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October 24, 2013

Pitt appeal of HRC transgender ruling denied

Pittsburgh’s Commission on Human Relations has denied the University’s appeal of a July ruling against it in a case brought by the Rainbow Alliance student group. The group’s complaint alleges Pitt discrimination against transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

Commission chair Leah Williams-Duncan said that Pitt brought “no new information” to their Aug. 27 reconsideration request, causing the HRC to reaffirm its earlier finding of probable cause by voice vote Oct. 14.

Ken Service, vice chancellor for University communications, said in a statement sent to the University Times that “the University of Pittsburgh remains committed to fostering an inclusive community” and that its appeal “was not based on any unwillingness to consider avenues of addressing the concerns that had been raised.”

The original complaint was filed more than a year and a half ago by the Rainbow Alliance, which advocates for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

The group’s complaint alleged that transgender students were experiencing discrimination by being required to produce medical documentation to change their gender on University records, and that individuals were being prohibited from using Pitt accommodations, such as student housing, locker rooms and bathrooms, designated for the gender with which they currently identified, where that gender was different from the gender listed on their birth certificate.

Said Service: “The University has adopted practices that are consistent with other leading American higher education institutions, that are considerate of the entire student body and that balance the interests of students on a case by case basis.”

Sue Frietsche, lawyer for the Rainbow Alliance, was pleased with the outcome: “We’re of course very happy that the commission reaffirmed its probable cause ruling against the University and hope that this takes us one step closer to ensuring that transgender and gender-nonconforming students and faculty can feel welcome and safe at Pitt.”

Rainbow Alliance President Brandon Benjamin did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Service asserted, as Pitt officials have in the past, that “the University has been denied fair and due process by the commission. […] The commission did not in a single instance contact the University for the purpose of seeking witness interviews or documents from University officials. Additionally, the commission’s finding of probable cause mixes a variety of issues and alleged practices into a single finding, without examining any related evidence or legal issues. At the same time, the commission seems to be holding the University to a different standard than the one it applies to itself and to other organizations.”

“I think Pitt’s criticism of the commission is unfair,” Frietsche responded. “The commission’s probable cause ruling is preliminary only. It allows the case to move forward. The rules of the commission anticipate that, before a final ruling, there will be opportunities for Pitt to present whatever evidence it has. […] There is no reason why this case couldn’t be resolved tomorrow; the ball is in Pitt’s court.”

Service explained: “We are not aware of any similar restroom access practices that have been adopted by the City of Pittsburgh, and the commission’s decision does not mention any such practices in operation within city-owned buildings.”

Service’s statement concluded: “Because of this lack of basic due process, the City of Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations has left the University no alternative but the continued litigation of this case. While the University intends to continue the defense of its legal rights in this matter, we will do so while continuing to foster the environment of inclusivity that is characteristic of our approach to addressing the needs of our students.”

The commission now will schedule a conciliation between Pitt and the Rainbow Alliance, conducted by a single commission member. If no agreement can be reached, a public hearing will be set, with a ruling and an order to follow from the commission. Both sides then will have 30 days to comply or to file an appeal to the Court of Common Pleas.

Charles F. Morrison, director of the commission, said: “This should all happen over the next several months, depending upon the availability of all involved.”

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 46 Issue 5

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