JCC tackles issues of gender identity and inclusion
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Public stanceThe JCC of Greater Pittsburgh is for everybody

JCC tackles issues of gender identity and inclusion

Statistics facing transgender and gender nonconforming individuals are startling

Carly Chernomorets



Photo by Alex Feldman
Carly Chernomorets Photo by Alex Feldman

“The JCC is for everybody.”

That the catchphrase, which has adorned signage, websites and key cards for years, required greater explication was a decision recently rendered by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s board of directors when it decided to specifically address “gender identity” and “gender inclusion” within the organization’s membership policy.

“The JCC is open and accessible to everyone, regardless of age, race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or special need by welcoming individuals of all backgrounds, embracing their uniqueness and diversity under our communal tent,” reads the updated policy.

“As an organization, while our mission implied that we are open to all, we felt that it was very important to be more explicit with ‘gender expression’ and ‘gender identity,’” said Marc Brown, immediate past chair of the JCC’s board.

“Now more than ever we felt it was important to let the community know we are open for everybody, and everybody should feel welcome in our agencies and at our programs and in the services we offer,” added Jim Ruttenberg, JCC chair of the board.

Such inclusive affirmation, which mirrors policies at several other JCCs across the country, is essential, given the startling statistics facing transgender and gender nonconforming individuals, said Brian Schreiber, JCC president and CEO.

Compared with 4.6 percent of the general population, nearly 40 percent of transgender individuals have attempted suicide at some point in their lives, noted a 2014 study from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute.

Between the increased risk of sexual assault and partner violence, as well as the staggering threats presented, it was necessary to make clear that “moving forward, gender identity and gender expression were going to be part of our inclusion policy” and that “we were going to be very public about that stance,” said Schreiber.

Adopting new language is “the first step in a process,” said Dr. Elizabeth Miller, director of adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

During the May 8 meeting in which the new policy was adopted, Miller educated the JCC board on issues concerning gender and sexual identity, gender nonconforming behavior and transgender care and described “what some of the follow-throughs were in terms of practice,” such as providing intake forms with nongender specific language, offering additional staff training and creating safe spaces within the facilities for transgendered individuals.

Hillel Jewish University Center recently took similar steps, noted Danielle Kranjec, the organization’s senior Jewish educator. Apart from expanding its library on Jewish approaches to transgender issues and engaging in corresponding educational training, Hillel JUC “changed the signage on one of its bathrooms over the summer.”

“This restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or gender expression,” reads the newly displayed text.

The change was made so “that everyone feels welcome and feels as though their concerns are being met,” explained Ronna Peacock Pratt, director of Strategic Engagement and J’Burgh at Hillel JUC.

At the JCC, “it’s not about changing restrooms, it’s about changing culture,” explained Schreiber. “A lot of times when we think about the gender issue, it all comes down to restrooms, but it’s a lot deeper than that. It’s about really getting through people’s discomfort and also some fear around all of that.”

Such fright has been aroused by the media through gross depictions, said BD Wahlberg, a recent University of Pittsburgh graduate who identifies as “gender non-binary.”

BD Wahlberg
Photo by Adam Reinherz

The Buffalo Bill character in “The Silence of the Lambs,” who fashions a “woman skinsuit” from victims’ flesh, Aerosmith’s hit song “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” decrying the physical surprise of a paramour, or television shows in which a transgender person is either the “butt of the joke” or forced to take part in “a big reveal” are cultural creations that project “insecurities” onto a demographic “who just want to be free and happy,” said Wahlberg. We are left “with a lot of these messages that trans people are out to get you, when really I just want to use the restroom.”

But accessing a restroom isn’t so simple.

Of the 27,715 U.S. transgender adults surveyed for a 2015 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 59 percent indicated that during the prior year they had avoided using a public restroom, 32 percent altered their diet so as to avoid using a public restroom, 12 percent were harassed in a public restroom, 1 percent were attacked in a public restroom, 1 percent were sexually assaulted in a public restroom, and 9 percent were completely denied use of a public restroom.

“We all have to pee. Regardless of gender identity, everyone is going to have to pee at some point, and being able to do that safely is really a privilege that many people don’t think about,” said Carly Chernomorets, a recent Brandeis University graduate and current Pittsburgh resident.

Chernomorets, who prefers the pronoun “they,” explained the thought process of using a public restroom.

“If my only options are a men’s bathroom or a women’s bathroom, I know that I am way less likely to get beat up by the occupants of a women’s bathroom than the occupants of a men’s bathroom.” But sometimes the decision is as simple as, “would I rather get punched in the face or pee in my pants,” said Chernomorets.

While bathrooms ignite certain concerns, locker rooms provoke even greater reactions.

“As a transperson, I don’t ever like to use public locker rooms because I get stressed out about being harassed. I use the Bloomfield Pool every day, but I don’t use their bathrooms,” said Wahlberg. “Going to the men’s room makes me pretty uncomfortable, and I have a general feeling that a lot of women would feel uncomfortable with me in their space. Everybody wants privacy, everybody wants dignity, everybody wants to feel comfortable and welcome and safe, and I recognize that there are a lot of people who have been socialized in a way to be terrified of gender nonconformity, to be terrified of people who cross these gender lines, and that’s sometimes not their fault that they feel that way.”

But what people should realize, said Wahlberg, is that “there are probably trans men who have used that bathroom and trans women who have used those locker rooms way way way before” the JCC’s policy was updated.

Such is true, said Schreiber. “For several years,” the JCC has “worked with transgendered individuals around the locker rooms of their choosing — for the most part in our family-friendly/unisex restroom,” and this is how the JCC will continue, with its staff handling each request on a case-by-case basis.

Likewise, with Emma Kaufmann Camp and the JCC’s other offerings, said Schreiber. “The policy applies to all JCC programs. The applications will be as unique as the needs of an individual or family want.”

What the updated policy provides is “recourse, I think, to people who I say pass a lot less, because there is a lot of privilege in just looking like how people expect you to look if you are a man or a woman,” said Wahlberg.

“I am very fortunate,” said Chernomorets. “I have never had a physical act of violence brought on me due to my identity, but it happens to a lot of people all of the time. It’s on the forefront of my mind, so it feels really good to know that it’s stated in the JCC’s policy that if something did happen I can pull up the policy and circle the words ‘gender expression’ and ‘gender identity’ with my finger and say, ‘You’re promising to take care of me in a situation in which I may be persecuted by the way that I look and act.’”

But just as “there is a welcoming which is, ‘I am allowed to be in this space,’ there is another welcoming which is ‘I feel comfortable in this space,’” noted Wahlberg.

“This is a journey, it doesn’t happen in one full swoop,” said Schreiber.

For starters, “my big dream is that at the Shabbos table two weeks from now, folks are talking with their loved ones that this policy came through and what does this mean?” said Chernomorets.

The JCC could also offer future dialogue and events to increase the visibility of transgender individuals, noted the recent graduates. Still, as someone “proud to be Jewish, I am happy to hear that about the Jewish community making these types of decisions,” said Chernomorets. With the JCC’s updated policy, “this feels like the Jewish community is giving me a big hug and saying, ‘We still love you. We still want you to use our treadmills.’” pjc

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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