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January 26, 2012

Senate committee reviews transgender discrimination

In a UPJ judicial conduct hearing this week, a hearing board found UPJ junior Seamus Johnston guilty of exhibiting disorderly, lewd or indecent behavior; failing to comply with lawful directions of a University official, and entering University facilities without authorization.

The sanction issued Jan. 24 was “disciplinary dismissal precluding re-admittance” from Pitt-Johnstown.

Johnston said he plans to appeal.

In addition, Johnston faces a Feb. 21 hearing on misdemeanor charges, including indecent exposure, which were filed by campus police.

If convicted, Johnston faces two-four years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine, he said.


How does Pitt’s nondiscrimination policy apply to the transgendered population in terms of access to University facilities — such as locker rooms and dormitory rooms — that are designated as gender-specific?

That was the issue addressed last week at the University Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee meeting.

Jane Feuer, chair of the committee, noted that since September 2008 the University’s nondiscrimination policy (Policy 07-01-03) forbids discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. (See Sept. 25, 2008, University Times.) The policy applies equally to all five campuses.

In response to a University Times account of a transgendered Pitt-Johnstown student who identifies as male being arrested by UPJ campus police for using the men’s locker room, the committee invited the student to review the details of his case at their Jan. 20 meeting. (See Dec. 8 University Times.)

UPJ junior Seamus Johnston was arrested in November for violating campus citations prohibiting his use of the men’s locker room, facilities he had been using in connection with a weight training course. Johnston was enrolled in the same course in a previous term and had used the same locker room more than 100 times prior to being arrested on Nov. 28, he said.

“I am a female to male transsexual,” Johnston told the anti-discriminatory policies committee Jan. 20. He acknowledged that several campus documents, such as his application form and SAT/ACT results, identify him as female. “On every one of these items, my gender is self-identified. They believed me then, but now they want proof,” in the form of an amended birth certificate, which would require a surgeon’s letter stipulating that he had completed sexual reassignment surgery, or a court order declaring him male, Johnston said.

Johnston told the committee his treatment amounts to legitimizing trans-phobia, that is, the fear of those who differ from defined gender lines.

“I believe that gender is a deeply personal matter. Society accepts transgendered people, but holds us to rigid gender standards and requires things of us that would never be asked of natal-born men and women. [I ask you] to recommend a campus community of every gender possible without restriction.”

Following Johnston’s presentation, the anti-discriminatory policies committee discussed issues related to the appropriate application of the University’s nondiscrimination policy to transgendered members of the Pitt community.

Feuer said Pitt’s policy is intended to be inclusive rather than exclusive. In addition to transgendered people, she said the nondiscrimination policy should apply to all those who are perceived by others to be of the opposite gender than the gender they self-identify.

For example, she said, if an effeminate-looking person uses a men’s room, the same objection leveled at Johnston’s actions might be raised. “So the idea that this policy covers just a handful of transgendered people doesn’t cover the scope of the issue. It’s bigger than that,” she said. “The idea that we have to protect the rights of the majority from showering with people they perceive to be of a different gender — it seems to me, as long as there isn’t harassment, this is a case where we need to protect the rights of the minority. This is why this rule was instituted,” Feuer said.

She noted that at times in American history, African Americans were forced by law to use separate bathrooms. “In a puritan country like ours, you’re always going to have some ‘justification’ for segregation. So I think it’s a very large issue.”

Committee member Deborah Brake, who specializes in discrimination law, said, “As far as I’m aware, this is only the second incident that this committee has been made aware of. So these are very early days in testing this policy. There are lots of ordinances across the country that cover gender identity but at this point there’s also very little legal precedent.”

Brake continued: “Universities across the country are struggling with figuring out what the policy means. I will say from having talked to people who have been involved with writing the ordinances, advocating for the ordinances and with a more general understanding of the issues involved, that it’s understood that when you commit to not discriminate on the basis of gender identity, you are committed to recognizing the person’s self-identity of the gender. That is, to deny a gender identity by classifying a person by their birth sex violates the very promise of nondiscrimination.”

Following the discussion, committee members agreed to continue exploring the issue, with the goal of making recommendations to Faculty Assembly at a later date.

—Peter Hart

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