Pitt settles Johnston lawsuit, looks to form trans inclusion group

Four years after he was expelled, Pitt announced Tuesday that it had settled Seamus Johnston’s lawsuit and would establish a focus group on transgender inclusion.

Pitt announced in a joint statement with Johnston that after working collaboratively, the two parties had settled Johnston’s 2013 lawsuit against the University out of court.

In the release, Pitt also said it would form a new working group on the needs of transgender students at Pitt which Pam Connelly, the associate vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion, said she will establish in April.

In his suit, Johnston, a trans man and a former Pitt Johnstown student, said the University violated his 14th Amendment rights and Title IX rights after it expelled him in 2012 for continually using a locker room that did not match his University “gender status.”

The group will include students, faculty and staff and will “study, evaluate and make recommendations regarding the implementation of best practices for institutions of higher education vis-à-vis transgender individuals.”

The release said the group is part of “continued efforts” to make all students comfortable on campus and to ensure the University is inclusive, respectful and welcoming.

“As the University focuses on its strategic goal of inclusive excellence, the formation of this working group comes at a critical time,” Connelly said in an email. “The working group will help continue the momentum at the University in the direction of inclusiveness.”

Connelly said she would specifically reach out to students in Pitt’s Rainbow Alliance to join the group.

Marcus Robinson, president of Rainbow Alliance, said it was crucial to include students, especially transgender students, in these discussions since they know their needs best.

“Having a group dedicated to this instead of being broader, narrowing down and focusing on these issues that [transgender students] are having will be great because we haven’t really had that in the past,” Robinson said.

In the same press release, Pitt also formally announced the availability of gender-neutral housing for students in Ruskin Hall next year. The University told The Pitt News in September the housing would allow students of different gender identities to share a suite in the dorm, but did not issue an official statement.

The University also reiterated in the release that it encourages students, faculty and staff to use the restroom facilities of whatever gender they identify with on campus — information it also told The Pitt News in September and posted online but never formally announced.

Ruskin Hall houses 416 students in one, two and three person apartments. The gender-neutral housing is set to begin in the fall 2016 semester.

Robinson said making these practices widely known can only benefit Pitt.

“People make their decisions [on where to go to college] on how inclusive a campus may be,” Robinson said. “Knowing Pitt has their restroom policy and gender neutral housing can go a long way to to making Pitt more diverse and inclusive.”

Pitt spokesperson Ken Service told The Pitt News in September that the new practices were not a result of the Johnston lawsuit.

Johnston enrolled at Pitt as a woman but identified and “lived openly” as a man during his time at the University, according to his lawsuit. In 2011, he showed the University proof of a name change and UPJ changed his name in his student record.

After a semester of using the men’s locker room for a weight training class, UPJ informed Johnston that he should use the unisex locker room, intended for referees, instead, the lawsuit said.

Johnston continued to use men’s restrooms on UPJ’s campus. At a Jan. 24, 2012 hearing, Johnston was found guilty of the same charges brought at his first hearing, the lawsuit said.

As a result, the court issued Johnston a “disciplinary dismissal,” which expelled him without the opportunity for subsequent re-enrollment, in part on the grounds that “other students would be ‘uncomfortable’ sharing a locker room or restroom with a transsexual student,” according to the court records.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, each state has different rules and procedures for changing the gender of one’s birth certificate. In Pennsylvania, the applicant must submit a request form, a statement from a surgeon that a surgery was performed, a certified copy of the court ordered name change and any fees that apply.

Neither Sasha Buchert nor Ilona Turner, two lawyers from the Transgender Law Center who helped represent Johnston, returned phone calls requesting comment. Johnston did not immediately return a request for comment.

Pitt said its release about the settlement would be its only comment on the lawsuit. Service did not answer an email seeking further information.

Connelly said the working group she is helping establish will “continue the momentum at the University in the direction of inclusiveness.”

“I expect that the members will bring with them their ideas, experience and research, and the priorities will be set by the working group,” Connelly said.