Chicago’s undergraduate transgender students face disparate housing accommodations

By Katie Rice
Medill Reports

Jennifer, an upper-level student at DePaul University in Chicago, has lived on campus for her entire university career. She was fairly happy with housing on campus until a minor change in her academic record nearly forced her to move dorm rooms.

Jennifer, who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity, is a transgender woman. Though she’s been out to family and close friends for a couple years, she started medically transitioning four months ago. Recently, to mark another milestone in her transition, she decided to change her preferred gender in the university’s academic portal — used to access information such as tuition, classes and grades — to female. A few weeks later, she got an email from the housing department saying the university would have to move her to a room with a female roommate.

This email came while Jennifer was busy preparing for an end-of-semester project and exam crunch at DePaul, so she wouldn’t have had time to move even if she could have. Besides, moving to a room with a roommate who identified as female since birth presented other issues.

“Where I was confused was, I’m still of male sex currently,” she said. “I am not legally a different sex, so there really should not be a problem,” she said. “If you were to move me into female housing when I’m still legally a male, that could open up problems for DePaul and for myself.”

This bad experience with the housing department happened around the same time news broke of the Trump administration’s effort to reclassify gender as the sex one is assigned at birth. For a couple of weeks, these events caused Jennifer gender dysphoria, a form of intense distress in the conflict between her gender identity and the way others saw her. Not only was the federal government trying to erase her identity, she said, but she felt her university was too.

A 2017 study found the number of transgender people in the United States is increasing. It estimated the number of transgender people at almost a million, or about one in every 250 Americans, with the data potentially being more representative of the young adult population. Another survey from 2017 estimates that people between ages 18 and 24 comprise 13 percent of the transgender population in the U.S., and that there are roughly 150,000 transgender youth aged 13 to 17 in the country.

With the increased visibility of adolescent and college-aged transgender Americans, universities find themselves at a pivotal moment with the opportunity to revise university policies to be more inclusive and welcoming of transgender and LGBTQA students on campus. In the Chicago area, some campuses — including Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago — have adopted gender-inclusive housing options that take the forms of double- or single-occupancy dorm rooms.

As many universities have housing requirements that mandate students live on campus for at least their first year, housing policies without provisions expressly including transgender students have left many of these students uncertain about seeking accommodations in residence halls and uncomfortable with the roommate assignment process.

In Jennifer’s case, she was unaware that DePaul’s academic portal communicated with the university’s housing portal with regard to gender.

In her experience at DePaul, housing assignments have been based on a student’s legal sex, as disclosed to the university in identification documents provided during student enrollment. Jennifer said first-year students are required to live on campus, but other students have the option to move off campus. She has always lived either by herself or with roommates who were assigned male at birth.

“I think the issue is a conflation of the terms, where they’re not separating the idea of gender and sex,” Jennifer said. “They say ‘gender,’ but they really mean whatever your legal sex is. Which is common.”

When asked about university housing policies accommodating transgender students, Carol Hughes, the executive director of news and integrated content at DePaul University’s Office of Public Relations and Communications, referred to a statement on the housing department’s website under “Identity and Special Considerations.”

The statement reads that the Department of Housing and Student Centers “will consistently recognize and respect the gender identity that students self-identify to DePaul, in good-faith.” It provides that students can self-identify if they want “special housing considerations regarding their gender identity” and won’t be expected to provide “more information than that which is required of other students” in order to do so.

The statement does not elaborate on what “special housing considerations” entails.

At Northwestern University, a private university in Evanston, students have the option to live in Gender Open Housing, which according to Northwestern’s Residential Services is intended to “take into consideration varying identities and preferences, and to ensure a safe and comfortable environment for all students.”

Gender Open Housing “allow[s] any two friends to live together, regardless of sex, gender, and gender identity” and is based upon a student’s preferred gender identity or expression as indicated by the student on their housing application. Residential Services states that unless students self-select to live in Gender Open Housing, students will be placed to room with a student of the same gender identification.

Three dorms on Northwestern’s campus were designated as having gender-open housing options for the 2018-2019 school year. Students at Northwestern are required to live on campus for their first two years, a new policy that took effect this year for the class of 2021.

Though Gender Open Housing is intended to accommodate students of all gender identities on campus, some students have reported issues with their housing assignments through the program.

Ezra Okeson, a sophomore and a transgender man, said he applied for Gender Open Housing as an incoming first-year student after he saw a statement that trans students could room with people of their gender identity. When he started filling out the housing form, he said he found his gender was locked into the system as female, his assigned sex at birth, and he couldn’t change it.

“There was no other way to indicate that my gender identity was different,” he said. “They took that information from the Common App, [but] the Common App itself asks for both my assigned sex and my gender, and [the housing form] took my sex.”

Okeson, who was also featured in a video by the Daily Northwestern about on campus housing for transgender students, got in touch with someone in the housing department, pointing out that he felt the housing policy didn’t accommodate transgender students, and he said he was told that housing would accommodate his request to room with a male-identifying student.

“Everything was fine and dandy until I got my housing assignment,” he said. “I found that I was in a ‘dingle.’ They assigned me, straight off the bat, to a ‘dingle’ — a double single.”

He had been assigned to a double room in Lincoln, a suite-style dorm, by himself — without roommates or suitemates. He and his mother called the housing department and learned that his assigned room was designated as a Gender Open room but the school hadn’t advertised it as a Gender Open Housing option, so nobody applied to live there.

“Only then did they tell me they couldn’t — by whatever university policy — they couldn’t assign me to the room of [someone with] a different legal sex,” he said, despite the Gender Open Housing policy.

All of this happened before Okeson started school. Before he moved in, he was moved around to several different rooms and ended up living in a single in a women’s suite. He had asked to live in a suite with other male students.

“It really sucked coming in very disappointed by what the administration said they were going to do and what they did,” he said. “I have noticed that the university only allows gender open housing in places where you will not be in a room with somebody else, like you cannot have a roommate of a different legal sex.”

Okeson said Gender Open Housing is only available in dorms that have single rooms. This year, he decided to live in a single room, as he said he’s come to appreciate living alone. Next year he plans to live off campus.

“Their idea of Gender Open Housing, I feel like, is very superficial … because gender-nonconforming students, by their rules, cannot have a roommate, which really sucks if you wanted a roommate, like I did,” he said. “[As an] incoming freshman, I didn’t know anybody,” he said.

“If you have a suitemate, they can be of other genders, but your room is just one legal sex,” he continued. “Personally, I think the way they should do it is just get rid of that whole Gender Open Housing thing and just have options on the housing form that say like, ‘What’s your legal sex? What’s your identified gender?’ And, ‘Are you comfortable with rooming with somebody of another gender?’”

Mark D’Arienzo, the senior associate director of Residential Services at Northwestern, was unable to schedule an interview before deadline given other departmental commitments.

Not everyone at Northwestern takes advantage of Gender Open Housing. Chase Stokes, a sophomore and a transgender man, said he looked into Gender Open Housing as a first-year student, but he couldn’t find a detailed explanation of it and said it didn’t seem right for him. He joined a Facebook page for female students looking for roommates within the class of 2021, identifying himself as a transgender man, and ended up finding and living with a female student.

This year, he’s living in a fraternity house with a male roommate. Living in university-affiliated Greek houses fulfills the sophomore on-campus living requirement, but he said his decision to live outside a residence hall isn’t related to housing concerns.

“I didn’t actually face a whole lot of issues with housing,” Stokes said. “My roommate and I got along very well and nobody really thought twice about us living together.”

Regardless, Stokes said he would like to see changes in the way Northwestern approaches Gender Open Housing, especially because single rooms are often more expensive for students and place a financial burden on those who choose them. He said he would also like to see less “othering” of the Gender Open Housing option and see more students taking advantage of the option, not just transgender students.

“I think a lot of people if they were asked, ‘Would you care about living next to someone of a different gender or with someone of a different gender?’ I think the majority of students — and maybe this is just me projecting — but I think a majority of students wouldn’t really care all that much,” he said.

At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Campus Housing offers gender inclusive housing, in which certain units in three residence halls allow students of different genders to live in the same unit. The website emphasizes that “The selection of these units are made by the student; no student will be assigned to this living environment without their expressed consent to live with a specific person of any gender.” Students are not required to live on campus at all, since many students commute to campus.

Susan Teggatz, director of Campus Housing, reached for comment and clarification of UIC’s housing policies, was unable to schedule an interview for deadline.

Davíd, a first-year student at UIC and a transgender man, lives on campus. He requested his last name be kept private.

He said housing at UIC is gender-based, and that there was no question about sex on the housing application. One of the dorms, Courtyard, has gender-neutral floors, he said. According to Campus Housing’s website, other buildings on campus also have single- and multiple-occupancy gender inclusive housing options available.

When Davíd applied for housing, he indicated his gender was male on the housing application, but emailed Campus Housing to clarify that he was transgender. He said Campus Housing asked if he had a gender preference for roommates, and Davíd replied that he wanted to live with male students. Campus Housing asked if he identified as a male, and Davíd replied yes.

He was assigned to apartment-style housing with two male students, and each person has their own room. His roommates don’t know that Davíd is transgender, and he doesn’t plan on telling them.

“When my roommates first saw me, they saw my legal name, my birth name, and they were like, ‘Oh, dude, we thought you were a girl,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘No, my dad just named me that.’”

Davíd said his biggest complaint about housing is the distance he lives from campus — it would take him about 30 minutes to walk to school from his dorm.

He said he couldn’t think of anything campus housing needs to change to accommodate transgender students.

“My school is actually really diverse and welcome to trans people,” he said.

Photo at top: Jennifer, a transgender woman, attends DePaul University. Though she enjoys her major, she wishes the university were more accommodating of transgender students, especially in regard to on campus housing options and gender-neutral restrooms. Jennifer is from Michigan, and she said the community back home is less accepting of LGBTQA people than the Chicago community.(Katie Rice/MEDILL).(Katie Rice/MEDILL)