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April 14, 2016

TRANSformations in the Culture

The national conversation on LGBT rights seemingly has focused on transgender individuals since 2015, when one celebrity, Bruce Jenner, came out as Caitlyn Jenner. But, as Julie Beaulieu, instructor in Pitt’s first transgender studies class, points out, Jenner is rich and famous, and Jenner’s experience dealing with trans issues, and with the public, will hardly resemble that of anyone else. Transgender individuals in academia have their own particular experiences with coming out and being transgender. Pitt, like many other institutions, is changing its diversity and inclusion policies to reflect transgender issues. The University Times spoke with transgender Pitt employees about their experiences, and the administration about its efforts. “We want to help create community members who can talk about this in important and more informed ways,” Beaulieu says of her undergraduate students. “Getting our public informed about trans topics is just a slow erosion of a problem mindset that erases trans lives ... If you don’t educate people, it doesn’t help.” (Editor’s note: The University Times uses an individual’s preferred pronouns.)


The national conversation on LGBT rights seemingly has focused on transgender individuals since 2015, when one celebrity, Bruce Jenner, came out as Caitlyn Jenner. But, as Julie Beaulieu, instructor in Pitt’s first transgender studies class, points out, Jenner is rich and famous, and Jenner’s experience dealing with trans issues, and with the public, will hardly resemble that of anyone else.

Transgender individuals in academia have their own particular experiences with coming out and being transgender. Pitt, like many other institutions, is changing its diversity and inclusion policies to reflect transgender issues. The University Times spoke with transgender Pitt employees about their experiences, and the administration about its efforts.

“We want to help create community members who can talk about this in important and more informed ways,” Beaulieu says of her undergraduate students. “Getting our public informed about trans topics is just a slow erosion of a problem mindset that erases trans lives … If you don’t educate people, it doesn’t help.”

(Editor’s note: The University Times uses an individual’s preferred pronouns.)



Staff member Jessica McGuinness

Staff member Jessica McGuinness

Ask for Jennifer Detchon at the phone number listed in the Pitt directory and the answer comes: “This is she.”

But Detchon, administrative assistant in the School of Nursing dean’s office, prefers the name Autumn now, and the genderless, albeit

traditionally plural pronoun “they.” Last fall, Detchon began changing their gender expression and dressing more androgynously. Detchon describes themselves as “gender queer or gender non-binary” today.

“It has been difficult — I won’t lie,” Detchon says. “Attitudes aren’t terrible at the University, but there’s a lot of work to do. It’s not outright discrimination. Nobody is calling me names” — or asking about the hair and clothing changes. “But there’s a lot of invisibility at the University. It’s discrimination by exclusion.”

Born presumptively female and raised that way through childhood, Detchon says, “I realized that there was a disconnect and I didn’t feel like the rest of the girls, I guess.” Detchon decided to come out slowly, eight months ago, after considering the move for three years.

For Detchon and other Pitt staff members on the transgender spectrum, this process can be tough: Detchon still uses their birth name and calls themselves she/her at work. Detchon wishes there were staff affinity groups to provide some support for transgender employees.

Detchon thought about asking for an email address change, for instance, but “that’s a tricky question. I would ultimately like to try.” Hesitation, Detchon says, stems from concern about the reaction of staffers who may be more traditional.

Julie Beaulieu, instructor in Pitt's first transgender studies class

Julie Beaulieu, instructor in Pitt’s first transgender studies class

And there is the question of which restroom to use. Transgender activists on the internet have posted the slogan: “It’s about bathrooms? False. Just like it was never about water fountains” — referencing, of course, the struggle in segregated America to get rid of separate but unequal public facilities into the 1960s. The question of restroom choice is just the most public face of a deeper push for equality. But the labeling of “Men’s Room” and “Women’s Room,” for uses governed exclusively by one’s birth certificate, continues to be a battleground for states, cities and universities, including, until last month, Pitt.

“I definitely have difficulty with bathrooms — neither fits,” Detchon says of the facilities in their building. The closest gender-neutral bathroom is two floors away from Detchon’s desk.

“The hardest part: People will always assume and call me a lady or ‘ma’am,’” Detchon says. “It would be nice for people to take their own initiative and not assume.

“I’m not going to correct everybody I see on the street about my pronouns,” Detchon adds. “But there is a real need for people to step out of our preconceived notion of what gender is.” The struggle — made more urgent by the disproportionately high numbers of suicides among transgender people — is “trying to find self-worth and having that affirmed by other people. It’s more education” that is needed, Detchon says, “and as a university, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do best? That’s what Pitt does best, so Pitt should have a leg up.”

A few weeks ago, Detchon took part in an event organized by a diversity committee in the School of Nursing. “I was really afraid to talk to them,” Detchon says of the other participants. The event included a “diversity shuffle” in which people were asked to group themselves repeatedly, based on whether they had undergone life experiences that put them in minority demographics: whether they hadn’t known where a meal was coming from, for instance; whether they were LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender).

As Detchon recalls: “It forces people to practically out themselves in a potentially dangerous situation … but it was a building of trust and a building of friendship.

Fifth-year senior BD Wahlberg

Fifth-year senior BD Wahlberg

“I was able to come out to them. That’s part of the education I’m talking about.”

Transgender people in academia face issues every trans person faces, from restroom access to potential work interruptions for medical procedures, and other issues specific to academia, particularly for faculty: the need to update an academic record or change one’s name on existing publications; uncertainty about traveling to academic conferences in countries with less liberal laws or traditions; finding gender role models in disciplines still dominated by a single gender.

The push for equal treatment of transgender individuals at Pitt has been going on for years. At an April 2010 meeting of the Senate anti-discriminatory policies committee (now called the equity, inclusion and anti-discrimination advocacy committee), for instance, members pressed the University to ask UPMC Health Plan to cover such things as counseling, hormone therapy and surgeries for transgender employees; such coverage had just been gained by the University of Pennsylvania’s employees.

In February 2011, the same committee discussed the public restroom availability question for “members of our transgender communities, transitioning individuals, and others who might not wished [sic] to be marked as belonging to a particular sex through having to choose only between restrooms that are designated ‘women’ or ‘men,’” according to the meeting’s minutes. A member of the administration countered with the caution that, while “there had been no unresolved or lingering problems on this issue … there were, of course, security concerns attached to the issue, in particular the need to secure restrooms against individuals who might harbor ill intent.”

That argument, of course, is being used even today by those disputing moves to broaden inclusive policies for transgender individuals. Others counter that no crime or danger from transgender bathroom access has been demonstrated.

Pamela W. Connelly, Pitt’s associate vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion, notes that, based on the “very infrequent” questions her office has received recently, “the vast majority of the inquiries from people who are not transgender about dealing with a fellow faculty or staff member who is transgender are supportive in nature. The most common questions relate to bathroom usage and available resources. Calls of complaints or concerns are very rare.”

Those who are transgender, she says, call her office most often with inquiries about transitioning in the workplace, “including questions about communication, present[ation], restroom usage and a transition plan. This office can assist in developing a successful work transition plan, and has successfully done so in the past.” Her office also receives queries about changing an employee’s name in University systems and “about future policy considerations,” she says.

“Feedback from employees who have transitioned has been generally very positive about the University, and about the faculty, students and staff with whom they work on a daily basis,” Connelly reports.

Although name changes in the Office of Human Resources require proof of a legal name change, email account and staff directory preferred-name changes can be done fairly easily, says Connelly. Work interruptions necessitated by medical treatments during a transition “would be treated as any medical leave under the FMLA (the federal Family and Medical Leave Act),” she says.

Gender identity and expression are protected under Pitt’s nondiscrimination policies, and harassment based on gender identity or expression is prohibited by the University’s anti-harassment policy statement. “Embrace Diversity and Inclusion” is one of the main goals of the University’s 2016-2020 strategic plan, and Connelly’s office has posted links to many local organizations and resources, including gender transition guidelines (

Statewide and nationally, transgender individuals have risen to prominence, including recent appointees as the White House’s outreach and recruitment director for presidential personnel and as Pennsylvania’s physician general. In February, Gov. Tom Wolf called for Pennsylvania to change the law that precludes Medicaid coverage for gender confirmation surgical procedures and medical care.

Restroom access, however, remains the point of contention for states with conservative-dominated legislatures or executive branches. In March, the Kansas legislature began considering two bills, including the Student Physical Privacy Act, that would prohibit transgender students in public schools and universities from using bathrooms corresponding to their gender expression and allow these schools to be sued for $2,500 per violation.

Other bills, such as the one signed by Mississippi’s governor on April 5, are couched as “religious freedom” measures to exempt individuals or businesses from being subject to anti-discrimination laws that contradict their beliefs.

Late in March, North Carolina passed a law overturning LGBT protections previously instituted by municipalities in the state, in effect requiring people to use bathrooms according to the gender printed on their birth certificates.

The backlash was swift from nonconservative politicians and organizations but also from some major corporations and organizations. Democratic governors have banned state-related travel to North Carolina, while PayPal on April 5 canceled an expansion to the state that would have created 400 jobs. The ACLU is suing North Carolina on behalf of a transgender resident.

This birth certificate-based stricture is the very rule Pitt had in place until recently. That changed on March 29, due to a joint agreement that resulted from a law suit brought by a Johnstown campus transgender student, Seamus Johnston.

In 2011, UPJ banned Johnston, who was born female but identifies as male, from using the men’s locker room. He persisted and was expelled. Johnston then sued the University in federal court, claiming Pitt violated his rights under state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

The resulting joint statement from the University and Johnston notes that “the University’s web site now provides that ‘[f]aculty, staff, and students are welcome to use … any restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.’”

Also part of the settlement: Pam Connelly “will establish a working group, which will include student leadership, to continue to study, evaluate and make recommendations regarding the implementation of best practices for institutions of higher education vis-à-vis transgender individuals, particularly with respect to transgender individuals’ access to gender-specific spaces in accordance with their gender identity.”

“I might not have come to Pitt at all,” Noah Riley says, if he had heard about the Johnston case before entering the master’s program at the Graduate School of Public Health several years ago. Riley, born female and given a different, traditionally female name, started coming out “basically right when I came to Pitt,” he says, and was out in most classes. “I found out, holy crap, Pitt doesn’t have a great bathroom policy — and I’m still at risk of something happening to me if I used a men’s room and someone didn’t like it. That was scary.”

In fact, Riley says, “I really didn’t feel comfortable being out at Pitt” during his first stint of employment in a non-LGBT-related research office. His next job at Carnegie Mellon University felt more welcoming, he says: “I knew that CMU had a discrimination policy that was inclusive of gender identity. I outed myself as transgender during an interview for a position at CMU and had a really positive experience. Then, when I was hired, my boss understood that my email address and any information with my name in it needed to use the name I go by, Noah, rather than the name I was born with, and she did it without me needing to ask, and only the people handling my timesheet and herself knew my birth name.”

Besides colleagues volunteering information about LGBT resources on campuses, he adds, “I had access to a gender-neutral restroom in my workplace during a time in my transition in which using gendered bathrooms was very scary and unsafe (my gender was read as either man or woman so inconsistently to the general public at that time). I saw that CMU had both paid staff specific for LGBTQ programming, as well as having trained staff members in other areas to be aware of LGBTQ issues.

“When I [first] came to Pitt,” Riley continues, “I tried finding LGBTQ resources outside of my department, and aside from [the student group] Rainbow Alliance, there wasn’t anything for grad students or employees … In some of my positions at Pitt, my birth name was available and known to people who had no business knowing it.”

Nonetheless, he returned to Pitt to work in the LGBT Health Research Center and then in a Pitt public health survey call center, a position he left last October. He now works for UPMC as a research specialist.

While Riley was uneasy with the Pitt policies he experienced as a graduate student several years ago, today he believes Pitt has nondiscrimination policies that are working. He found that individual people, especially in the Graduate School of Public Health, have been welcoming to him. However, he adds, “I certainly believe that Pitt, like most other institutions of higher learning, could be doing better.”

That includes the area of health care coverage for transgender people. Riley points, for instance, to a December 2015 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, which found that, for transgender people, “the cost of surgery and hormones is not significantly higher than the cost of treatment for depression, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS. … Providing health care benefits to transgender people makes economic sense,” concluded study head William V. Padula, a Bloomberg faculty member. “Many insurance companies have said that it’s not worth it to pay for these services for transgender people. Our study shows they don’t have an economic leg to stand on when they decide to deny coverage. This is a small population of people and we can do them a great service without a huge financial impact on society.”

Asked whether Pitt was working with its health insurance provider to seek any further coverage for medical procedures involved in a gender transition, since current health insurance programs offered by Pitt — indeed, most health insurance policies — don’t provide coverage, Pam Connelly responded: “The University regularly reviews its benefits packages, but to my knowledge it is not currently reviewing further coverage for gender transition procedures.”

Riley also is concerned that the University could seem to be giving its stamp of approval to anti-trans attitudes. On April 8, in the O’Hara Student Center dining room, Concordia University bioethics professor and former Brentwood pastor Scott Stiegemeyer lectured on transgender and gender identity. Stiegemeyer holds views Riley calls “transphobic,” such as the idea that LGBT activists are trying to “subvert and destabilize the natural categorization of human beings into male and female,” as he has written. Local LGBT activists organized a protest.

“Are trans students being protected?” Riley asks. “These things inspire hate.”

“I’m thrilled” about the University’s moves prompted by the Johnston case, he concludes. “Pitt is catching up to the times regarding trans issues, but there is still work to do.”

For Jessica McGuinness, “Pitt has been more than accommodating,” she says. McGuinness was born appearing male and with a male name but identifies today as female. Of course, she works in perhaps the most naturally welcoming environment possible at the University, she admits: the Pitt Men’s Study, focusing on HIV in the LGBT community, where she has been a clinical specialist since 2012. She also speaks to School of Social Work students about her personal experiences.

“The staff here, the faculty and even the administration has been wonderful with me,” she says. “I’m lucky that I pass most of the time. So when I’m interacting with most of the faculty and staff, it’s not an issue.

As McGuinness recalls: “I knew that I was different from a very young age,” perhaps 4 or 5. Later, “I felt that something was wrong with me and I really didn’t like myself … I didn’t know the words ‘transgender’ or ‘transsexual.’ I kept it bottled up” — until age 30, that is, when she had a near-fatal accident while working as an EMT in the South Hills. During her recuperation, “I just decided I couldn’t do this anymore” and Jessica was born.

“There is usually a lot of misunderstanding of what trans people are,” she adds. She hopes Pitt will make even more changes “that are more welcoming to all,” such as the new bathroom policy and gender-neutral student housing announced recently.

BD Wahlberg, a fifth-year senior in psychology working on a certificate in Jewish studies, this year sought counseling for the first time. Wahlberg felt gender non-binary. Preferring now to use the plural pronoun, Wahlberg found Pitt to be acting “very slowly and without really doing much” concerning trans issues. For instance, Wahlberg wants to change their gender marker at the University from M to U. “That stands for Unknown, so it is not ideal, but it is better than an M,” Wahlberg says.

“Even in the counseling center they will assume your pronouns — and are often wrong,” Wahlberg adds.

Faculty and staff at the University “have struggled to do pronouns for a while, but if you remind people long enough they start getting it right. It’s not that I’m offended. I know that they’re not doing it out of malice. They’re doing it out of ignorance. It shows that the University isn’t giving training to their employees.

“I generally look like a bearded person wearing a dress,” Wahlberg says. “What do I have to do to question whether ‘he’ might be completely wrong?”

“We should have had gender-neutral housing years ago, as other universities did,” they say. (The University’s statement issued with Seamus Johnston noted that, “independent of the lawsuit, the University recently made available gender-neutral housing at Ruskin Hall on its Oakland campus.”)

The University has made good strides, Wahlberg concludes. “I believe that University will get better. It’s just that there are so many universities that have been so good already. It bothers me to see Pitt playing catch-up like this.”

While the University of Arizona leads the field with what may be the first transgender studies degree to be offered, Pitt has begun to expand its scholarship and teaching on transgender issues.

The University’s gender, sexuality and women’s studies (GSWS) program this spring offered its first transgender studies course, with English department lecturer Julie Beaulieu at the helm.

On one recent Monday evening the class was studying several articles about the politics and perceptions shaping societal notions of gender.

As the first piece pointed out, transgender people have been seen as either activists or “pitiable patients” in recent years.

“Is this a binary we want to support?” Beaulieu asked. Early medical interventions for transgender individuals were focused on the binary as well, she pointed out, concerned only with switching bodies from man to woman or vice versa. In the 1990s and beyond, sensibilities have changed “to make different relationships to gender possible” in the same way that societal shifts have de-stigmatized tattoos and piercings, she said — although her students noted that decorating oneself is a dramatically less important decision.

The other article showed how the treatment of transgender people echoed our “us and them” view of foreigners: Because hormone treatments add “foreign substances” to the body, they turn the transgender body into a “them,” apart from male or female.

As a society, Beaulieu said, we end up “understanding a particular kind of body as healthy and demonizing another type of body as unhealthy. You get down to this line about the authentic and the inauthentic, the natural and the synthetic.

“How does one body get defined as the norm?” she added. “In whose body is something categorized as a foreign substance?” Any gender fluidity, one student volunteered, “is seen as something that will destabilize and weaken a nation rather than strengthen it.”

In fact, said Beaulieu in an interview later, society through the centuries has gone from judging transgender people, and LGBT people in general, via the religious model (as a sinner), to the moral model (as a criminal) and more recently the medical model (as disordered), all to their detriment.

“It takes a minute to realize ‘we have a disorder’ wasn’t any better,” Beaulieu says. In fact, with the backing of medical authorities, a diagnosis of a gender problem becomes even tougher to shake. It did create a safety net for people at the time, she notes. But that time too has passed. In essence, transgender people should be seen as variations, not aberrations.

“The end goal of those theories is ultimately to see gender as we know it and gender experience is not the property of any given body. If we can move away from the idea that these bodies have this right to this gender,” then the idea of transgender “begins to make sense to people.

“We need to move away from the idea that your morphology, your accepted sex category, has anything to do with what you’re going to do in this world.”

The students in Beaulieu’s class are all GSWS certificate students but hail from many disciplines in the sciences and the humanities. “They’re asking really critical questions,” she says. Her class, she believes, is the spot “where theory meets practice. They’re going to bring trans topics back into their home disciplines. Then faculty will see that their students are interested in that.”

Transgender “is a really capacious term that is shifting and moving,” she notes, and trans studies “is really open-ended. Anyone who self identifies as that doesn’t need to make a case for it — they don’t need to prove it. “One can only hope this type of education is making Pitt a leader for other institutions.”

English faculty member Julian Gill-Peterson, who joined the department last fall, is working on a book examining the transgender child in the 20th century, despite the general perception that “there weren’t any in the past.” Such children generally were invisible, he says.

Hospital and clinical records from the 1950s through the 1970s are helping him examine “bigger academic questions of the body, sexuality and race,” he explains, and how biology and the other life sciences historically have been concerned with defining sex and gender.

Assessing his brief time at Pitt, Gill-Peterson says: “There’s been a lot of progress here” on transgender issues, “and as faculty we have a responsibility to listen to our students’ needs.” He hopes that the majority of Pitt employees, who are not transgender and may not have met a trans person, still realize that “not everyone has the same experience because the system doesn’t serve everyone in the same way — not because it was designed in some conspiracy to disadvantage trans people.” Rather, it serves the majority population, who take their advantage for granted.

“There is this moment right now we’re having at Pitt,” he says — this moment when we’ve begun finally to discuss transgender people and trans issues together. “I certainly feel a great optimism about our ability to keep moving forward on this, and this is exciting.”

—Marty Levine

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