On November 20th, 2020 the Pitt Student Affairs social media accounts shared a post in honor of Trans Day of Remembrance. I don’t want this to be ungrateful- it’s great that Pitt is honoring the lives of trans folks who have been killed but they’re not doing enough to actively support gender non-conforming/trans students on their campus. A recent rallying cry around TDoR has been “Give us our roses while we’re still here” and unfortunately I think that’s something Pitt Student affairs still needs to learn.
For context I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2020 and during my time at Pitt served as the Executive Vice President of the Student Government Board.
At the start of the 2019–2020 academic year I, along with numerous other student leaders, attended the Panther Gold leadership retreat. The retreat included a session about diversity by Sherdina, a member of the CCLD staff. Coming into the session I had heard a number of stories about transphobia perpetuated by this member of CCLD staff but considering I had never met her I went in with an open mind and wanted to give her a fair shot.
A substantial amount of time during the session was dedicated to the practice of asking pronouns (which is important and I absolutely support!!). However, the reasoning Sherdina gave as to why it is important to ask pronouns is because you should never assume someone’s sexual orientation. She said, multiple times, asking pronouns is important because people have different sexual orientations. I was sitting at a table with a couple of board members of an LGBTQ+ organization and we shared a growing frustration about the misinformation Sherdina was sharing as she continued to conflate sexual orientation with gender identity.
As the pronoun portion of the session was about to end I raised my hand to speak. Before I shared my thoughts I shared my pronouns, a norm which Sherdina had asked we all follow. Prior to my senior year, my pronouns were she/her but at this leadership summit, I shared my pronouns as they or my name, the pronouns I am currently using. This was the first time I used pronouns other than she/her in a Pitt setting and it was in a room of over 60 student leaders and at least 10 various members of Pitt staff and administration. After sharing my pronouns I proceeded to share my discomfort with the way gender and sexual orientation had been conflated and misrepresented as they are not the same thing.
When Sherdina responded to my concern she started off immediately with the incorrect pronouns (using she/her pronouns). If this had been done by a different member of the University community with whom I had a relationship with and who was used to referring to me with she/her pronouns I would have understood the mistake. If I hadn’t just shared my pronouns I would have understood the mistake. If she had immediately caught herself and apologized it wouldn’t have bothered me. But she didn’t. Instead, I had to interrupt her and say, “they or my name”. Considering this was the first time I used anything other than she/her pronouns in a Pitt setting it was an incredibly uncomfortable situation and I desperately did not want to continue drawing attention to myself but at the same time didn’t want to let the behavior slide.
If she had apologized and switched to the correct pronouns it would have been okay. She did switch to using they/them pronouns for me but only “them”. No matter the sentence or how the pronoun was used she solely used them, instead of switching as needed between they,them, and theirs in her response. Which brings us to her response- she told me what I was saying was too complicated for the group. I said it’s not complicated, it’s the truth. She continued to push back on what I was saying. As this conversation was taking place in front of 60 student leaders and over 10 members of staff and administration I felt incredibly alone and isolated. I felt as though I was making a mountain out of a molehill. She continued to double down on her position and I didn’t press the topic so the training moved forward.
The combination of her misuse of they/them pronouns and her response to my concern was incredibly isolating and embarrassing and I still don’t have the words to describe how I felt after the session when I walked outside and stood in the sun and no one came near me or spoke to me. There were at least two upper members of the student affairs staff in the room and no one checked in on me and to this day no one has apologized in any way.
Given my experiences in the session, I didn’t particularly want to speak with her again. However, as we were leaving the building she stopped me and a couple of other members of SGB. She told me that she understood where I was coming from but the faculty she works with and trains just aren’t ready for those conversations. She told me she has to gently ease them into diversity conversations and telling them all this information at once would be too much. She claimed faculty and other Pitt employees she was working with were just so opposed to these types of conversations she couldn’t bring up things like gender identity. I want to interrupt myself here to say I don’t know who she is working with but for the record, the faculty at Pitt have gone out of their way to use my pronouns (IE used GNC pronouns in prison) and have created spaces where I feel safe. Additionally, this program was being held for students and the audience was made up entirely of student leaders so her defense made no sense.
I told her I understood that people have to be eased into conversations, I understand these conversations take time, I know these things can be hard for people to accept. But that is no reason to give them the wrong information, to actively choose to teach people incorrectly. I told her it’d be less confusing if she was honest from the start in explaining sex, gender, and sexual orientation are different things. I said she could still ease people into these conversations and by giving them the correct information throughout it would be much less confusing. While she did stand there and listen to me she refused to admit she was sharing incorrect information and she ended the conversation by saying we would have to agree to disagree.
This experience made my time on SGB difficult as I knew these were the types of diversity workshops faculty and student groups were being given. While sharing these experiences with friends a number of people told me they had also been misgendered by this staff member and had had negative interactions. At a townhall on Pitt’s campus pride score (which by the way is a 5 out of 5) hosted by the university over the summer, I spoke about my experience and my distrust of the diversity trainings. I was crushed to see comments from students and faculty, particularly trans folks, echoing similar isolating experiences with these diversity trainings. I can’t speak for these people or other folks who use they/them pronouns but from what I’ve seen and heard this seems to be an ongoing issue.
I don’t think this is a problem of just one person, I believe there were at least 2 high ranking members of student affairs — Summer Rothrock and Steve Anderson as well as CCLD staff also in the room who said nothing either during the incident or after it. I also know this is a concern that the Rainbow Alliance has been working on for at least a year. As I said constantly during my time at Pitt- the responsibility for changing these issues should not fall on student’s shoulders and it absolutely should not be the responsibility of students to create the only spaces on the CCLD floor that are welcoming and affirming to queer people. There are so many places where Pitt Student Affairs needs to improve and grow and for me, their “diversity trainings” need to be a top priority.