Gender-neutral housing does not fully protect transgender and non-binary students| May 8, 2016
Editor’s note: The author of this column was granted anonymity due to the intensely personal nature of the events described.
During room draw last month, many students developed strategies to draw into their dream rooms for next year. Sorry, seniors and students studying abroad next semester, but also not sorry that you don’t have to go through it — from the highly-popular Spelman Halls to upperclassmen dorms to deciding whether to have a shared meal plan, unlimited plan, block plan or no meal plan at all, room draw is an intensely stressful process.
One dimension where it should not be stressful, however, is “gender-neutral housing.” As listed on the University Housing and Real Estate Services website, “gender-neutral housing” allows students to “share a multiple-occupancy dorm room with no regard to the students’ sex or gender,” and it is available in Butler, Forbes, Mathey and Whitman Colleges, as well as upperclassmen housing. “Gender-neutral housing” would then make sense if a woman and a man want to room together for the following year.
However, the current “gender-neutral housing” system is particularly detrimental to transgender students on campus. As a third gender, gender non-binary person, I do not identify with gender binary identities of woman and man. I use they/them/their pronouns. I would rather use gender-neutral bathrooms than men’s or women’s restrooms because I am not comfortable in either of those gendered bathrooms.
Going into room draw, I formed a draw group with two of my closest friends on campus, and among the three of us, there were two people who identified as men and one person who identified as third gender (me). Even though our draw group consisted of two gender identities, my draw group did not qualify for “gender-neutral housing” for room draw, which we needed in order to qualify to have a private bathroom.
After investigating with Housing and Real Estates Services and the Office of the Registrar, I deduced that the Housing Office determines “gender-neutral housing” qualification based on the sexes of the draw group members as listed under the Office of the Registrar. Thus, a draw group can only qualify for “gender-neutral housing” if there is at least one female and one male in that group regardless of those students’ gender identities, which the Office of the Registrar has no way of recording because it only collects information on students’ sex.
For me and other gender non-binary students, there is no guarantee that our housing accommodations will include access to necessary gender-neutral bathrooms. As far as I know, the University does not have any gender-neutral dormitory bathrooms with showers, so private bathrooms are necessary for gender non-binary people to be comfortable while showering and performing other personal hygiene acts. Because gender non-binary students do not necessarily qualify for gender-neutral housing, they may not receive private bathrooms. In this case, gender non-binary persons without private bathrooms would have to shower in gendered bathrooms with which they do not identify, which leads to issues with discomfort, gender dysphoria and harassment.
Princeton University students need to be aware of the issue of gender-neutral housing on campus. I have spoken to a number of gender non-binary students, and many of them have had to use public showers and bathrooms that do not align with their gender identity. They talk about the discomfort they feel as they enter by the gendered bathroom sign, reconfirming the exclusion of their gender identity by the gender binary. They talk about their dysphoria as they use bathrooms that may remind them of the gender they were assigned at birth. They talk about their fears of being harassed or assaulted.
I currently use men’s restrooms most of the time, even when I’m presenting more feminine, wearing makeup and women’s clothing. When I do so, I am often stared at and have been confronted aggressively several times by men on Princeton’s campus. If I am forced to use a gendered restroom every day, I will be very uncomfortable and afraid because of the possibility of harassment and assault, which are real and frequent issues that transgender people face, especially away from campus. Every morning would become a political statement just because I need to use the bathroom to shower — but I don’t want this to be a political statement. I just want to be clean and take care of my body like the rest of my peers. For this upcoming year, I was fortunate enough to “luck out” — I ultimately drew into a room with a private bathroom. But I still worry about “lucking out” the following year, even with the assurance of a better draw time as a rising senior.
I believe that, in the future, gender-neutral housing should be expanded so that any male and female students who want to live together can do so, and so that transgender students who want to access gender-neutral housing can do so as well. For now, students who need gender-neutral housing to prevent discomfort and ensure their well-being should be given first consideration should there be limited gender-neutral housing. The University already offers Special Needs Housing to students with medical conditions or disabilities using similar logic.
Finally, I do recognize that there may be inherent inequality of access to housing with private bathrooms between transgender and cisgender students should reforms to the gender-neutral housing occur. It comes down to an infrastructure problem: there are no gender-neutral dormitory showering facilities that I am aware of, but the University needs to provide showering and bathroom accommodations that align with students’ gender identities to all of its students. The University already has private bathroom, gender-neutral housing in place, which is, for now, the most logistically sound option for protection of transgender students in housing.
Room draw is stressful enough without having to rely on luck to ensure access to bathrooms that align with our gender identity. We should not, however, have to rely on luck to ensure student safety and well-being when the University can preserve them by enacting institutional changes to housing. The University wouldn’t force a man to use a women’s restroom to shower. The University wouldn’t force a woman to use a men’s restroom to shower. But the University does force gender non-binary students to use bathroom facilities that do not align with their gender identities. We need to reform sex-neutral housing so that it is inclusive of gender non-binary persons.