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October 11, 2012

Conciliation next in sex discrimination complaint

A complaint by the Rainbow Alliance student organization that claims that Pitt is engaging in discriminatory practices in public accommodations on the basis of sex will move forward before the city’s Commission on Human Relations.

In a Sept. 14 order, the commission denied the University’s motion to dismiss the campus gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocacy group’s complaint (see June 14 University Times), which contends: “A current University policy and practice — which University spokespeople publicly articulated and acknowledged throughout the spring of 2012 — prohibits transgender University students, faculty, staff and campus visitors from using sex-specific University facilities (including without limitation, restrooms, locker rooms and student housing) if the transgender individual cannot produce a birth certificate evidencing the sex designation that corresponds with the University facility they wish to use.”

Under the city code, the definition of sex includes “the gender of a person, as perceived, presumed or assumed by others, including those who are changing or have changed their gender identification.”

The complaint, originally filed in April and amended in June, states that members of the University community, including some Rainbow Alliance members, are being harmed by the University’s policy and have suffered “emotional distress, anxiety, fear of bodily harm or violence and/or economic loss resulting from being denied a chosen dormitory or residence and being forced to live in more expensive University housing.”

Pitt administrators would not comment on the complaint. The University’s senior director of News, John Fedele, told the University Times, “The Rainbow Alliance student organization has elected to pursue this matter through a legal action that remains active. As a consequence, the University will not comment on pending litigation.”

Human relations commission director Charles Morrison would not comment specifically on the Rainbow Alliance complaint but said the commission has the authority to remedy harm and to bring practices that are out of compliance with the law into compliance in the future.

“If there is a discriminatory policy or practice in place, it must end and be replaced with a nondiscriminatory one,” he said.

If the University and the Rainbow Alliance cannot resolve the complaint through conciliation, it would be scheduled for a public hearing before the human relations commission.

Morrison said each case’s timeline differs and that a hearing would occur “only when you have probable cause that the rights of a person have been violated and that conciliation has failed.”

Rainbow Alliance president Tricia Dougherty told the University Times last week that conciliation talks between the Rainbow Alliance and the University administration had yet to begin.

She noted that many other universities offer gender-neutral options in housing and have defined ways for transgender students to change the gender marker on their records.

She said it would be good to have more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus for those who feel uncomfortable in single-sex bathrooms, but added that Pitt’s policy should allow people to use the restroom of their choice. “The solution has to balance both,” she said.

Dougherty said that under previous practice on campus, which she characterized as an “unwritten operating procedure,” individuals used the restroom facilities in which they felt comfortable. She said that if anyone were challenged about the restroom they were using, they could go to the University’s affirmative action office, which handles complaints of discrimination or discriminatory harassment.

“Now you have no right to stand up for yourself anymore,” she said.

Given that there are only a handful of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, as a practical matter some individuals are continuing to use the restrooms they feel most comfortable in. “But, people are more cautious and more worried about it,” she said. “If someone wanted to harass you, they would be able to. It makes people nervous.”

Which bathroom to use is “not something they should have to worry about. School is stressful enough,” she said.

She said the group initially sought to resolve its concerns about the policy — which it considers a safety issue — without going outside the University, but chose to take the matter before the human relations commission in hopes of expediting change.

The Rainbow Alliance board recognized that pursuing the action would be time-consuming, she said. “We didn’t want an individual student to have to do this.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 45 Issue 4

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