Last fall a student at the University of Pittsburgh’s Pitt-Johnstown campus was banned from the men’s locker room at the university gym. The student, Seamus Johnston, is listed as female in the university’s records, but has been living as a man for three years and carries a driver’s license identifying him as male. When Johnston refused to comply with the ban, he was brought up on campus disciplinary charges and arrested for disorderly conduct.
In February the Pitt Anti-Discriminatory Policies Committee (APDC) issued a unanimous ruling opposing Johnston’s ban and calling on Pitt to craft clear policies on the use of bathrooms and locker rooms. Those new policies, announced last month, require all Pitt students, faculty, and staff to use bathrooms and locker facilities consistent with the gender assigned on their birth certificates.
This policy puts many transgender members of the Pitt community in an extremely difficult — and potentially dangerous — position.
By state law, Pennsylvanians may receive a driver’s license bearing a gender other than that assigned at birth on presentation of a reference from a doctor or counselor specializing in transgender issues. The federal government has issued passports on the basis of similar documentation since 2010. And the NCAA allows transgender athletes to play on teams reflecting their gender identity after one year of hormone treatment. But Pennsylvania state law mandates gender reassignment surgery before amending a birth certificate.
Under Pitt’s new policy, then, a student enrolled in college as a woman, listed as a woman on her driver’s license and passport, playing women’s sports for Pitt or a visiting team, would be barred from changing into her uniform with her teammates if her birth certificate did not declare her to be female.
And some states — including Ohio, Pennsylvania’s neighbor to the west — do not permit amendment of birth certificates for any reason.
The whole situation is a huge mess. Students, who were not consulted on the ruling and have not yet been provided with it in written form, are up in arms. Transgender faculty have announced that they will defy the ban. And the chair of the city of Pittsburgh’s Commission on Human Relations believes that the ban is a violation of city law. Pitt’s student newspaper lambasted the “bizarre,” “despicably self-serving” way in which the decision was made and announced, saying the decision showed “the University’s blatant disregard for its transgender students” and for the student body as a whole.
University officials are refusing to comment.
Update | I want to say a little more about this.
Until now, Pitt’s policy on gender and bathroom/locker-room use has been to address the issue on a “case-by-case” basis. That can mean a lot of things, of course, and it has the big drawback of not providing trans folks with reliable, predictable institutional backup, but as an approach — at least in the abstract — it has the virtue of recognizing that the relevant questions here are questions of interpersonal dynamics, not taxonomic order.
If you think about it for even a moment, the reason why the Pennsylvania DMV and the State Department have issued progressive policies on gender and ID becomes obvious: The point of identification is to identify you cleanly and clearly. If you consistently present as a man, and your driver’s license or your passport identifies you as a woman, that’s going to cause all sorts of problems — not just for you, but for police, bureaucracies, businesses, everybody. The vast majority of the time a person is out in the world, nobody has any reason to know or care about their biological sex. It’s just not relevant.
And it’s no more relevant in the bathroom than it is at the airport or in a traffic stop.
The DMV and the State Department have both come to terms with the fact that prescriptive, mechanistic policing and enforcement aren’t viable responses to the lived realities of gender expression in 21st century America. Here’s hoping Pitt figures that out sooner rather than later.