Beyond the Binary: Gender Inclusive Community expands housing options for trans, gender-nonconforming residents

Students within GIC share how gender inclusive housing options brought them new, deeper sense of community

· Dec 2, 2021 Tweet

Corey Holl and Shanne Low

The to-do list for incoming freshmen preparing to come to campus is endless. Among many other things they must do before the fall, navigating the exciting adventure of college dorm life is at the top of this list.

As incoming students peruse the vast array of housing options available for living on campus, freshmen will find many different ways to craft their residential experience. But they will also encounter two categories that cause some students’ first-year housing plans to come crashing down — “men” and “women” binary housing separation.

This was the case for Jasper Huegerich, who identifies as non-binary. Huegerich wanted to evade these limiting and outdated paradigms. In their ideal college dorm life, they hoped to be surrounded by people who share their experiences and avoid unsafe situations stemming from the limiting designs of the current residence halls.

Most residence halls at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are organized by single-sex clusters or wings, rooms and restrooms, with sometimes only one single-use bathroom on the first floor or none at all. While these standards are improving with newer residence halls having a single-use bathroom on each floor, remnants of the ingrained binary ideas of sex and gender still resonate in residence hall life at UW-Madison.

The constricting structural nature of these residence hall options for students like Huegerich fail to accommodate the vast array of identities that exist on campus and in the world at large.

“No matter which one I would be put into, it would still be wrong,” Huegerich said.

But in a recent step forward, students were given another option in place of the limiting single-sex dichotomy.

UW students and staff pioneered a pilot housing option this fall that challenges the assumptions of gendered housing by offering an open gender-inclusive housing setting beyond what has previously been available — an option that has proved to help foster a more welcoming campus for transgender, non-binary, genderqueer or gender-nonconforming students, or TGNC individuals.

28 more spots

Each spring, newly admitted incoming students carry out the process of deciding where to live for the upcoming year. Roughly 90% of incoming freshmen choose to live on campus in the university residence halls, though that doesn’t mean the decision-making is necessarily easier. Students take many factors into consideration when ranking preferences for halls, such as location, culture, size, room type and price.

But for LGBTQ+ students, particularly those who are TGNC, the housing selection process can have an added layer of complexity. Typically, room assignments — and sometimes whole floors — are determined by assigned sex with gendered bathrooms more readily available than all-gender or gender-neutral ones.

Freshman Elliot Novak wanted to attend UW for what they saw as a more inclusive campus environment overall, but they still had concerns about what their future living arrangements would be once they arrived on campus. Novak knew if they ended up with a roommate, they’d have to have a conversation about their identity and set boundaries.

But no such conversation was needed — they ended up assigned to a room within the university’s newest affinity community.

“I was going through the different learning communities because my mom recommended looking for a gender-neutral option, since I don’t identify as male or female, and then I found the [Gender Inclusive Community] in Merit,” Novak said.

The 2021-22 school year is the first year the Gender Inclusive Community, or GCI, was offered to students as a residence hall option.

Located on the second floor of Merit Residence Hall, the GIC has space for 28 residents and features gender-neutral bathrooms. Roommates of any gender identity are placed together unless otherwise specified. Double rooms have a private bathroom and clusters of six single rooms share an all-gender bathroom.

The Open House Learning Community in Phillips Hall is another option for LGBTQ+ inclusive housing at UW that opened in 2013. Open House has 29 residents and aims to create a welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ students by helping residents connect with university mentors and resources while introducing them to the field of gender and sexuality studies.

The Open House differs from the GIC in that it is a Learning Community instead of an Affinity Community, so residents pay the additional $200 fee and can take a one-credit seminar course in which they learn about the previous and current struggles faced by the LGBTQ+ community, according to their website.

The only requirement for residents to live in the GIC is to sign an agreement stating they will respect everyone’s identities regardless of whether those identities are always understood or not, Huegerich said. The GIC mostly serves as a space for TGNC students to live openly and safely but still offers Community Builders like all other residence halls.

Sophomore Sherry Wong had applied for the Open House last year and was denied originally, but she was later contacted over the summer to see if she wanted to be a house fellow in the GIC.

“There are people on the floor that don’t participate in any events and that’s totally fine because there’s no expectation for that,” Wong explained.

The GIC is located in the Southeast neighborhood, allowing TGNC students more choice in which neighborhood they’d like to be in, instead of only having an option in Lakeshore, where the Open House is located.

“I think the intention [of having GIC in Merit] is because we have Open House on Lakeshore side, that we have something similar to serve the queer community in the Southeast side,” Wong said.

A growing movement

UW-Madison is not the only institution expanding gender-inclusive housing initiatives. Across the country, TGNC students come to college seeking community and safe housing. In the best interest for those TGNC students, this type of housing has become more common and widespread in recent years.

Oliverferd Graham is a sophomore who found many of their friends in gender-inclusive housing during their time at UW-La Crosse.

“I wasn’t really out at the time and I’m from a small town area with a below-1,000 population, so there wasn’t many gay or queer people around, so I kind of wanted to go into gender-inclusive housing so I could surround myself with people who are like me … and it worked,” Graham said.

UW-La Crosse Director of LGBTQA Services Willem Van Roosenbeek said the university has offered gender-inclusive housing since the fall of 2013 — the same year Open House started.

Also a part of the UW System, UW-Eau Claire offers multiple housing opportunities for queer students. There are both gender-inclusive apartments and suites and multiple Rainbow Floors, with one for the general LGBTQ+ community and one specific to TGNC students, according to UW-Eau Claire’s housing website.

But UW-La Crosse, UW-Eau Claire and UW-Madison’s current gender-inclusive housing are far from the first kinds offered at higher education institutions across the nation and state.

Housing to accommodate gay, lesbian and bisexual students was first offered by University of Massechussetts Amherst in 1993. Wesleyan College was the first institution to address the needs and experiences of TGNC students back in 2003, according to an article from Insight Into Diversity.

At the forefront of gender-inclusive housing in Wisconsin, Lawrence University, located in Appleton, adopted gender-neutral housing for all of its residents in 2006.

Creating care and community

After feeling isolated in the UW-Madison housing system for years, support, connection and safety are high priorities for students who identify as TNGC or intersex.

In the GIC, Huegerich said they were placed with a roommate whom they get along with very well and who is also non-binary. They said this has been highly beneficial for them because going into this year, they knew they wanted to be surrounded by people who have similar experiences with gender.

“I know that if Madison didn’t have gender-inclusive housing, I probably would’ve looked into other schools just because I would want to make sure that was something that I had,” Huegerich said.

Similarly, Wong said her placement as the GIC’s House Fellow is a step up from her housing situation as a freshman, where she was in a single room in Adams’ International Learning Community. She only had to share a bathroom with three other people but still felt nervous about the potential risks associated with living in a cisgender majority housing unit.

Other residents echoed Wong’s sentiments — safety and security are key benefits of gender-inclusive housing.

“I know that Madison is known for being inclusive … but that’s the institution at large and it doesn’t account for [that] I can still run into people who are unfriendly,” Huegerich said.

The GIC itself also provides many opportunities for residents to meet each other and connect with their House Fellow by holding smaller events, such as game nights and a trip to the farmers’ market, Huegerich said.

While Novak hasn’t been able to go to too many events due to their work schedule, they have reached out to their House Fellow several times for support.

“It’s nice having someone that’s also LGBT [as a] House Fellow … to know that your House Fellow understands the things you’re going through on top of school and a pandemic,” Novak said.

Bea Lazarski/The Badger Herald

The GIC has also opened itself up to the wider queer community on campus. For example, all students were welcomed to the GIC’s Fall Activity Fair which was held this October in collaboration with the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center.

The GIC works closely with the GSCC to serve as a valuable resource for residents and other LGBTQ+ students because it allows for building connections with the wider queer community across campus and prevents LGBTQ+ students from being isolated from each other, said Lee Marty, Huegerich’s roommate.

“It’s definitely nice to feel a deeper sense of community rather than just occasionally meeting queer and trans individuals,” Marty said. “There’s a lot of them in the other dorms and it’s not like you have to search [the community] out.”

‘A lot of bureaucracy’

Learning and affinity communities’ existence depends on significant interdepartmental coordination and responsiveness to what the student body indicates it desires or requires. This includes accounting for current, incoming and prospective students.

The GIC in Merit was able to be introduced to UW because of the committee for campus gender-inclusive housing. The committee, which formed back in the fall of 2020, was established in order to address concerns students had about the existing gender-inclusive housing on campus.

“The university is trying its best … and it’s nice to see that they’re actually putting a concerted effort into supporting their queer students and students of color and hopefully the intersections that happen there,” Wong said. “Unfortunately there’s a lot of bureaucracy.”

GSCC program coordinator Whitney Anderson and assistant director of Residence Life Scott Seyforth serve as the co-chairs on the committee. But Anderson emphasized that her and Seyforth’s title as co-chairs is used loosely — the bulk of the committee consists of students from Associated Students of Madison and staff from the Housing Assignments office.

Wong is also on the committee to offer her own perspective as the GIC’s current House Fellow. Anderson said they were deliberate in shaping an integrative committee that centered student voices.

“This [committee] really started out of student activism and expressed student needs of expanding the gender-inclusive offerings in University Housing beyond Open House,” Anderson said. “Folks were appreciative of Open House, but that wasn’t meeting the many differing needs of students.”

Seyforth said another focus of the committee is being open on the website about what gender-inclusive housing is available and making sure that information is accessible. This way, prospective students know exactly what their options are.

Anderson said the committee is looking for feedback from students who are participating in what is intended to be a pilot year for the Gender Inclusive Community. The group is also looking at coordinating with other universities in the UW System.

Progress doesn’t mean perfect

In addition to the reality that hostility can permeate elsewhere on a campus, the existing gender-inclusive housing is not automatically utopian. Queer spaces can still alienate or exclude people with other marginalized identities and fall short of ensuring the safety component.

Current GIC residents point to more inclusion as an area for the GIC to improve upon, particularly from the lens of accessibility. Marty described Merit as a currently unappealing location for people with limited mobility, which they said they believe could potentially exclude some TGNC students with disabilities.

Marty said Merit’s elevator seems like it is not wide enough for most wheelchairs. They also said both types of restrooms — shared gender-neutral bathrooms and private ones in the double rooms — are lacking in accessibility, as they have very narrow showers and missing handlebars.

Merit last underwent ADA upgrades during its renovation in 2010, which included some bathroom redesign and making a few resident doors wider, according to University Housing Director of Marketing & Communications Brendon Dybdahl. In some cases, handlebars or shower seats can be added to bathrooms if lacking, Dybdahl said.

Dybdahl said Housing works closely with McBurney Disability Resource Center to fully meet accessibility needs of students, and if a student with specific accommodations wishes to live in the GIC, they should communicate directly with Housing.

Marty also said gender-inclusive housing needs to address how to be more inclusive and accommodating for queer people of color, as the current population of the GIC and Open House is almost exclusively white.

Wong expressed how being a person of color at a predominantly white institution is taxing, so it is key to ensure that what is supposed to be an inclusive living environment is taking a more intersectional approach.

As a mixed Black person, Marty said they are one of the only students of color in the GIC — which isn’t a coincidence.

“There is a Black LGBT community at Madison that’s involved with the GSCC events and such, but there’s nobody [from the Black LGBT community] in Open House or in Merit,” Marty said. “The thing with LGBT Black students is that clusters of white people … stress them out.”

Some students say colleges and universities merely offering gender-inclusive housing isn’t enough.

Institutions need to devote time and effort into ensuring that it is the safe space it’s meant to be, according to Annika Koenen, who is a sophomore at UW-La Crosse and second-year gender-inclusive housing resident.

“The fact that they have gender-inclusive housing and one single gender-neutral bathroom on the floor is the bare minimum,” Koenen said.

Moving forward

In addition to improving the GIC by addressing other marginalized identities that intersect with the queer experience, residents of existing complexes say there is still an unmet need for gender-inclusive housing at UW-Madison at large.

Marty said one of their friends, who wanted to live in the GIC but wasn’t able to apply early enough, has had a difficult and tense time navigating campus while living with mostly cisgender people.

“There was an instance in which I was really frightened for them because they were misgendered and it was messy,” Marty said.

Next year, the gender-inclusive housing committee plans to further expand gender-inclusive housing choices. Seyforth said the second floor of Merit will stay as the GIC, but the university is hoping to offer gender-inclusive housing in other residence halls.

According to Seyforth, the committee is hoping to make sections of residence halls such as Smith Hall gender-inclusive offerings, where two to three rooms share a bathroom. Currently, these “pods” are distinguished by binary sex. Instead, some “pods” would be designated as gender-inclusive with everyone in the “pod” sharing a gender-neutral bathroom instead of a male or female bathroom.

Students who want to be in gender-inclusive housing can continue to indicate that preference on the housing application, just as they would with hall, room and community preferences, Seyforth said.

Regardless of whether or not queer students choose gender-inclusive housing with whatever expansions happen next year, Marty emphasizes it will always be an opening and welcoming space for those who want to find a sense of community on the UW-Madison campus.

“If people are thinking about going into gender-inclusive housing, just know we’re here,” Marty said. “And if people don’t want to go into gender-inclusive housing and just want a space to mellow out, also, we’re here.”

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