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April 5, 2012

Senate ad hoc committee to look at transgender issues

Amid a swirl of controversy surrounding Pitt’s policies for members of the transgendered population, University Senate President Michael Pinsky is convening an ad hoc Senate committee to examine related issues.

Among the concerns is whether transgendered employees and students must use gender-specific restrooms guided solely by the gender that appears on their birth certificate or, as had been the practice here, based on documentation (other than a birth certificate) from a health care provider that the individual is a certain gender and presents as that gender.

Related issues concern the use of other gender-identified facilities, such as locker rooms and dorm rooms and suites.

Part of the controversy stems from the difference between the University’s written nondiscrimination policy statement, which since 2008 has forbidden discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression, and the Office of General Counsel’s recent edict that only an amended birth certificate will be accepted by the University as indicating a change in gender. (See Feb. 23 University Times.)

At Faculty Assembly’s April 3 meeting, Pinsky said, “The question remains who decides what a student’s sex is for purposes of using a public bathroom, dressing and shower facilities associated with physical education and finally shared housing. The issues may be complex, because one has to be sensitive to the transgender student and also their roommate. So both sensitivities of the student and the ones exposed to them in such personal spaces need to be considered.”

Pinsky said the ad hoc committee will review policies at other institutions, examine practices on the regional campuses and review existing civil law.

While the Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee (ADPC) had been looking into transgender issues for several months, Pinsky said a less divisive approach was needed.

“[ADPC] brought in some students to tell their story and had it all reported in the University Times. It seems to have caused a lot of folks on both sides of the debate to get upset,” he said. (See Jan. 26 University Times.)

Pinsky noted that ADPC had approved a resolution that birth certificate-only verification of gender identity may violate Pitt’s nondiscrimination policy, as well as city ordinances — a resolution Pinsky said was too radical to present to Faculty Assembly for discussion. “[ADPC members] were trying to determine what discrimination is and that is not their role,” he said.

The goal of the new ad hoc committee, he said, is “to get the University-wide position on the transgender facilities issue so that the transgender community and the rest of the University can harmonize life with lifestyle.”

That goal has the backing of Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and Provost Patricia Beeson, Pinsky said. “I have worked closely with the chancellor and provost to create as unbiased and thoughtful a committee as possible to review these issues. They hoped that the people on it were not firmly entrenched one way or the other to make sure they would give a balanced view,” he said.

While several members of the ad hoc committee have agreed to serve, other openings have not been filled yet, Pinsky noted. The committee, which includes representatives of the faculty, staff and students, as well as two administrators that do not report directly to the provost or chancellor, will meet in closed session and report back to Pinsky, ADPC and Faculty Assembly, presumably in late fall, he said.

Following the Assembly meeting Pinsky confirmed that none of the ad hoc committee members is a member of ADPC, although ADPC had identified several of its members who were willing to serve.

He also confirmed that none of the members is a transgendered individual, pending the two student appointments.

“The entire focus I want to have — and what has not been a focus so far — is I want people who think honestly and realistically about what are the responsibilities to the University and to the transgendered student and to the other students.”

He added that the ad hoc committee has the discretion to ask ADPC members and transgendered individuals for input.

ADPC members did not take kindly to Pinsky’s views and inferences.

Jane Feuer, chair of the Senate anti-discriminatory policy committee, said, “Dr. Pinsky had asked me to recommend people for the ad hoc committee. Lots of faculty who knew and researched transgender issues from a number or areas — social work, public health, the law school — had volunteered,” Feuer told the University Times. “Now he’s made a complete turnabout. He now wants an ad hoc committee of uninformed faculty. This is a direct insult to my committee. In doing this, he has disenfranchised the committee, which has served as a watchdog for minority rights at Pitt since the early 1990s.”

In addition, she said, ADPC had examined in detail many of the issues Pinsky laid out, including benchmarking other institutions and reviewing legal precedents.

Feuer added that not including on the committee transgendered individuals, who are most concerned with the issues and affected by them, is myopic.

ADPC pro tem member Deborah Brake, who specializes in discrimination law, told the University Times: “On the specific issue of restroom use, there is simply no need for further ‘study.’ Until very recently, the practice at the Oakland campus was to allow transgender students to use the restroom according to their lived gender identity, as long as they had a supporting letter from a health care provider. The newly announced ‘policy’ [by the Office of General Counsel]  — which is unwritten — overriding that practice should be reversed immediately.”

Last month, ADPC was told by the Office of General Counsel that in order to use gender-specific facilities not matching their natal gender, transgendered individuals were required to obtain an amended birth certificate that presupposed expensive gender reassignment surgery and court action, Brake said. ADPC members noted that some states will not amend birth certificates under any circumstances, including after an individual undergoes gender reassignment surgery.

“To require [an amended birth certificate] clearly violates the University’s policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity/expression, and it could place some students at immediate risk of harm.”

For example, Brake said, “to insist that a transgender student who identifies and expresses herself as a woman use the men’s restroom is not only an affront to her dignity, it is a threat to her security. This newly announced ‘policy’ should be recognized immediately for what it is — a mistake,” she said.

Brake acknowledged that more complex issues related to transgendered individuals’ use of facilities, such as housing assignments and locker room use, might benefit from further study.

“However, it is especially problematic to exclude [from the ad hoc committee] persons whose lives will be most affected by their resolution,” she said.

Brake further maintained that several of Pinsky’s points bear correcting.

“It is incorrect to claim that our ADPC proposed resolution was trying to ‘make policy.’ Pitt already has a nondiscrimination policy protecting gender identity/expression. Our proposed resolution simply stated our understanding of what that policy meant with respect to access to facilities: restrooms and locker rooms,” Brake said.

“To suggest that ADPC members are ‘biased’ or ‘partisan’ because we have been working on these issues for two years is frankly mystifying. And I repeat my concern that the committee must have representation from the transgender community if it is to have legitimacy. To call transgendered persons, whose lives are deeply and concretely affected in the most intimate ways, too ‘partisan’ to serve on this committee is, frankly, insulting.”

ADPC committee member Bruce Venarde echoed some of Brake’s sentiments. “Dr. Pinsky stated that he is looking for ‘unbiased,’ ‘thoughtful’ and ‘honest’ members for the committee. There will not be any ADPC or transgendered people on the committee. Put those two things together and you have a [white-washed committee] that is woefully under-informed. To avoid ‘partisanship’ one creates a committee that is totally ignorant about the issue?”

—Peter Hart

Alan Meisel, a law professor, and Irene Frieze, a psychology professor and past president of the Senate, will co-chair the ad hoc committee. Other members will be Nicholas Bircher, professor of anesthesiology and a past Senate president; Staff Association Council President Deborah Walker; two administrators who have not yet been named, and two students, who will be named by Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students.

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