Pitt Trans Issue: biggest Pittsburgh LGBT story of the year.
No matter how many political points Mayor Luke hoped for with his pro-same-sex marriage announcement, his was not the biggest LGBT news story in Pittsburgh. A controversy surrounding trans accommodations made my top 12 list of posts at #5 and #2. Not only is it the most important local story, but the basic issues of trans accommodations will grow into one of the mot significant queer issues nationally, and could mean the end of the LGBT moniker. As gays and lesbians get closer to full equality, they seem poised to leave the trans community behind as issues of sex, gender,and public privacy collide.
I wrote about the Pitt Trans issue here, here, here, here, here, and here. And I got raked over the coals about what I said here. I don’t want to restate what has already been said, although I may a bit. What I do want to do however, is try and frame the issue differently. The “issue” is far from resolved, and the current legal status of the various complaints means that no solution will be coming too quickly. That is unfortunate for those trans students, staff, and faculty who may feel disenfranchised, yet I’m surprised by few people, at least visibly, seem to be concerned.
There are three different parts to the Pitt Trans issue. If you have a better name for it- please let me know what that might be. The first, is what I’m going to call the Seamus situation. The second, is the University Senate action (or inaction, depending upon your perspective), and lastly, the Rainbow Alliance effort against the University. Each are distinct chapters to the whole tale and what is most interesting to me as an organizer and activist, is the way these different pieces have impacted and affected each other. Not enough is written about that part of it- the behind the scenes stuff which is where the real story unfolds. I am always amazed at young activists who think social change has a light switch, and if you just do. “X” or say “y” then the change happens. Anyone who really cares about being an activist and creating change has to be able to step back and see there are parts one can affect, parts one cannot, and the key is figuring out how to make change despite these obstacles.
Creating social justice isn’t a game and yet, the strategy of games like chess can teach activists much. Not only are the moves made important, but thinking about how one’s actions sets up other actions and responses is critical. And the current status of the Pitt issue is a great example.
The Seamus situation
I haven’t written much about the Seamus part of this overall story, and don’t intent to say too much now. Similar to what happened at Pitt Johnstown, Evergreen College had a similar episode with a student, although they handled it completely different. But then, that state had nondiscrimination protections in place, and maybe they were following what happened here? Seamus finally filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission, and I think they are still reviewing the complaint. It will be interesting to see what happens with that. Seamus and Katherine Anne claim to care about the larger issue of fairness, and unfortunately, it is their actions which have created the greatest impediment to a fast and fair resolution. Seamus’ experience isn’t the root of the issue, rather, the fact that Pitt lacks a comprehensive Trans policy for housing, and accommodations- that is the real root of the issue. Up till now, Pitt had operated on an informal set of understandings, and this worked fine for those trans persons who accepted what accommodations were offered. In many regards these accommodations were extremely fair and it could even be argued that Pitt’s method of handling things case by case demonstrated a real lack of bias against trans persons. But with no real policy, there was no understood path for resolution if a person did not accept the accommodations offered them.
If (isn’t hindsight grand?) Seamus had used the gender neutral shower facility offered him, and at the same time pressed the University to review it’s policy and adopt a real fair policy, Seamus, and countless other students would have already been benefitting. But Seamus didn’t see it that way. In my opinion, he cared only about himself, and saw using the gender neutral space as if it meant the end of the issue, when it could have opened the door to real meaningful dialogue with the University and ended in lasting improvement.
Seamus had no support of other students, even trans students, and no community support at all. In fact when the Pittsburgh Trans community first heard of what had happened they were outraged. Except that Seamus and Katherine Anne left out details, and one could say, lied, about it all to accentuate their victimhood status, and most of the trans leaders denounced them outright.
Really,it isn’t hard to see why Seamus met such troubles initially. There are about 3000 18- 21 year old students at the Pitt Johnstown campus located in a rural small town in Western PA. Seamus self identifies as male, and has a driver’s license that thus identifies him. Yet, physically, Seamus has female breasts and a vagina, and at the time of the incident had just began taking testosterone. Imagine being one of those 18 year old male students, in a locker room with a shared shower facility, seeing this male with what looks like a female body. This is something that the general public anywhere, let alone in a small rural town are not very accustomed to seeing.
Does Seamus deserve to be treated fairly and with respect? Yes, indeed! Is it understandable why he wasn’t warmly welcomed by the other students? Yes, indeed! These issues of gender, sex, identity, and public presentation are huge and will be a theme as LGBTQ rights continue to be considered.
The University Senate (in)action
Full disclosure: I am an employee of the University of Pittsburgh, and have been for almost 24 years. I have watched the University grow and change and do what it thought it needed to do to be a viable and successful University. All in all, I think it does a pretty good job on that front, however, I think the University has never been a leader when it comes to being progressive towards a diverse faculty, staff, and student population, especially when it comes to LGBT issues. I don’t believe this is the result of any ill will towards diversity at the highest levels, but rather a lack of vision and management below that highest level. I would go so far as to say, there isn’t any real systemic ill will towards LGBT students, staff, or faculty at any level, just lots of misunderstanding of the issues, which leads to people feeling disenfranchised, and the University lacks an agile method or structure to adapt to these changing needs. Enter the University Senate.
I actually appreciate even when it is frustrating, the democratic structure upon which the University operates. Policies are worked on in committees and move through a structure, and go to administration as recommendations. This, in theory, allows for many viewpoints to be considered and whatever is being worked on, adapted to meet the needs of the whole. But if you are a person who feels left out and ignored or treated poorly, this slow changing process can appear utterly useless. And it may be.
Post the Seamus controversy, a committee of the University Senate jumped in to work on the need for a comprehensive policy. Good start. Unfortunately, the committee chose to work on it in parts, and started with restroom and shower accommodations. Bad move. But the real point of this part of the whole story, is that personalities and personal politics got in the way of really important dialogue. Maybe because there wasn’t a single trans person on the committee that took up the issue?
By nature, many trans persons do everything they can to fit in and not appear as different. While this is a mindset that works and keeps people safe, it also helps to keep “the problem” hidden, and many lesbian and gays , let alone most straight people have no awareness of the hardships and obstacles face trans women and trans men.
Additionally, there is still a tangible unresolved lack of trust between some within the University and the University administration left over from the tortured way the issue of domestic partnerships was resolved many years ago. Still plenty of remaining anger and frustration. History impacts the present sometimes covertly and sometimes overtly. I don’t think anyone involved at the Senate level wanted to harm the progress towards a fair and useful outcome. I think everyone wanted a good outcome, but couldn’t get past the politics and personalities to get real work done.
The Rainbow Alliance part
For me personally the involvement of Pitt’s LGBTQ student group was both the most exciting and most disappointing at the same time. It is always great to see young,people get engaged, especially since trans students are the most impacted constituents for the lack of a comprehensive trans policy. And with trans students involved, where better could a solution come from? The reality is that Seamus isn’t the only turns student who has experienced a problem, nor is the issue limited to rural campuses. A number of main campus issues can be documented.
My disappointment comes because the students felt there was no avenue for them to have input except to file their own complaint with the city HRC. Since the filings with the HRC constitutes legal action, the University General Counsel takes over, and any other efforts within the University are brought to a halt pending, outcome of the legal actions. This is exactly what happened regarding domestic partner benefits almost 20 years ago. Actually more than that if you look at the actual start of the domestic partner issue.
While disappointed, I fully support the student group’s efforts. I believe that Pitt administration wants what’s best for all students including trans students, but the processes and systems within the University are not suited to working out these types of issues, and the University won’t adapt and create new and viable processes until they are pushed to do so. I think this will push them because I think the students have a very strong complaint against against the University. Time will tell how it all plays out, and how quickly.
The University has taken big steps to make Pitt more student friendly and welcoming. Student life on,campus is exceptional, and any student,or parent can see it as a perfect University experience. I don’t know why, in these efforts, the University doesn’t see the opportunities to become primary destination for LGBTQ learners. As more anymore youth come out at younger ages’ and more youth identify as trans, the creation of a truly diverse campus could be a way for Putt to set itself apart from competing Universities. It isn’t only the right thing to do, but also a successful path to become a real leader in creating a diverse campus.
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