Beds and bathrooms: Pitt starts gender-neutral push

Emily Hower / Layout Editor

Emily Hower / Layout Editor

This fall, Pitt is welcoming students, faculty and staff to use any restroom on campus that they desire, corresponding to their gender identity. Next fall, Pitt will open Ruskin Hall as the first gender-neutral dorm on campus.

In an interview with The Pitt News, the University said Ruskin Hall will accommodate all students, regardless of gender identity, beginning in the fall 2016 semester. Students of different genders and different gender identities can share suites as long as all individuals agree to the accommodations. Without a press release or formal announcement, Pitt began encouraging students, faculty and staff last week to use the restroom facilities of whatever gender they identify with anywhere on campus, regardless of the sex specified on their birth certificate. Agender students, who do not identify with a particular gender, may use whichever bathroom they feel comfortable using, Pitt spokesperson Ken Service said.

“[The changes] came from talking to our students and our staff to better understand what their needs are,”

Kenyon Bonner, interim vice provost and dean of students, said. “We’ve been focusing on this for quite a while.”

The change in restroom practice is University-wide, meaning the practice is also effective on Pitt’s branch campuses. Pitt will only introduce gender-neutral housing at its Oakland campus, leaving branch campuses to respond to gender-neutral housing requests on a case-by-case basis, Service said.

Pitt’s decisions to change its restroom policy and introduce gender-neutral housing on campus came from conversations in Pitt’s Student Affairs office between staff and students, such as Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance, a club focused on promoting the interests of the LGBT community, as well as updated Occupational Safety Health Administration recommendations, Service said.

These decisions, Service said, were not a result of the 2012 lawsuit former Pitt Johnstown student Seamus Johnston filed against Pitt Johnstown after it expelled Johnston, a transgender man, for using men’s bathrooms and locker rooms. Pitt’s new restroom practice will not apply to locker rooms, Bonner said.

Pitt’s previous bathroom practice asked faculty, staff and students and their guests to “exercise sound judgment and discretion when accessing and using the restrooms.”

Pitt’s new practice encourages faculty, staff and students and their guests to use any restroom that corresponds to their gender identity, or whichever bathroom they feel most comfortable using.

When asked if Pitt had plans to advertise the changes, Service said the University was letting The Pitt News spread the word.

Marcus Robinson, president of the Rainbow Alliance, said if a cisgender student — someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth — felt uncomfortable using the same bathroom as a transgender student, the transgender student should mention the new practice and inform an administrator or Robinson.

“Violence is definitely a concern that you have in any situation, but Pitt’s campus is growing more accepting,” Robinson said. “It’s such a place of nervousness, but it shouldn’t be. It’s just a restroom.”

Frayda Cohen, a professor in Pitt’s gender, sexuality and women’s studies program, said gender-neutral bathrooms meet “the everyday needs of a population students.”

“Bathrooms in particular can be intimate spaces in which people might feel challenged or defensive, and gender neutral spaces alleviates many of these concerns,” said Cohen said in an email.

According to a 2008 study in the Journal of Emotional Abuse, 47 percent of transgender people reported they had been assaulted in their lifetime, compared to 21 percent of the general U.S. population. Robinson said he does not expect the practice at Pitt to prompt any violence.

“The University and Chancellor Gallagher are really committed to diversity in general,” Robinson said. “I’m really excited to see how the University approaches these topics and how the campus is going to change in the next couple years.”

Alexander McCarthy, former president of Rainbow Alliance, has been involved in the discusssions with the University for more than a year. He said Pitt and Rainbow Alliances have gotten over “a lot of differences,” and while they still have “ways to go,” he is impressed with the University.

“I’m proud of how Pitt has stepped up in the past year,” McCarthy, a senior urban studies, gender sexuality and women’s studies major, said.

Before the University established gender-neutral housing, transgender students would contact Panther Central if they were uncomfortable with their housing assignment. Panther Central then gave the students a single room with a private bathroom or a room with a roommate of the same sex.

Because Ruskin Hall only offers housing for upperclassmen, freshmen transgender students must follow the same procedure as before.

Service did not know which dorms include the single rooms. Julie Bannister, the manager of Panther Central, directed all media inquiries to Pitt spokesperson John Fedele. Fedele also said he could not look into where the rooms were located Thursday evening.

According to Service, Panther Central has received several requests for single dorms with private restrooms this year and has accommodated all of them.

Ruskin Hall, located on Ruskin Avenue, houses 416 students in single, double and triple dorm rooms. Service said Pitt expects Ruskin will be able to accommodate the full need for gender-neutral housing next year.

Service said it doesn’t have plans to open any other dorms as gender-neutral until it gauges student demand on Ruskin.

Ruskin’s apartment-style dorms are popular among students because of its private kitchens and central location on campus. Because Pitt will label Ruskin Hall as gender-neutral, Carlisle Walker, a senior and transgender man, said he thinks demand for Ruskin will change from all students to only students who are comfortable living in a gender-neutral environment.

“No one wants to think of themselves as bigoted,” Walker said. “But if you’re uncomfortable living with a trans person, you’re not going to volunteer [to live in Ruskin].”

The process to sign up for this housing will be just like signing up for any other dorm. Students will use their lottery number to get a designated time to sign up for housing, with Ruskin Hall as an option.

According to Bonner, there will be a mechanism in place to ensure all students who apply to live in Ruskin are on board with living in a gender-neutral dorm, but Pitt has not decided on the specifics of that mechanism yet. Possible options are a drop-down menu on the housing website’s online form or a phone call with the University, Bonner said.

Ruskin Hall will be available for student bids when housing selection begins in January.

In the event of a complaint, the University will follow the same procedure for any other dorm. If a student wishes to move out, they may do so as long as there is an opening in another dorm.

If there is a complaint beyond “normal roommate issues,” Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion will address it, according to Pamela Connelly, the associate vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion.

The University is still discussing other practices, such as for locker rooms and showers.

“We’re looking at every issue that we can,” Bonner said. “As with anything on campus, we’re all ears.”

Todd Reeser, Pitt’s Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program director, said while he could not speak for the transgender community, Pitt’s decision to make Ruskin Hall gender-neutral is a step forward.

“I was very pleased to hear about Pitt’s policy on gender-neutral housing and restrooms, as it reflects the lived reality of the non-binary nature of sex and gender,” Reeser said in an email.

As for transgender students on campus, Walker said Pitt’s move is a good idea, mostly for the mental health of transgender students at Pitt.

“It’s hard to use all of your mental energy focusing on being trans all day,” he said. “To be able to come home at the end of the day and be comfortable — that’s huge.”

Editor’s Note: In a previous version of this story, the University’s stated practice in regard to bathroom usage did not specifically reference options for agender students. The story has been updated to clarify the University’s new bathroom practice, including options for agender students.