NEWS

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May 20, 2008

Trans students await open housing, dismayed by decision delay

Last week, the MAROON published an article on campus resources for transgender students at the University as part of an ongoing series on transgender campus trends. This second installment of our series explores housing issues through the lens of the transgender community.

Having come out as a transgender, male-identified student in high school, one College fourth-year sought a single room in University housing upon accepting the University's offer of admission in 2004. The student, who requested anonymity in order to protect his campus leadership positions, said that he had come to the University with enough self-awareness to know that same-sex housing wasn't for him. But for trans students fresh out of high school who have not anticipated the potential complications of traditional college housing arrangements, the transition to same-sex dorm life often presents challenges other students never face.

"Back in high school, I had already devoted a lot of time to thinking about my sexuality. And at age 17, I had already known that I probably wouldn't have done so well in a same-sex living situation," the fourth-year said.

"But I was fortunate to have come from a progressive city and a liberal high school. Clearly, not all people would have had these same opportunities. And how would they have known that this wouldn't have worked until they got here and realized that?"

Open housing at the U of C

The evolving shape of dorm life for many of the College's trans students has been a topic of discussion since the InterHouse Council (IHC) first started considering gender-neutral housing more than a year ago. The proposal that its members drafted would give second-, third-, and fourth-year students the option of selecting roommates of the opposite sex in University housing. Because the proposal would make the option available to all students, not only trans-identified students, the administration has officially termed it an "open housing" policy.

Earlier this month, Vice President and Dean of Students Kimberly Goff-Crews sent an e-mail announcing the housing office's decision to postpone a decision on the proposal until next fall. Goff-Crews's announcement came several days after IHC members had expressed an expectation that the housing administration would approve the IHC's proposal in time to have it implemented by the next academic year.

Goff-Crews's e-mail announcement explained that the decision to postpone the initiative was based on the desire to widen the open housing discussion to include faculty, administrators, community members, and "the larger student body."

In interviews with the MAROON, Goff-Crews said that she intends to bring the open housing proposal to the faculty and trustee committees on student campus life, campus religious leaders, student government officials and IHC representatives, and members of the campus LGBTQ community.

Several students, resident heads, and members of the University's trans community expressed surprise and consternation at Goff-Crews's announcement. Red Tremmel, a trans-identified Ph.D. candidate in the History Department and a resident head of May House in the Max Palevsky complex, said that Goff-Crews's decision was unexpected for those closely involved with the proposal's drafting.

"I'm confused about why it's been postponed. As far as I can tell, the students who initiated this proposal have really gotten input from other students who agree with it. I've seen it. It's been a grassroots development of this policy," Tremmel said.

Some students have said that the benefits of the further faculty and administrative input are not apparent.

"Some of my students have said that they don't understand why the faculty would have a hand in determining this policy if it's what students want to put through," Tremmel said.

Nassira Nicola, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics and a co-moderator of the University's OpenSource trans support group Pronoun Hoedown, echoed Tremmel's sentiments.

"I understand that [Goff-Crews] is a strong believer in the power of consensus, but I'm not convinced that faculty members who are interested in student life on campus are interested in what goes on in dorms, and I'm not convinced that they want, need, or deserve input," Nicola said.

U of C and national dorm trends

Nicola, who graduated from Harvard with a bachelor's degree in 2005, took advantage of Harvard's undergraduate open housing policy during her senior year, opting to live with both male and female roommates.

Harvard, along with the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, Oberlin College, Wesleyan University, and the California Institute of Technology, are among the schools that currently offer opposite-sex housing options to students. Stanford is currently negotiating a gender-neutral policy as well.

"There are universities that have offered that option for about four years already. So, if you look at that, you might say we're a little behind our peer institutions," said John McPherrin, a psychologist at the University's Student Counseling & Resource Service (SCRS) who runs the SCRS transgender support group that launched last month.

"Brown, UPenn, [and] Stanford now will be ahead of us on this policy. So, I do think it's just a matter of time, but I do think that it might be a generational issue where people are running to keep up with students who don't believe that housing should be restricted to gender," Tremmel said, echoing McPherrin's sentiments.

Harvard's open housing policy grants opposite-sex dorm situations on a case by-case-basis, but it is not available to incoming first-years. The policy ultimately gives individual house masters the final say in granting open housing within their respective houses, Nicola said.

"One downfall of the open housing policy at Harvard, in addition to it not being available to first-years, is that it's also on a house-by-house basis, so it's something that you would have to specifically request. And some house masters will approve it, and others won't. But, provided you plan ahead, you can pretty much get open housing if you want it," she said.

Nicola added that nearly all Harvard college students opt to remain in campus housing through all four years of undergraduate study. In contrast, most University of Chicago students choose off-campus housing after their first or second year at the University, and the U of C does not currently have the capacity to offer campus housing to the entire undergraduate class.

Currently, the University of Chicago has no housing policy for trans students. In the past, the housing office has typically placed trans-identified students in single rooms.

If the open housing policy is passed next quarter, Tremmel hopes that it will allow trans students to integrate themselves more fully into campus housing life.

"I think it's really important for trans students who are coming into this university to be able to seamlessly be a part of the housing system," he said.

"As it stands now, there is no policy [for trans students], so if someone is coming and transitioning, there's no easy logical place for them to go. In some cases, people end up being put in a single, in which case [trans students] are not getting the same treatment as other college students. I don't think it's fair to have people singled out."

Nicola added that for new students in the College who may be questioning their identities, the University's current approach to trans students in dorms adds to the typical stresses associated with the first year of college life.

"If you're not completely comfortable with your sexual identity, your only other option is complete social isolation," she said. "I think for someone who in all probability needs a strong, solid support network, forced social isolation is the absolute worst policy a university can take."

Campus dialogue

Several students have raised concerns that Goff-Crews's intention to widen campus discussion about open housing may make the issue one of contention. However, Goff-Crews said that she welcomes differences in opinion over matters of student life.

"I don't think it's healthy to ignore controversy. I think it would actually be helpful to know who has an issue and to be able to engage with them about why you have an issue and think about what we can do to address that," she said.

At a forum held last month for members of the University's LGBTQ community, Goff-Crews raised concerns over a possible connection between opposite-sex housing and increased pregnancy rates.

"She mentioned concerns over pregnancy, which I found naïve at best. She said she would like to know if other colleges who have had open housing had experienced rises in their pregnancy rates," Nicola said.

"At the time, I said that I didn't think same-sex housing was a form of birth control," she added.

In a follow-up e-mail interview with the MAROON, Goff-Crews wrote that she was not aware of increased pregnancy rates at other schools that have implemented gender-neutral housing options.

"I suspect that some parents will understandably be concerned about increased risk of pregnancy, but as I have said, I do not believe that this is an issue at other schools," Goff-Crews wrote.

Nicola said that any wariness over the open housing proposal is unfounded, adding that University students who elect to move off-campus already have access to mixed-housing living conditions elsewhere in Hyde Park.

"I think a lot of objections to open housing are based on the idea that [same-sex housing] offers students—especially female students—protection from the opposite sex. But as long as we allow students of the opposite sex into our rooms on a temporary basis, the same thing could happen now that would happen in a permanent setting," she said.

While Tremmel thinks that Goff-Crews and the housing office are genuinely interested in learning more about open housing options at other campuses and about the needs of trans students at the U of C, he stressed educational initiatives should remain separate from the open housing negotiation process itself.

"Trans students need housing like other students. And if people need to be educated about the issues that trans people face, that seems to me different than letting other people decide whether they should have their housing. This has been discussed for a long time—about how to create fair housing. And I hope it's a matter that people just need to find out more about this, and not that's its going to be up for debate," he said.