Opinion | Gender-inclusive homecoming awards are a step in the right direction

By Julia Kreutzer, Senior Staff Columnist

In a global pandemic, coming or going anywhere is difficult. But that isn’t stopping Pitt’s Alumni Association from planning a new and inventive homecoming that has been modernized for 2020, in every way possible.

This year’s Stay at Home-Coming will be held entirely virtually, featuring a series of online concerts, lectures, award ceremonies, at-home tailgates, pregame shows and spirit contests. Beyond transforming the nature of homecoming itself, the Alumni Association has also modernized one long-standing tradition — the titles of homecoming king and queen. Beginning this year, Pitt will instead crown two gender-inclusive “Spirit of Pitt” winners. 

These decisions make homecoming increasingly accessible — from a safety perspective, but also by including all members of the Pitt community in a more tangible way. By aiming to make homecoming a safe and welcoming environment to gender non-conforming members of the Pitt community, the Alumni Association allows all students and alumni to appreciate homecoming for all it is — an opportunity to take pride in your Alma Mater, connect with your community and remember why you chose to “Hail to Pitt.”

I’ll be the first to admit it — this semester really sucks. Spending my junior year sheltered in my bedroom — a converted laundry room that now serves as my home office, place of rest, yoga studio, plant sanctuary and music practice room — was definitely not “the plan.” At this moment, I am clinging to any sense of normalcy I can get. 

Despite this push for consistency and familiarity, the changes to homecoming are a welcome adaptation in 2020. The need for safety has never been greater. By inviting those who don’t fit into the gender binary to this — let’s face it — often-overlooked and seemingly irrelevant tradition, Pitt makes a distinct assertion that everyone is entitled to feel safe and included in our campus community. 

Nancy Merritt, vice chancellor for alumni relations, explained that the tradition of crowning a king and queen had become “antiquated” and took away from the goal of the homecoming celebrations. 

“Traditions are valuable in alumni relations in that they create a shared experience across generations and they also tend to reflect the values of an organization,” Merritt said. “But this concept of homecoming king and queen, I think, has become antiquated and was overshadowing what we were actually trying to recognize as part of this process.”

Throughout the past several years, Pitt has made other strides in including students who do not fit the gender binary. They’ve added single-occupancy restrooms so individuals can use the bathroom that best fits their gender identity. In 2016, Ruskin Hall became the first gender-neutral housing accommodation, and the University has since expanded their accommodations to include apartment-style suites. Pitt also uses the term “first-year students” instead of “freshmen” as a gesture of inclusivity. 

Data from the Pew Research Center suggests this modernization is not only necessary, but should be well-received. A survey conducted in fall 2018 found that roughly one in five adults in the United States knows someone who uses pronouns other than “she/her” or “he/him.” Moreover, 61% of respondents aged 18 to 29 said they would be somewhat or very comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns when asked to do so. In a similar study, 53% of 18- to 29-year-olds said forms should include gender options other than “man” and “woman” and, as of 2020, Pennsylvania began offering third gender options on drivers’ licenses. 

The proof is in the pudding — gender-neutral language is becoming a well-accepted, prominent and important part of American life, especially for young adults like those at Pitt. 

Beyond gender inclusivity, the Alumni Association has made other amendments to the criteria for homecoming court, opening the opportunity to more students. Candidates no longer must be sponsored by a student organization and can instead be sponsored by a group of any 10 students, faculty or staff. The Student Alumni Association, of which candidates must be a member, has also eliminated membership fees, further opening doors to students who otherwise did not have the means to participate.

Truthfully, in my two and a half years at the University, I have not attended homecoming. I haven’t voted for homecoming king or queen. I haven’t even been able to attend the football game. Homecoming has always seemed a rather antiquated tradition, seemingly removed from other aspects of student life. And maybe it still is. 

But by making the simple jump to prioritize accessibility and acceptance above simply maintaining tradition, Pitt demonstrated that homecoming has the potential to make us feel connected, united and valued by our community, as more than a black square in a Zoom call. There is still work to be done to make truly inclusive environments, but this step has been both a symbolic and tangible gesture to make safe and welcoming environments for all students, when we need it most. 

This is a step in the right direction to make sure Pitt is a place everyone can come home to. 

Julia is a junior studying Political Science, English Writing and Theatre Arts. She writes primarily about social issues. Write to Julia at [email protected].