Pittsburgh Colleges Forced to Change with the Times, Welcome Transgender Students

varying ACCOMMODATIONS are made across city campuses

By Matt Petras

On transgender student Cris Wildman’s emails, mail, and student ID at Duquesne University, the name on display is the female name assigned at birth. However, when trans student Heather Leasure signs up for a room at Point Park University, she can room with other women despite her state records identifying her as a male.

In 2016, a year filled with controversial legislation concerning trans rights, colleges in Pittsburgh are tasked with creating a welcoming atmosphere for transgender student.

“Overall, it’s a climate that is really rapidly improving,” said Peter Crouch, describing his own college, the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus. Crouch is transgender and the president of Pitt’s LGBT club, called the Rainbow Alliance.

Transgender rights and acceptance are relatively new topics, as far as mainstream discourse in the United States goes. High-profile events, such as Caitlyn Jenner, a beloved Olympic athlete and family to the Kardashians, coming out as transgender, have catapulted trans issues to the forefront of the American news cycle.

Source: Pew Research Center, 2016

Trans students exist everywhere. Colleges are forced to respond and the results are mixed. The experiences of trans students, naturally, vary across college campuses.

Preferred names now an expectation on campuses

Duquesne has no preferred name policy for student IDs and other identification on campus, such as class rosters and mail. “The name on the ID corresponds with the name that is on file with the University’s Office of the Registrar,” Media Relations Manager at Duquesne Rose Ravasio said in an email exchange.

La Roche also does not allow for students to use preferred names when they are not comfortable identifying as their legal name.

“If a student can present legal documentation of a name, then we can use it,” said Associate Vice President of Media Relations Brady Butler.

To avoid potentially awkward and uncomfortable situations in class, Wildman has made a routine of emailing all their professors before the first day of class with some information about themselves and how they would like to be referred to.

“If I wanted to have my name updated in Duquesne’s system, I would have to legally change it, which right now I’m not really considering,” Wildman said. “It costs money and time. I’m not really sure what the logistics are for Pennsylvania.”

It’s difficult to find specific help online for changing one’s name in Allegheny County. A blog called “Casbalog,” written by Jenny, is currently attempting to create such a guide. The blogger wrote that they had spent over $400 throughout the process.

“It would definitely be great if there was an easier way to at least make a note somewhere that this is my legal name but I have a preferred name,” Wildman said.

Such a system does exist, but not at Duquesne. Point Park, Carlow University and Pitt all offer preferred name policies for student IDs and sometimes other identification on campus.

“[Getting my preferred name on my student id] was much smoother than i expected it to be.” – elliot Alexandre, point park student

At Point Park, for example, the process is as simple as informing the ID center on campus of the name the student would like.

Liam Dickinson is a junior trans student at Point Park who got his ID changed. He didn’t have to pay any additional money or fill out any forms. All that was necessary was simple communication with the ID center.

Dickinson said he was informed his name would be updated on his email account and class rosters, but this didn’t happen. Professors still referred to Dickinson by his birth name because the class roster wasn’t updated. This forced Dickinson to have a discussion with his professors on the first days of class, and they were cooperative, he said.

At the time of this interview, Dickinson decided not to contact the Point Park ID center about this issue. Since he has already had a discussion with his professors and his ID is changed, there are fewer situations in which he must see his birth name.

“It hasn’t seemed like the biggest deal in the world to me,” he said.

Elliot Alexandre is another trans student at Point Park who got his ID changed. He got his new ID without any issues, he said.

The only significant difference at Pitt is that the back of one’s ID still displays one’s legal name, according to Crouch, whose ID has since been updated.

“It was sort of a compromise we had to make,” Crouch said. “A lot of students have to use their student ID as their legal ID for things like the bank. It’s not perfect, but it’s a compromise we had to make.”

Wildman isn’t personally hurt by Duquesne’s lack of preferred names policy because they say they have enough support from friends to feel comfortable in their identity. However, Wildman understands that other trans students with less support will feel differently.

“It’s yet another indication that people aren’t validating who you are,” Wildman said.

Gender Neutral housing among ACCOMMODATIONS for transgender students on college campuses

Colleges in Pittsburgh have alternative ways of handling housing for their transgender students. At Point Park, trans students are allowed to room with members of the gender they identify with regardless of what their school and state records say about their sex.

Point Park poses the following question on their university  housing request form:

“I am willing to live with a roommate who self-identifies as transgender. Yes/No.”

If a student checks yes, they could be matched up with a trans student who identifies with his or her gender.

Leasure, who is an upperclassman at Point Park, is a trans woman who lives on campus with another woman. While finishing up her sophomore year she was looking to room with another woman the following year, so she decided to ask someone who works in housing at Point Park if she can room with another woman even though she is trans. The woman she was speaking to told her she actually didn’t know if that was allowed.

“From her saying that I realized that nobody had ever asked her that before,” Leasure said.

The woman got back to her and said it wouldn’t be an issue. Leasure has no issues to report with her housing situation.

At Pitt, students are only allowed to room with students who share their sex as reflected on their state and school records in most of the housing provided, according to Joe Miksch, Director of University News at Pitt.

This does not mean that Pitt offers no accommodation for trans students, however. In designated areas, Pitt offers gender neutral housing for students who wish to room with their peers regardless of gender. Point Park does not offer gender neutral housing.

Rose Rovasio and Jill Greenwood, the two Media Relations Managers at Duquesne, were both asked through email to explain Duquesne’s housing policy in regard to trans students. Rovasio was sent an email on Nov. 18, and Greenwood was sent an email on Nov. 21; neither provided responses regarding Duquesne’s policy.

La Roche “does not have a specific policy, but accommodations are made on a case-by-case basis,” according to Butler.

“Carlow University permits students to live in the housing community and have a roommate pairing that matches the individual’s gender identity,” according to Carlow’s PR. There are no gender neutral housing options, however.

Wildman doesn’t live on campus at Duquesne and doesn’t know any trans students who do. In fact, Wildman doesn’t know many trans students in general at Duquesne. Wildman was able to name just a few people.

“I’ve heard rumors of other people,” Wildman said, laughing. “But I don’t know them personally.”

Bathroom usage a top concern of trans students

All of the trans students interviewed from Point Park, Pitt and Duquesne said they had no issues using the bathroom they are most comfortable with. Pitt’s website says anyone is allowed to use the restroom of the gender they identify with. Carlow allows trans student to use the bathroom they prefer, according to Director of Media Relations Drew Wilson. Same for La Roche, according to their comments from media relations.

However, not every college implements gender neutral bathrooms to the same extent. No comment was provided concerning La Roche’s relationship to gender neutral bathrooms. Carlow has some single-use gender neutral bathrooms, according to Wilson.

Point Park and Pitt make the location of their gender neutral bathrooms public information. Pitt lists over 60 gender neutral bathrooms on its website. Point Park, which is a considerably smaller campus, features six gender neutral bathrooms.

Photo by Matt Petras. This graphic appears in Boulevard Apartments, one of the housing options on Point Park’s campus.

Lou Corsaro, who is the Managing Director of University Marketing and Public Relations at Point Park, explained the university’s policy regarding usage of the non-gender neutral restrooms.

“Students, faculty and staff are welcome to use whichever restroom corresponds with their gender identity, regardless of their identified sex at birth,” Corsaro wrote.

“I wish there were gender neutral bathrooms here because honestly that’s the most comfortable for me,” Wildman said of Duquesne.

Greenwood was asked via email for information regarding bathroom policy for trans students but the information was not provided. Wildman isn’t aware of any gender neutral bathrooms on campus and Duquesne does not appear to advertise any on its website.

lgbt students stick together through clubs

LGBT student organizations are common at universities.

“[LGBT folks] tend to group together, and I think it’s partially because it’s more comfortable,” Wildman says. “You don’t have to deal with awkward questions or assumptions so you can just sort of be yourself and not have to worry about what other people are thinking.”

It’s also more and more common for such clubs to take strides in accommodating trans students. This fall the LGBT club at Point Park, which was called the Gay Straight Alliance, a common name for LGBT clubs, changed its name to the Gender and Sexuality Spectrum Alliance in order to be more inclusive.

Alexandre finds a lot of value in the club. He learned where to get testosterone treatment and how to get his ID changed from others at the club. 

“Everyone’s been able to inform each other and also just be suportive of one another,” said Alexandre. “It can be very important to

Crouch was involved with the Rainbow Club at Pitt as soon as he started college. In fact, he was involved in an LGBT club at his old high school.

“Pitt is a really big organization so it felt really good to use this organization to find people who are like me,” Crouch said.

Every week there is a more casual, social event where members make crafts, play games and hang out, among other simple activities, as well as a more formal event. Formal events usually entail guest speakers. Among the most well-known speakers is Janet Mock, an author who is a prominent advocate for and member of the trans community.

Duquesne actually features two. One is the Gay Straight Alliance, which has been on campus for years, and the other is Gender Forum, which focuses on feminism and acceptance of all genders. The founder of the Gender Forum club is Elizabeth Harris, a Duquesne student.

“I’m a bisexual woman and I was kind of fed up and uncomfortable with the environment at Duquesne and I wanted to create a group that was sort of like a safe space for women and LGBT people,” Harris said.

Gender Forum was only a Facebook group for a year of it’s existence, until this fall when it became a conventional club. Harris now hosts weekly discussion meetings and is surprised by the positive reaction.

“At first I was trying to decide if I wanted to go through the university or make of an underground club, because I was worried about there being opposition,” Harris said. Her constitution was accepted by the university and the club now exists, however.

acceptance of transgender people a thoroughly mixed bag across college campuses, country

It’s largely accepted that college campuses are a bastion of progressive values, from the student body up throughout the institutions themselves. For example, a 2016 poll from USA Today and Rock the Vote shows that 62 percent of Americans aged 18-35 support the right of transgender people to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender identity, verses 32 percent who are opposed.

This doesn’t mean that college policies don’t lag behind in the eyes of the trans community, and it also doesn’t mean that harassment and bigotry are absent from campus student bodies.

“I get looks, I get stares,” Leasure said. “Sometimes it’s more of a curious look, like: ‘Huh, your identity is something I’ve never encountered before’… it sort of looks like they’re studying you a little bit.”

The fact of the matter is that college campuses don’t exist on a plane of existence all their own; they’re a part of a country that is plagued by bigotry toward trans people.

According to a joint 2014 study by the Human Rights Campaign and the Trans People of Color Coalition, half of all trans people will be sexually assaulted and 90 percent will be harassed at work.

Leasure points out that the heightened exposure can be good for the trans community, but that it’s a double-edged sword.

“There are some people who want to learn… but there are other people who want to make sure you have no rights,” Leasure said.