever got to a public hearing or court decision — so there’s no precedent for defining sex. We’ve had complaints filed discussing discrimination, but nothing that has gotten to the public hearing phase,” she said.

Before Pitt’s new decision, the choice of restroom use was up to the students — they were allowed to use restrooms based on the gender with which they identified.

Student Government Board member Julie Hallinan said that she wanted to stress how imperative it is for Pitt to make sure its policies are in line with city ordinances.

“There is certainly some legal liability that the University should be held accountable to for any violations,” Hallinan said.

Adam Dobson, vice president of Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance, voiced similar frustration. He said that the nondiscrimination policy used to be designed to protect students, but it no longer serves that purpose.

“What I would like is if Pitt would appropriately implement its nondiscrimination policy because of its concern for its students rather than fear of legal consequences,” Dobson said, adding that he doesn’t want Pitt to change its policy just to comply with a city ordinance.

“What I’d really like to see is a university that values all of its students’ safety, comfort and identities,” he said.