May 28, 2015
After Ben Wahlberg wore their first dress, they finally understood themselves.
It took until their junior year, but after Wahlberg, who is genderqueer and prefers the pronoun “they,” wore that first dress, Wahlberg felt they didn’t have to hide who they were anymore.
“I felt it was something taboo or shouldn’t be talked about. I have very supportive people in my life. I’ve made a space for myself at Pitt,” Wahlberg said.
Where Wahlberg found their space, others are too. Through the support of friends and a few key organizations on campus, Wahlberg is one of a growing number of Pitt students who feel comfortable embracing their sexuality and gender in Oakland. These organizations, which include the Rainbow Alliance, the Campus Women’s Organization and the Fourth Wave magazine, all have different missions but share the same message: It’s cool to be queer at Pitt.
The Rainbow Alliance is an LGBT advocacy group at Pitt. Before each meeting, they state safe space rules, such as learning how to address offensive comments. They never assume anyone’s sexual identity or gender, member and former president Allie McCarthy, said. McCarthy, whose preferred pronoun is “she,” said some people use the meetings as a safe space to proclaim their identities, and others like it to be a place where they don’t have to be defined by anything.
“As you go you through college, you become yourself. Rainbow was definitely that space for me when I joined as a freshman,” McCarthy said.
But this safe space has not come without struggle. In 2012, the Rainbow Alliance began an ongoing legal complaint with Pitt regarding transgender issues, such as letting transgender students use the bathrooms they want and getting their preferred names changed on University documents.
The struggle began when Pitt Johnstown expelled a transgender student for refusing to stop using a locker room that did not match the gender on their birth certificate. The student filed a lawsuit against the University claiming gender discrimination, which they have since settled. Since then, the Rainbow Alliance has worked with the University to make changes to accommodate all students.
Now, students have the option to change their names on CourseWeb, Pitt email and the online directory Find People so they can be addressed the way they want to be. According to Pitt spokesperson Ken Service, Pitt is committed to an “ongoing dialogue” and seeks to “balance the interests of everyone at Pitt.”
The Rainbow Alliance holds events during orientation week to make its presence known. They have a Meet the Rainbow Alliance event, and they also present themselves at the activities fair. They work to get their message out and let people know that they provide an inclusive space.
Marcus Robinson, whose preferred pronoun is “he,” is the president of Rainbow Alliance and said the social events cover basic topics, like what it means to be trans and what to do or what not to say. Their meetings are where they go into more serious topics, such as what it’s like to be trans while also being a person of color.
Similarly, while feminine issues are its main focus, the Campus Women’s Organization is also an advocacy group for gender rights. The organization does work regarding feminist issues, such as representing the interests of Pitt’s women in education, empowerment and reproductive justice and maintaining sensitivity towards individual identity, according to president Suzy Hinkle.
Similarly to Rainbow Alliance, at the beginning of their meetings all of the board members will introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns.
The Rainbow Alliance has joined the CWO on some of its events, such as the Take Back the Night march against sexual violence, the Condom Casino, where they aim to educate students on sexual health and safety, and the Vagina Monologues.
“It’s always been very fun to collaborate with Rainbow. They take their work very seriously but know how to bring fun into the work,” Hinkle, a senior chemical engineering major, said.
Hinkle, whose preferred pronoun is “she,” said she sees the CWO collaborating with Rainbow Alliance in the future on non-binary advocacy. She says that they haven’t planned anything specific yet due to summer recess, but in the fall, they plan to ramp up as a safe space for transgender individuals and to advocate for issues that directly affect transgender individuals.
“I want us to take ownership of that because transgender people can be women also, and that means that they fall into our category of people that we aim to represent,” she said.
The dialogue regarding non-binary advocacies exists in print as well. The Fourth Wave is a feminist intersectional publication at Pitt. Like the CWO and the Rainbow Alliance, it maintains an open environment in its meetings, co-managing editor Taylor Mulcahey said.
“Our meetings act as an open conversation. It’s important to have that safe space to talk about issues and knowing that people are there and they are going to listen. The members aren’t going to belittle anyone’s issues, and they are not going to judge anything,” said Mulcahey, a junior political science major, whose preferred pronoun is “she.”
Even if judgment exists elsewhere on campus, Wahlberg said they wear feminine clothing to class at least half the time.
“It’s what adds a little bit of boost to my day. If you present yourself the way you want to, you attract the friends you want,” they said.
For Wahlberg, these spaces allow young queers to pick who to have conversations with and keep up a dialogue with, as well as build a strong community of support.
“People don’t give enough faith that their college community is accepting. The only way to know is to try,” they said.