Trans and Non-Binary Students Face Barriers in On-Campus Housing

19 mins read

Swarthmore’s first co-ed dorms were piloted in 1971, when sections of Mary Lyon, Wharton, Willets, and Worth became co-ed living spaces. Nearly fifty years later, the only gendered dorms that remain are Parrish and Dana third, which is women’s only. Despite the prevalence of gender-neutral housing, transgender and non-binary students continue to face challenges in terms of their ability to obtain housing in which they feel comfortable and accommodated. Some students may also prefer to live in gendered spaces for religious or personal reasons.

Hannah Sobel ’22 is a genderqueer student who received a housing assignment on Dana third, an all-women’s floor, without prior notification of its single-gender status. [Sobel’s roommate is a Campus Journal editor but was not involved in the production of this piece]

“We [Sobel and her roommate] had no idea that it was an all-girls’ floor … And nobody really told us and then we saw Dana third … There’s this big sign that said, ‘Hall of Women Warriors,’” she said.

While Sobel assumed that she would manage to feel comfortable in the all-women’s space, the gender-exclusive environment eventually began to emotionally burden her.

“I thought it would be okay, because I present pretty feminine, and I am generally comfortable being referred to as feminine or female, and that’s still something I’m working through. But living there every day, I kind of realized all of the gendered language was screaming at me, like walking into the door every single night seeing ‘Hall of Women Warriors,’ especially when sometimes the word woman can make me very uncomfortable.”

The hall also had a rule prohibiting men from being on the hall after 10:00 p.m., which Sobel found invalidating to trans and non-binary individuals.

“[The no-men rule] was brought up at the first MMK [by Sobel’s resident assistant], where we are not allowed to have men on the hall after 10:00 p.m. And a lot of my friends are either transitioning, or gender non-conforming, or [transmasculine], or trans girls. So I talked to my RA, and I was like, ‘what is the definition of men?’ Because I don’t want to invalidate any of my friends … And I feel like my friends are being invalidated.”

An email sent on September 21, 2019 by the RA defined men as “those people who have the ability to comfortably use the urinal and/or need to raise the toilet seat in order to urinate” This language invalidated trans and non-binary students by insinuating that all students with penises are men, and vice versa.

The RA’s follow-up email to residents read, “I can see how the email could be taken as excluding people based on how they use the bathroom and that has been a contentious issue for people in certain communities for many years. This topic in general is a hard one to navigate and I think this is a great learning experience for understanding how language about these issues can elicit different interpretations and should be handled with care.” 

The RA also sent out a survey asking residents’ opinions of the no-men rule and held office hours with the Dana Diversity Peer Advisor.

While Sobel did find that her neighbors on the hall were encouraging, she also found herself taking on the unwanted role of having to teach others about basic aspects of her identity.

“I could have explained [genderqueer identity] to [Sobel’s RA]. And I could have, I guess, taught her but I didn’t want my living situation to be … teaching her constantly … And she kept on asking us, like, if there’s anything she could do, or there’s anything that would make it easier for us. But I just, I don’t want to be babied or pitied. I just kind of got tired of constantly feeling like, ‘Oh, I should talk to her about this.’ ‘Oh, I should bring this up.’ … So the entire situation was just exhausting.”

Clay Conley ’20, a non-binary student, believes that the people in charge of housing at Swarthmore are gender essentialist, which causes discomfort for trans and non-binary students (Conley has contributed an op-ed to the Phoenix about being non-binary in athletics). Gender essentialism is the idea that men and women intrinsically have different behaviors and qualities, and is frequently used to invalidate trans and non-binary identities.

“I know that they’re gender essentialist, like they [have] put trans men with women [in housing assignments] … the way they have this gender essentialist view of how to put together the freshmen to make people comfortable is making people actually uncomfortable. [It’s] mainly uncomfortable for me to see how they’re being treated like that.”

The Phoenix has confirmed at least one recent instance of a trans student unwillingly being paired with a roommate of their gender assigned at birth rather than their actual gender. For example, this could include a trans man being paired with a cisgender woman, or a trans woman being paired with a cisgender man. Cisgender, or cis, is a term that refers to people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.

Conley also said that they experienced administrators making assumptions about their identity, by using they/them pronouns for them before they began using those pronouns..

“Sam Waters and Isaiah Thomas [in email exchanges] were using they/them pronouns for me but I hadn’t used they/them pronouns yet, so I felt like I was being profiled a little bit.”

In response to claims about the experiences of trans and non-binary students in this piece, Thomas responded on the behalf of the Office of Student Engagement, which includes himself, Waters, and the aforementioned RA.

“The OSE is committed to evolving our practices to continue to meet the needs of all our students. We encourage students to share feedback with us by contacting us directly and/or reaching out to their RA, DPA, or RCC, joining the Housing Advisory Committee, or completing our annual residential communities survey,” he sent in an email to The Phoenix.

AV Lee-A-Yong ’21, a genderfluid student who uses ze/hir pronouns, cited other trans and non-binary people’s struggles as a factor that has discouraged hir from speaking to administration about hir concerns with housing.

“I think mostly it’s the administrative red tape that I’ve seen other trans people go through. A lot of people who I know who are trans or non-binary either choose not to deal with admin at all because … why would you do that, especially non binary people who are comfortable with their with their name … But other binary trans people who I know, who have been trying to get like equal recognition as the rest of their cis peers have gone through so much fuckery … that [to me] as a non-binary person who isn’t too attached to even a separate name … it feels like way too much for me to go through to even try.”’

According to Thomas, if a student requests housing accommodations for any reason, they must first go through the Office of Student Disability Services.

“If a student shares with us that they would like to request a housing accommodation, the OSE connects the student with the Office of Student Disability Services.  The Office of Student Disability Services works directly with students with accommodation requests,” wrote Thomas.

Gendered bathrooms are also a common source of trans and non-binary students’ experienced adversity in gendered housing. While gender-neutral bathrooms exist in every dorm at Swarthmore with gender-neutral housing, it is not uncommon for trans and non-binary students to be placed on floors with gender-segregated bathrooms. This can either cause inconvenience and discomfort as trans and non-binary students have no choice but to walk further to use bathrooms that align with their genders, or force them to compromise their identities and use bathrooms that do not align with their identities.

Sobel said that a salient source of her unhappiness while living on Dana third stemmed from the sole female-gendered bathroom on the hall, despite specifically having requested housing with gender-neutral bathrooms.

“I didn’t think the bathroom situation would bother me, but it kind of did. Just seeing the word ‘female,’” she said.

Gabi Rubinstein ’20, a current RA who is a cis woman, lived on Dana third during her first year and says that she witnessed negative treatment of trans women and transfeminine people.

She said, “I felt like it wasn’t really right for me, and part of that was because my relationship with transfeminine [people] on campus … I could see that they weren’t really welcomed in that space, especially in the bathrooms … And I didn’t know how to communicate to [the residents] that you know, it was appropriate for these people to be there because they were [women or woman-aligned].”

Rubinstein added that during her time on Dana third, there was a lack of dialogue as to the treatment of non-female-passing individuals.

“There wasn’t really like any sort of conversation about like, what happens when you see somebody using the women’s room and you don’t think they’re a woman … I feel like for non-binary students, it’s not clear what bathrooms are appropriate for them to use on campus because there aren’t a lot of gender-neutral bathrooms. And if you only can use gender-neutral bathrooms, that’s really not fair.”

Lee-A-Yong also expressed hir internal conflict when deciding which gendered bathroom to use.

“It felt kind of awkward to make the decision. Right, like do I want to make a personal and political statement by going to the men’s bathroom even though I don’t ‘look like a man?’ Or do I just want to use the restroom? … I’d say it’s like one of those … things that as a person whose ethnicity is not white, as a person who like isn’t cis, as a person who’s gay, you just have to go through these extra cognitions all the time … I try not to let it get to me because if I did it would drive me crazy,” ze said.

Conley also described their difficulties with deciding which bathroom to use in gendered spaces.

“Anytime one of my friends lives in Parrish, if I ever go visit them, I have to go all the way to the goddamn basement to go to the bathroom,” they said.

“Bathrooms are a place of trauma and harm for me because sometimes I look like a man, sometimes I don’t. And [bathrooms are] like one of those spaces where it’s like, intimate as to what your gender is, and it sucks that like even here, you get that scrutiny …” they said. “I feel like sometimes the only bathroom I feel safe in is my Dana [second] bathroom, because I feel like I own that space in a lot of ways.”

Levi Hatten ’22, a trans man, expressed both his current frustration and optimism for the future of gendered and gender-neutral bathrooms at Swarthmore.

“I usually just don’t go [to the bathroom] if I can’t find [a gender-neutral bathroom]. It stresses me out to the point where I don’t go … First of all, it doesn’t have to be that way, like straight off it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Hatten, who has previously contributed an op-ed to The Phoenix about gender-neutral bathrooms, is currently working on a project to increase the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms at Swarthmore.

“I’ve been really, really thinking about the solutions or the ways that we can think about bathrooms, especially communal bathrooms, differently … Just like when I went to boarding school, the showers had a lock on them, they were stalls that locked. I would have loved that more than a shower curtain in so many different cases … which honestly, those are measures that should be taken anyways … We also should really think about, I don’t know, just giving people more privacy. And that’s completely possible. It’s not that hard.”

Hatten also spoke about the support that he received from Thomas for his gender-neutral bathroom project.

“He was way, way more supportive than I thought. He was really eager for me to expand … he was actually really interested in solving those problems [with not necessarily having gender-neutral bathrooms on non-gendered halls].”

In terms of further ways to better the treatment of trans and non-binary students in housing at Swarthmore, Lee-A-Yong suggested that Swarthmore’s administration should take on more accountability.

“Most of the times when these things happen to me or my friends it’s often a mistake or an oversight. It was not in direct malice, and I don’t think RAs individually or RPLs are trying to antagonize me specifically. But having the checks and balances there is important and I think having the accountability there is important so I feel like admin specifically could do a little more to reinforce those things,” ze said.

Lee-A-Yong also commented on the surveys that RAs send to their residents at the beginning of the year, which sometimes have requested residents’ legal names, and the importance of DPAs even on upperclassmen-only halls.

“I think a DPA in that process could have been like ‘Hey, maybe a trans person wouldn’t be comfortable giving you their deadname [a word commonly used by trans and non-binary people to describe a name given at birth that they no longer use], or their legal name.’”

Rubinstein, as an RA, also believes in improving the training that RPLs receive with regards to pronouns and marginalized identities.

“I think maybe it would be good to have some more basic stuff around like pronouns and different identity things. And maybe even about how to talk to your residents about pronouns if they’ve never thought about them before, things like that. I think overall, the Swatties that I know pretty much have a good grasp on stuff, but it might be good to formalize that sort of training.”

Anatole Shukla

Anatole Shukla '22 is an Editor Emeritus of The Phoenix. He is from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and studied economics, linguistics, and Russian language while at Swarthmore.


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