A University’s Four-Year Fight To Discriminate Comes To An Abrupt End

The iconic Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/F11PHOTO
The iconic Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK/F11PHOTO

The University of Pittsburgh now welcomes faculty, staff, and students to use whatever restroom matches their gender identity, a huge shift from a previous policy that mirrored North Carolina’s new anti-LGBT law.

The abrupt change comes as part of a settlement with Seamus Johnston, a transgender student who claimed that the university discriminated against him by not allowing him access to the men’s restrooms and locker rooms. When Johnston continued to use the men’s locker room as part of the men’s weight training class he was enrolled in, he was issued citations, eventually barred from the Sports Center, and ultimately arrested and expelled.

In 2012, the university clarified that its policy was to only allow students to use the facilities that match the gender on their birth certificates. In Pennsylvania, someone can only change their birth certificates after undergoing sex reassignment surgery, an expensive, sterilizing procedure that is not necessary for all transgender people.

Johnston sued, claiming that his rights were violated under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which protects against discrimination on the basis of sex in education. Though the Department of Education has interpreted this law to protect transgender students, a federal judge disagreed last year. “The simple answer is no,” Judge Kim Gibson wrote, explaining his reasoning that without sex reassignment surgery, Johnston was not protected by Title IX.


At the time, Pitt celebrated the court victory. Refusing to answer questions from ThinkProgress about how the bathroom policy contradicted the university’s own nondiscrimination statement, a spokesperson simply boasted, “Because it is never our intent to violate anyone’s rights, we are pleased with Judge Gibson’s decision.”

But Johnston appealed, and rather than continue to enforce and defend its discriminatory policy, it seems that the university has not only conceded but completely abandoned its past practices. The brief joint statement announcing the settlement with Johnston does not provide details about the expelled student’s fate — which are confidential — but does announce a series of steps the university plans to take to better accommodate transgender students.

For example, a working group will “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.”

It also notes that Pitt has started making gender-neutral housing options available to students. The school’s LGBTQIA+ resource page has also been updated to declare, “Faculty, staff, and students are welcome to use these or any restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.”

But neither the statement nor the website shed any light on on when the school actually abandoned that 2012 policy, which was still in place as of a year ago. Ken Service, vice chancellor for communications, was able to confirm to ThinkProgress that it is definitely a thing of the past. “I can state unequivocally that no such practice or policy exists at Pitt,” Service explained. “When it comes to restroom use, faculty, staff, and students are welcome to use any restroom that corresponds to their gender identity.”


Pitt’s step forward mirrors how universities are becoming more inclusive of transgender students, including providing gender-neutral housing and restrooms, accommodating gender and name changes in student records, and even covering transition-related services in student health insurance policies.

The exception to this progress is conservative religious schools, which are increasingly obtaining wavers under Title IX for the sole purpose of justifying discrimination against transgender students. As an example, Biola University claimed in its letter requesting an exemption, “In employment and in student life, we regard sex at birth as the identification of the given biological sex of each member of our constituency. We will not accept as valid alterations of one’s sex at birth based on experiential variation or medical intervention.” The school asserted that this was a religious belief based on Jesus’ claim that God “made them male and female.”