University adds to non-discrimination policy

By Lindsay Carroll

After two years of advocacy, Pitt will change its non-discrimination policy by adding ‘gender… After two years of advocacy, Pitt will change its non-discrimination policy by adding ‘gender identity and expression’ to the list of entities it vows to protect. Although no formal announcement has been made and Pitt’s Web sites have not been updated, Chancellor Mark Nordenberg confirmed the change last night. ‘It is a policy change that had been made during the summer, building on a recommendation that had come from Student Government Board last year,’ said Nordenberg. Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s dean of students, was elated when she heard the news, said Aaron Arnold, former president of Rainbow Alliance. Humphrey, who could not be reached for comment on Tuesday or Wednesday, informed members of Rainbow Alliance about the change, and Arnold notified The Pitt News. But not all University officials were aware of the policy change. Calls to Robert Hill, vice chancellor for public affairs, were forwarded to University spokesman John Fedele on Monday and Wednesday, who said the talk was ‘bad information’ and that nothing had been passed. Nordenberg said he didn’t think the policy had been passed formally, but that he had already signed for the change. Members of Rainbow Alliance, a student organization advocating gay, lesbian, transgender and queer concerns, said the decision is crucial to protect the student body. ‘We’re so thrilled to see it, finally,’ said Joseph Yarsky, president of the organization. About two years ago, Rainbow Alliance began its project to have the phrase added to the University non-discrimination policy, said Kelly Coburn, the group’s vice president. She said Humphrey worked closely with the group, calling her a ‘great asset’ within the administration. ‘It seems to me that Pitt is very willing to make important changes once it’s pointed out they’re important,’ said Coburn. ‘We were very surprised that after the initial suggestion, it only took two years. It took nine years to get domestic partner benefits for employees.’ In 1996, a group of University employees filed suit against Pitt for denying health benefits to their domestic partners, which they said violated a city equal rights ordinance, the Pitt News reported. Pitt fought the lawsuit, and a University committee released a report in 2002 that advised Nordenberg against providing full benefits, at that time, because of costs and political complications. But in 2004, Pitt announced it would begin providing full benefits to domestic partners, and the decision went into effect on Jan. 1, 2005. Before the gender identity addition was passed, University policy prohibited discrimination based on race or color, religion, nationality, sex, age, marital or familial status, disability, sexual orientation and veteran status. Coburn said that although anyone can be affected, the policy will especially apply to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer community. ‘I think most students won’t even notice the change,’ said Coburn. ‘But my hope is that a lot of students will be impacted by it. The obvious hope is that this will protect students who face discrimination.’ Efforts by the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition, a group based in Washington, D.C., that advocates against gender stereotypes, inspired Rainbow Alliance to work toward the policy change. Sasha Madway, who works for the coalition, said university policies can protect students from being discriminated against ‘on the basis of how they express their gender.’ She said it’s important for Pennsylvania schools, since state law does not currently protect students based on gender identity. The coalition annually publishes GENIUS, or Gender Equality National Index for Universities and Schools, which assesses which schools protect gender identity. In 2007, GENIUS reported that 147 passed specific non-discrimination policies. Those schools included Carnegie Mellon University and Penn State University, as well as all eight Ivy League schools. Madway said that sometimes administrators are unsure about how the policy change can affect them legally, but there is usually not as much controversy at the university level as at the state level. She said that GENIUS found ‘one-third of college students on campuses reported discrimination based on not fitting expectations of masculinity or femininity.’ For Rainbow Alliance, the change is a major victory. ‘I hope this sends the message that you can’t be judged based on how people perceive you,’ said Coburn. ‘And that the University won’t tolerate it.’