As a first-year student, Noah R. Wagner ’18 was placed in a suite with five female students. When Wagner—who, like many students quoted in this story, uses the pronouns they/them/theirs—applied to college, they identified their sex as female, the categorization Harvard used to determine their dorm assignment. Within the first few months of the school year, however, Wagner knew that word—and the identity that came with it—felt wrong.
“The way I had been assigned to this entryway—this formal gendered categorization of suites, the birth name on my door, the lack of open space to challenge any of that—made it hard to feel at home there,” Wagner says.
One of the first, most persistent and perhaps most inescapable places on Harvard’s campus where first-year students encounter traditional, binary ways of thinking about gender is their very own dorm. Now, as a senior and self-described “gender nihilist,” Wagner lives in Quincy House in mixed-gender housing. But the isolation they experienced three years ago is the lived reality of other first-year students today. Wagner is only one among many students for whom rigid ideas about gender, and the University policy and infrastructure that comes with it, feels restrictive.
In recent years, these policies have come under scrutiny. Following a push from the student group Trans Task Force, which aims to build community and advocate for issues relating to transgender people, the Freshman Dean’s Office and the Office of BGLTQ Student Life formed a committee to examine possibilities for establishing gender-inclusive first-year housing. And recent years have seen a proliferation of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, including in some dorms.
But some students feel that change has been slow to come, especially in first-year housing. And that means that for now, they’re still left dealing with feelings of alienation, discomfort, and sometimes even fear.
Alone in their single dorm room in Hurlbut, trying on clothes and experimenting with different hairstyles, a first-year student whom The Crimson is identifying by their initials, M.D., says they can explore who they want to be—something they never considered before coming to Harvard.
“I didn’t feel like I could start to question my identity until I got here,” M.D., who uses the pronouns they/them, says. The Crimson granted M.D. anonymity because they have not publicly disclosed their gender identity.
Last summer, M.D. participated in the First-Year Urban Program, a pre-orientation program for incoming students focused on social justice and service. During FUP, M.D. says, introductions before every discussion typically included the opportunity for students to state their gender pronouns along with their name.
Before FUP, M.D. didn’t know that people could be referred to using words other than “he” or “she,” or even that a person could ask others to use certain pronouns to describe them. “Thinking about how it felt, imagining people calling me different things was a big part of how I was able to explore my gender identity,” M.D. says.
M.D. is still figuring out their gender identity, and feels free and comfortable doing so in the privacy of their single dorm room. But outside their room, M.D. often feels restricted by how other people think of gender: only two categorizations, men and women. At formal events like Freshman Convocation, when women are typically expected to wear dresses and men usually wear shirts and ties, M.D., who opted to wear a tie, recalls “feeling like I was trying to be forced into some concrete binary.”
And then there are everyday rituals, like using the bathroom. In M.D.’s dorm, floors are segregated by sex, with some designated female and others designated male. Unlike for upperclassmen, currently, mixed gender housing is not available for first year students. M.D. lives on a female-designated floor.
“I feel like an other. Like I’m not one of the women who lives on that floor,” M.D. says. “I am the other who lives on that floor. ”
For students who are not cisgender—who don’t identify with the gender they were assigned at birth—concerns about housing may begin before they’re even assigned roommates, even with the accommodations that the Freshman Dean’s Office seeks to make for students like M.D.
“An open-ended question” on the housing questionnaire for incoming first-year students asks whether there is “anything about their gender identity or sexual orientation that we should know in terms of housing,” Mike Ranen, resident dean of freshmen for Ivy Yard, says. “Students who talk about their gender identity there, that might mean they have special housing considerations,” he adds. Ranen says that he then follows up individually with each of those students in a phone call.
In those calls, incoming students discuss with Ranen which housing options best meet their needs. Students talk about whether they would prefer to live in a single or a suite; whether they would feel more comfortable living with students who identify as male or students who identify as female. Finally, they discuss whether they would like a private, in-suite bathroom or a hallway bathroom.
Harvard currently only allows sophomores, juniors and seniors—who, unlike first-year students, can choose their roommates—to opt for “mixed gender housing.” In upperclassman housing, men, women, trans students, nonbinary students, and students of other gender identities can live together in any combination within the limits of each House’s room offerings. Though the process of attaining mixed-gender housing varies across the 12 upperclassman Houses, all students seeking such housing must meet with their house administrator and sign a housing agreement. If upperclassmen don’t want to abide by the student handbook’s rules regarding gender in any capacity, they can opt to move to off-campus housing or live in the Dudley co-op. First-year students, however, are required to live on campus.
The FDO currently does not offer mixed-gender housing to first-year students. Instead, if students don’t make any other specifications on their housing forms, the FDO assigns housing on the basis of sex as specified in the student’s Common Application. The Common App only asked students to disclose their sex until the 2016-2017 school year, when the admissions application also began to offer an optional open-ended text box to allow students “to further describe their gender identity.”
While the FDO organizes rooms by sex, Jasmine Waddell, resident dean of freshmen for Elm Yard, said the FDO “think[s] about both” sex and gender when assigning rooms.
“We’re responsive to needs,” Waddell says.”If I have a student who identifies as nonbinary, then I think about where they would live in terms of a space that’s supportive. But I do have rooms that are female rooms and I have rooms that are male rooms.”
When the FDO places trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming students with students who are cisgender, Waddell says the FDO ensures the cisgender students are “accepting” of all gender identities.
However, making arrangements is dependent on students knowing as incoming first-year students that their assigned sex does not align with their gender identity, and on their willingness to write openly about their gender identity on the housing questionnaire.
“Not everyone knows or is ready to express that they might be queer, trans, or gender nonconforming on a housing form to administrators they’ve never met. It’s not always clear how other people might bring transphobia into a rooming situation or otherwise make rooming uncomfortable,” Wagner says.
Wagner believes that while the addition of gender-neutral first-year housing would benefit everyone, the policy is “first and foremost a matter of safety for trans students.”
“When you’re coming into Harvard, the very first form that you fill out is the housing form. In order to have any kind of housing that would indicate that your gender is not aligned with sex, you have to basically out yourself on that form and then have this very intrusive conversation,” Helene C. Lovett ’20 says.
At the time when Lovett applied for housing, they described themself as female and therefore did not speak to Ranen or any other administrator about gender concerns in first-year housing.
Lovett had a positive experience with their first-year suitemates but said living in housing segregated by sex “made my experience with understanding the ambiguity of gender within myself a lot slower.... It would’ve been a lot easier to go through gender transitions in a mixed gender environment with people you know would be comfortable with that.”
While some students report a binary gender identity on their housing questionnaire because of their understanding of their gender at the time, others do so because they believe identifying as such will make for a simpler housing experience.
“I wrote ‘male’ because I thought it would be easier. I hadn’t fully come out to myself yet,” a student in Kirkland says. The Crimson granted this student anonymity because they have not publicly disclosed their gender identity. “Even if I had figured it out earlier, even if I had put ‘female,’ there would’ve been a follow up. If I say male, that’s the end of it. No one’s gonna ask me any questions.”
The Kirkland student says that regardless of how well a student gets along with roommates, the environment created by first-year sex-segregated or single-gender housing was not conducive to nontraditional gender expression.
“It kind of felt like it was forcing me back in. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable walking around my room in a dress,” the Kirkland student says.“Your first year, you’re already nervous about making a good impression…. You know that you’re going to walk into a room of cis people, [and] if not cis people, you’re going to be walking into a gendered room.”
Even for students who do express concerns about gender on the housing questionnaire, uncertainty about the comfort and safety of their housing situation remains.
“One of my concerns was that my gender identity isn’t super established yet other than the non-female part,” Ming Li Wu ’21 says. Wu worried about the possibility of their gender identity and presentation changing during the semester. Would their roommates reject them?
“I see my gender as a very fluid thing, which might change in the future, but might also not. I feel like there’s not really room for me to express it that way,” Wu says. “Whenever there are such strong binary things like housing, that definitely doesn’t leave any room for fluidity or change or question. You have to make a decision and you are in that space and you cannot easily leave.”
For now, such student concerns are handled on an individual basis, often beginning with a conversation with the FDO. The response to different students’ circumstances—such as transitioning their gender during the school year—“depends on their needs,” says Dean Waddell.
“If they need to take a leave, if they need to be in a different living space, then we’ll discuss those needs as they arise.”
As a first-year student eager to see fundamental change in the Harvard housing system, Wagner found community and activism in Trans Task Force, a group of Harvard and Cambridge area community members that focuses on intersectional issues facing trans people. “Organically out of conversations around our needs arose a desire to see accommodations around campus that don’t isolate, alienate, or erase trans people,” Wagner says.
During the spring 2017 semester, TTF members began to discuss ways that Harvard’s campus could become more gender inclusive.
“We found a running theme that housing, bathrooms, and other spatial accommodations actively made it difficult to take seriously the questions coming up for us,” Wagner says. “Looking to peer institutions and envisioning what was possible at Harvard, it seemed really straightforward to implement a gender-inclusive housing option.”
TTF members reached out to Sheehan D. Scarborough, Director of the Office of BGLTQ Student Life and raised concerns about first-year housing at a University-wide BGLTQ town hall. TTF later met with Waddell to discuss the matter. During the summer of 2017, the FDO invited TTF to send some of its members to represent the organization in meetings about gender-inclusive housing for first-year students with the FDO and the Office of BGLTQ Student Life.
Waddell says that when the FDO became aware of TTF’s advocacy for first-year gender-inclusive housing, “we saw it as a moment where we could take our mutual interests and catalyze and prioritize it for this year.” This fall, the FDO and BGLTQ Office formed a committee that aims to draft a proposal that would instate what the committee is calling “gender-inclusive housing” for first-year students. Members include students from TTF and the Office of BGLTQ Student Life as well as administrators from the FDO, BGLTQ Office, and the Office of Student Life.
Scarborough, who is a member of the committee, wrote in an e-mailed statement that the committee is “being intentional about this process and about including student voices and perspectives in this important work.”
Lily M. Velona ’18, a member of Trans Task Force, thinks that the committee is a promising sign. “What we’ve seen is an increasing willingness on the part of the administration as time has gone on.,” Velona says. “I think as people [have understood] the need for gender-neutral housing as a need of safety and the ability for students to thrive here, the commitment to making sure that first years do have a gender-neutral housing option has increased.”
But some hurdles remain. According to Dean Ranen, two questions control whether Harvard will begin to offer gender-inclusive housing to first-year students: “Whether or not we should [offer gender-inclusive housing], and then how [we do so] logistically within our housing system and our housing questions.”
One such logistical concern is the fact that some students are under the age of 18 when they arrive at Harvard, which could bring complications to offering them mixed-gender housing.
For issues like these, the committee receives legal advice from the Office of the General Counsel, according to Ranen.
In the current housing system, the architecture of some first-year dorms limits where students who need special accommodations can live. For example, dorms in Elm Yard have no singles, so students who might want to live alone because of their gender identities are unable to live in DeWolfe, Grays, Matthews, or Weld.
The committee is also benchmarking, or evaluating how other colleges and universities approach gender in housing. The University of Pennsylvania became the first school in the Ivy League to offer gender-neutral housing to students, initially only upperclassmen, in fall 2005. In 2010 Yale became the last Ivy to offer mixed gender housing, though its availability was limited to seniors. In fall 2012, Penn became the first Ivy to allow first-year students to choose to live in gender-neutral housing.
But still, in part because of legal issues, “The models are that most schools do not offer gender-inclusive housing for first-year students,” Ranen says. “If students are under 18, they usually require parental consent... Most schools now offer gender-inclusive housing for upperclass students. For first year students, it’s similar to what we do, where we have individual conversations with students who might have a specific need. That’s why we’re treading slowly.”
Waddell, who serves as the FDO’s liaison to the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, says the FDO has been evaluating the possibility of offering gender-inclusive housing for first-years throughout the five years she’s worked there, and perhaps longer. Still, Waddell is hopeful.
“We’re doing it in a very collaborative way, which is a different model than other efforts on campus,” Waddell says. “I think that will lead to a better outcome.”
Ranen emphasizes that the committee is in its “exploratory” stages.
“It’s too early to state anything definitive yet,” he says. Ranen does have some ideas, however, regarding how gender-inclusive housing might work if Harvard decides to implement it for first-year students. For example, Ranen anticipates that rooms designated “gender-inclusive” would be spread across the first-year dorms rather than contained to one or a few entryways.
Though the working group continues to consider logistics, at least regarding the committee’s first consideration—whether or not the committee “should” offer gender-inclusive housing—some students see a clear need for gender-inclusive housing.
“Being a college freshman is a big time of transition for everyone. If a freshman is struggling with their gender identity, then it’s important for them to feel support and safe in that,” Wu says.
Some students believe that the current lack of gender-inclusive housing for first-year students is a reflection of a larger lack of conversation about gender.
“Housing is a symptom,” the Kirkland student says. “We talk a lot about gender in terms of a binary. Other than that, not so much. When I’m walking around in dress or when I’m walking around in a skirt, it still feels very disruptive. Even at a place like Harvard, it almost feels like a political act, just my existence. At a place like Harvard it shouldn’t be like that. We just don’t talk about it plain enough.”
Students noted that offering gender-inclusive housing for first-year students could change campus culture.
“If freshmen come here and have the example of mixed-gender housing, it could help them to interact with people on the basis of who they are rather than their gender,” Colin J. McGinn ’21 says. McGinn called organization and segregation by gender “a system that’s so deeply entrenched that people believe it from birth and simply take it without thinking.”
McGinn believes a move to more gender-inclusive housing could be a step closer to “abolishing, or at least recognizing the multiplicity of, this system we call gender.”
McGinn also believes a move to more gender-inclusive housing could be a step closer to “abolishing or at least recognizing the multiplicity of this system we call gender.”