“This is not the end of our work together, but hopefully, just one celebration and checkpoint in a lot of the work that we’re doing to make sure we’re supporting and advocating for those who are marginalized.”
DePaul alum Evelyn Ryan knew she was transgender before arriving at DePaul, but was nowhere near ready to let others know. Ryan spent her undergraduate career in the closet and during her second year lived with three male students on campus she had never met before.
“The knowledge that I’d be rooming with three strangers worried me,” Ryan said. “I think that kind of worry isn’t exclusive to trans people at all. But from a trans perspective, the fact that they were strangers scared me even more.”
Ryan began expressing her gender outwardly, growing out her hair, wearing jewelry, and dressing feminine. In high school, she was bullied for expressing herself differently and she worried that one of her roommates might say something offensive.
“It’s very difficult to hide these things from someone who lives with you,” Ryan said. “If I had been able to live with one of my friends who I already trusted, I wouldn’t have had to worry about it, but that wasn’t an option.”
Although she spent the majority of time alone in her room, Ryan recounted overhearing her roommate making a transphobic comment.
“I got out of that year unscathed, but it’s not hard to imagine how these exact circumstances could affect someone very differently,” she said. “Living off-campus is a lot more refreshing because nobody cares about the gender of my roommates. So many of my friends who live off-campus have mixed-gender living situations. It’s bizarre how something so normal in the real world is taboo on-campus.”
A Binary Choice
While Ryan was attending DePaul between 2017 to 2021, there was no specific policy on gender-inclusive housing. Instead, the university’s housing office worked with students who reached out for accommodations on a case-by-case basis.
DePaul’s former housing policy is similar to many institutions across the country that assign rooms based on a binary choice — male or female. Ryan recognizes how binary systems can oversimplify situations and cause harm.
“I think a lot of it is based on the idea that gender-segregated spaces are safer, and that women inherently need to be protected from men,” Ryan said. “Acting as though all men are inherently predatory portrays inappropriate behavior as an inevitable result of biology rather than a decision every actual predator makes. It’s the same ideology that produced the phrase ‘boys will be boys.’”
In addition to Ryan, a 2018 article from Medill Reports, based out of Northwestern University’s journalism program, outlined how another trans student at DePaul faced disparate housing accommodations based on her gender. She was nearly forced to move dorm rooms.
Around the same time, the Trump administration announced its intention to reclassify gender as sex assigned at birth. This year, dozens of states will consider LGBTQIA+ discrimination laws during the 2022 legislative session, ranging from sports bans to limiting gender-affirming care.
DePaul’s All Gender Housing Plan
DePaul kicked off its 2022 annual Pride events on May 12 by announcing an All Gender Housing initiative, joining a number of universities across the country in implementing gender-inclusive housing policies.
“While [DePaul Housing] has always been committed to providing safe, inclusive, and supportive living experiences for all residents living on campus, our department is developing a more public and formal process for All Gender Housing,” the announcement said.
Previously, students living on campus selected either a male or female gender marker unless they reached out to housing to disclose a different gender identity — and roommate assignments often paired like genders together.
Now, under All Gender Housing, students will be provided with additional alternatives for gender markers to create new living environments. According to Moreci, additional gender markers will likely include options such as non-binary, gender nonconforming and transgender.
“Students will be able to identify various gender markers differently than they can now for purposes of requesting certain housing preferences in terms of roommates and/or communities/spaces to live in,” Rick Moreci, DePaul’s director of housing, dining and Student Centers, told 14 East.
“Another step will be to create intentional communities within the residence halls and apartments for students who would like to be part of a larger community,” Moreci added. “Of course, this will be optional, but we intend to make these types of communities available for students who choose to live in them.”
DePaul Housing’s collaboration with the LGBTQIA+ Resource Center, Residential Education and Office of Gender Equity helped bring All Gender Housing to fruition. Moreci noted that the process will be ongoing with the help of community input. Specifically, the LGBTQIA+ resource center will hold ongoing joint feedback sessions for students, faculty and staff this summer.
“I got out of that year unscathed, but it’s not hard to imagine how these exact circumstances could affect someone very differently. Living off-campus is a lot more refreshing because nobody cares about the gender of my roommates. So many of my friends who live off-campus have mixed-gender living situations. It’s bizarre how something so normal in the real world is taboo on-campus.”
Chicago Universities Pave the Way
As more trans and gender expansive individuals open up about their identities, institutions across the country are adapting their housing policies to accommodate marginalized students. According to Campus Pride, at least 425 colleges and universities have gender-inclusive housing and, before DePaul’s recent announcement, 17 higher education institutions in Illinois.
Northwestern University is among the Chicagoland schools that expanded its All Gender Housing during the 2018-2019 academic school year. This allows students to articulate an interest in living with different gender identities instead of getting assigned automatically, which at many schools is often based on sex assigned at birth.
“Our housing team recognized that [the university’s former policy] was inadequate,” said Matt Abtahi, the assistant director of Multicultural Student Affairs at Northwestern. “The imperfect process in all of this is we’re making some very sweeping decisions based simply on opting into gender open housing. In some cases, that was just putting folks in singles, but in a community space, where they have the opportunities to still be able to engage with a community, depending on the need of each class and the building.”
Schools like Northwestern are working to advance their gender-inclusive policies that have been in place for years.
The university implemented a gender neutral housing initiative in 2010, and thanks to their student government and Gender Queer, Non-Binary, Transgender Task Force, that initiative expanded in 2018 as All Gender Housing. Since then, non-cisgender students at Northwestern recognize the need for improvement and continue to push for change.
According to Abtahi, there are variations based on different needs, but each resident hall’s occupants make decisions together. Sometimes, a whole floor will be gender open while others will be gender assigned, or half of the floor will be gender open while the other half will be gender assigned.
“Our residential services team works really hard to try to be as inclusive as possible and then make modifications when we mess up,” Abtahi said.
Abtahi notes that gender inclusive policies can be trial and error. Residential services across the country may face demand that doesn’t always meet the type of supply. They are always trying to fill either half a floor or a full one, and sometimes they’re unable to do so, Abtahi said.
“Sometimes they’re including folks in gender open housing — maybe they don’t identify as trans or non-binary — but they’re open to being in gender open housing. And then they end up as a roommate with someone who was trans and maybe was hoping for a trans roommate.”
Abtahi highlighted how simply opting into gender open housing can be too broad. In the coming year, Northwestern’s residential services plan to narrow their selection process to better identify students’ needs.
Some questions Abtahi said residential services will ask students include: “What is it that you’re particularly looking for? Is it an all gender bathroom? Is it a gendered bathroom, but with the gender that you identify as? [Do] you want a roommate that is inclusive of where you are, who you are, and considerate of your own history and identity?”
While Northwestern continues to review and revise its Gender Open Housing policy, DePaul takes its first step towards a similar initiative.
“We worked together to ask [DePaul] leadership to allow us to publicly declare our intentionality behind creating more all gender spaces and allowing all students to know how to seek out this resource, not just the ones who figured it out on their own,” Moreci said.
According to Moreci, communication between the Department of Housing and Residential Education, LGBTQIA+ Resource Center and The Office of Gender and Equity has been ongoing for years. However, only recently have the departments been working together to implement tangible changes to DePaul housing policies.
“We are just now starting some of these conversations in an intentional way, and we will be continuing this into the summer and fall,” Moreci said.
Centering Student Needs
LGBTQIA+ Resource Center Coordinator Mycall Riley has engaged in these ongoing conversations about All Gender Housing.
“It’s definitely something that I’m excited to see have some legs, and I’m excited to be in conversation and in community with trans, non-binary [and] gender expansive students at DePaul as we — for lack of a better word — add some meat to this to the skeletal plan,” Riley said.
One of Riley’s responsibilities as coordinator is to help students of different gender identities get connected to housing resources, among others. Riley works with incoming trans students and folks who transition after they get to campus to help make sure they find a space that feels more affirming to their identity.
The LGBTQIA+ community at DePaul has a variety of needs, Riley noted. “I want to be clear that this is not the end of our work together, but hopefully, just one celebration and checkpoint in a lot of the work that we’re doing to make sure we’re supporting and advocating for those who are marginalized.”
Riley underlined how important it is to center the needs of those who are historically left out in order to achieve a more equitable world.
“Marginalized genders and sexualities: students who are, trans, non-binary, two-spirit, agender, I want to make sure we’re hearing from those students,” Riley said. ”To not have them do the heavy lifting, but for them to share their unique perspectives.”
“I also think what’s most exciting to me is when we see who is at the table and who’s willing to share their perspective and really be a part as we begin to build out something that will have positively impacted a variety of people,” Riley added.
“I want to be clear that this is not the end of our work together, but hopefully, just one celebration and checkpoint in a lot of the work that we’re doing to make sure we’re supporting and advocating for those who are marginalized.”
Addressing Binary Systems
Not all new students who live on campus may be used to making decisions about their housing situations.
“I think that there is a notion that college-aged people, especially first-year students, do not have the wherewithal to learn how to share space with folks,” Riley said. “Particularly when they’re sleeping, sharing bathrooms, sharing common spaces — I think there’s a fear that people aren’t prepared for that. I think that’s simply just hegemony in action.”
Riley also pointed out that in a lot of traditional home structures, families all live in a shared space that’s not separated by gender.
“We [are] deeply, deeply lost in the binary.” Riley said. “We f-cking … have butt wipes for men — dude wipes. We have straws for women. We have hammers for girls … we’re still having gender reveal parties left and right.”
“We still have so much work to do, “ Riley added.
Abtahi echoed Riley’s sentiments, noting that infrastructure changes can take a long time due to a range of reasons.
Housing offices across the nation deal with a lot of parent questions and parent concerns. For those that are still connected to their families, how their parents understand gender might also heavily influence the expectations of what a living community looks like.
“I think every school has several stakeholders, and values that they have to take into consideration,” Abtahi said. “I would love us to be universally designing our collegiate space so that every student could access every residence hall option.”
If a university can only provide a select number of options for trans and non-binary students, they’re providing a particular experience, Abtahi explained. Investing in more gender inclusive spaces, like restrooms, can be a big financial investment for institutions.
One reason all gender bathrooms are difficult to implement is due in part to state plumbing laws. Code Requirements may conflict with gender-neutral bathroom laws and designs.
If passed, Illinois HB3195 bill — introduced in the Senate last year — would allow any multiple-occupancy restroom to be identified as an all gender multiple-occupancy restroom and designated for use by any person of any gender.
“So it can happen, and there are other schools that have already created multi-stall all gender bathrooms in public spaces,” Abtahi said. “So we’re actually not even saying anything’s innovative anymore.”
“I would imagine a lot of institutions would feel more comfortable moving in that direction when they know that the state is backing them up,” Abtahi added. “I encourage folks that are registered voters of Illinois to get involved … because that will really put the onus then on the institution [and] quite frankly, can free us from these binary facility structures that limit what they’re able to provide to students.”
Initiatives like DePaul’s All Gender Housing can also help spark conversations that extend beyond campus, including how individuals think about trans and gender expansive identities. This encourages interaction with young people who are questioning their gender identity — who may be trans or queer.
According to Riley, creating more spaces where people aren’t just allowed, but celebrated, is one of the goals in planning gender inclusive housing policies.
“I think that it’s definitely something I’m really cognizant of and thoughtful of is how do we create a world where … we start these conversations earlier — where we lean into like this … unlearning to learn something new sooner.” Riley said. “We just aren’t there yet.”
“We have a lot of work to do. And we have to get to it.”
Header illustration by Helen Wargo