By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Originally published on Advocate.com April 23 2012 5:35 PM ET
Seamus Johnston and Katherine McCloskey make an unlikely pair. The two met five years ago when Johnston was 18. It was, he says, “Basically love at first sight.” Now married, the rather baby-faced Johnston and his wife have found themselves at the center of a national FBI investigation that has upended their lives.
Who they are, he says, is as much to do with the cloud of suspicion they’re under, as what the federal authorities think they’ve done. Both Johnston and McCloskey are transgender, both having begun transition after they met. And McCloskey is 34 years older than her college-aged husband.
Even inside the LGBT community, the couple gets double takes and outright criticism. “Gay people who have faced these same situations seem to sometimes feel that we ought to stay in the closet and not make trouble,” says Johnston. “My wife is frequently accused of being a pedophile and cradle robber, despite that I was an adult before we even met.”
Of course, this isn’t any ordinary “situation” that he is referring to. Johnston was, until recently, a junior honors student studying computer science at the University of Pittsburgh. Today he’s a former student whose assets have been seized by the FBI, his personal life fodder for the media, and a cloud of suspicion follows him and his wife.
Johnston first came into conflict with university administrators last year over use of the men’s locker room. In September 2011,” Johnston says, “They told me that I couldn't use locker rooms any more, which I had already used for a semester and a half. After trying to talk to everybody in the university administration I could and getting nowhere, I decided to ignore them.”
University officials responded by expelling Johnston. They say that Johnston, who came out as transgender after enrolling at Pitt, was identified as a woman on her application and the only way he can use the men’s locker rooms — or any men’s facilities — is if he presents a changed birth certificate designating him as male. Johnston, who has been living as a man for three years, does have a driver’s license identifying him as male, which in many states is proof of gender reassignment. (Many states do not amend birth certificates.)
So, he says, he was expelled. “Officially, for using the men's restrooms after being ordered not to,” Johnston says of the reason behind the expulsion. “In reality, [it's] because I am transgender and they did not like that.”
While the debate of transgender students and faculty using facilities at the university raged on, and even though their own committee recommended otherwise, the school pushed back, saying they wouldn’t discriminate against gender identity or expression, but that they required a birth certificate to allow trans folks to use the appropriate gendered bathrooms. Earlier this month, Charles Morrison, the director of the city’s human relations commission (an appointee of Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl) told Pitt News, the school’s student newspaper, that Pitt’s transgender policy is very concerning. “According to the city code, ‘Sex is the gender of a person, as perceived, presumed or assumed by others, including those who are changing or have changed their gender identification,” he said. “From what it sounds like, the University is not in accord with [the code].” Johnston has made a claim with the Commission, which is still under investigation, though it clearly believes Johnston was discriminated against.
Not so, says a spokesman for the University. Robert Hill told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that their transgender policy is a fair one and that Johnston was even offered the use of a “private gender-neutral locker room that is typically used by referees.”
But something else happened in the months after Johnston was expelled, while he was filing complaints and trying to get reinstated to school: bomb threats. More than 90 bomb threats have hit the University of Pittsburgh, most of them via email re-routed through a private server that’s difficult to trace, some simply scrawled on the women’s restroom walls. All of them have disrupted student and faculty life at Pitt for months now.
Johnston had actually heard very little about the bomb threats, he says, mostly from headlines in the Pitt News. But when a subpoena arrived from a joint task force of the FBI and U.S. attorney's office, those headlines became shockingly real for him. McCloskey and Johnston were brought before a grand jury as potential suspects.
He says at that time, investigators didn’t even tell him why he and Katherine were suspected of making the threats. “No, although they obviously suspect we are connected somehow,” he says, adding that it feels like retaliation. “Absolutely. Why else?”
Talking from a café in Cambria County, Pa. this weekend, after the FBI had for the second time seized his computers, cell phones, school materials, a draft of a lawsuit against the school, CDs, and handwritten notes, Johnston was eager to talk to media but weary from the fight he says he’s been battling for months. When the FBI stormed in to the couple’s home with a warrant on Saturday, Seamus was on the phone thinking to himself, “Not again, please God.”
Though many of the emailed bomb threats were said to have been untraceable because they were sent via a program that bounces them between servers in other countries, the task force announced last week that they had reportedly traced the servers from which those emailed bomb threats were allegedly sent to a politically progressive organization, May First/People Link. The cooperative is a collection of activists and organizations including a New York labor union, Occupy Florida, a Native American radio program, and Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health that can use private servers to communicate with each other. The cooperation’s director, Jamie McClelland, told The New York Times, “We are turning over the information we have, which is practically nothing.”
No word on how many other names were offered up to investigators besides Johnston and McCloskey, but U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton's said in a statement April 11 that information from the University of Pittsburgh had helped them “focus on potential suspects” behind at least some of the bomb threats.
Johnston's current goals sound as though they may take Herculean strength, but he’s up for it, he says. “I just want to fight my criminal charges, fight this FBI investigation, file my class action lawsuit, follow up with the Human Relations Commission, and continue talking to the university to negotiate my reinstatement as a student.”
Still, he says none of this would be happening if he weren’t transgender, if he hadn’t insisted on using the men’s facilities at Pitt.
While the couple was sequestered inside the court giving grand jury testimony, another bomb threat came in to Pitt. Many LGBT activists said this was a sign that McCloskey and Johnston had nothing to do with the threats. Officials, and anti-LGBT activists, insinuated that perhaps it wasn’t just Johnston at the heart of the threats but a wider group of activists supporting him, fighting for trans rights with violence. Johnston says that’s ridiculous, and on Monday, a group called "The Threateners" took responsibility for the bomb threats, announced they were calling an end to them, and said none of the current suspects are responsible for the threatening messages.
“Anyone who could do this is missing a few screws and could be in support of anything or nothing,” Johnston says. “If they are trying to support me or us, they are doing a criminally bad job of it."