In the fall of 2003, the University inaugurated a gender-blind hall for incoming freshmen in Nicolson 6, the first of its kind at Wesleyan and, by all accounts, the country.
The hall’s institution was the result of extensive efforts by the school’s Queer Task Force and other queer, trans*, and gender-nonconforming activists and allies. It came only a year after the revision of the University’s non-discrimination policy to include gender identity and gender expression.
And yet, that first year was an experiment, and not an entirely successful one.
According to the Wesleyan University Trans/Gender Group, some students who had requested to be placed on the hall were not, and most of the students who were placed on the hall had not requested it as a housing option. Only one trans-identifying person ended up living on the hall, and the room in which that student lived was the only mixed-gender room on the hall.
Due to these and other problems with the hall’s organization, like the fact that it separated transgender and queer students from the rest of the University community, it was discontinued for the next academic year.
Wesleyan is often touted as one of the most liberal schools in the country, regularly finding a place in “Top 10 Something or Other” lists to this end, as well as ill-informed articles about “the naked dorm.”
Recently, local media were drawn to campus yet again. Eyewitness News 3, WFSB aired a report and posted an article about the recent DIY degendering of campus bathrooms. The reports noted the student action as a push for a “literal free-for-all,” and described the movement for gender-neutral bathrooms on campus as having gone “rogue.” Despite the manifestos posted on many bathroom doors around campus under the authorship of “Pissed Off Trans* People,” Eyewitness News reported that the campus was unaware of the signs’ authors.
Trans* and queer rights are considered to be at the heart of degendering bathrooms and other spaces on campus. The general degendering project has, in effect, been present since the University started admitting women in 1970.
Head of Special Collections and University Archivist Suzy Taraba remembers that, during her time as a student in the early 1970s, dorms alternated gender by floor. When students spent the night in a partner’s room—not an irregular occurrence in the 1970s, Taraba pointed out—the bathrooms would become co-ed or gender-neutral by default.
“I think there’s been a long history of kind of informal co-ed bathrooms,” Taraba said. “It’s only in the last few years, partly related to the expanded number of openly transgender students at Wesleyan, and everywhere, that there’s been an expanded interest in degendering public bathrooms, outside of dormitories.”
The Office of Residential Life (ResLife) began offering co-ed rooms to students in 1995, though never to freshmen. However, these decisions were not the result of concern for transgender rights. Rooms designated as co-ed, after all, fail to acknowledge students who do not identify as either male of female.
The movement to degender spaces on campus to make them safe and comfortable for trans* and queer people has been gaining ground since 2001. That year, the Queer Task Force, a subset of the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA), ensured guaranteed singles to all transgender students, though by its very nature this accommodation was only applicable to students willing to identify as transgender to the University. In 2001, single rooms also incurred an added $300 cost to housing fees, making the option potentially out of reach for some students.
The next academic year brought the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the school’s non-discrimination policy and the decision to institute the gender-blind hall. When the hall, during its first year out, was deemed an ineffective solution, however, the Queer Task Force, the Undergraduate Residential Life Committee, and ResLife created a proposal to allow all freshmen students to request a gender-neutral room in any dorm for the 2004-2005 academic year. Students who chose this option were to be paired with another gender-neutral-requesting student or placed in a single room.
While the new proposal was being crafted and considered, newspapers across the country picked up on the story of the gender-blind hall. Perhaps most significantly, The New York Times published a long story in its Style section in March of 2004 about students at Wesleyan, Brown University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Smith College who had recently made headway in their struggle for greater transgender rights on campus.
“[These students are] at the cutting edge of a new kind of campus activism,” reads the article. “[They are] transgender students and their allies who are convincing colleges to meet needs that include private bathrooms and showers, specialized housing and sports teams on which students who don’t identify themselves as either male or female can play.”
Zach Strassburger ’06 and Paige Kruza ’07 were featured extensively in the article. Strassburger was a sophomore who had played a key role in instituting the gender-blind freshman hall, and Kruza was the one openly transgendered person living on the hall.
Strassburger’s experience speaks to the difficulty that transgender students faced in choosing housing at the time. Hir freshman year, Strassburger had wanted a roommate, but because ze was biologically female, would have been placed with a female student. Ze therefore opted for a single instead, and told the Times and other news organizations that ze believed every student should have the opportunity to live with a roommate. That’s why ze pushed for a gender-blind hall.
In an Argus article following the one published by the Times, Strassburger was quoted as registering hir disappointment in the entirely positive tone of the piece, saying that while it was generally good, ze wished more of the nuances of the situation had been covered.
“The uniformly positive statements expressed in the article do not fully reflect my feelings about the administration silencing student voices,” Strassburger said at the time.
By the beginning of the next academic year, the fall of 2004, activists would have more to be concerned about.
That summer, about 80 students requested a gender-neutral housing assignment under the Universal Gender Neutral Housing Policy meant to replace the gender-blind hall. Under what was said to be a randomized system, only 16 of these students were placed with a person of a different biological sex. When ResLife called the students, 12 of the original 16, upon discovering that gender-neutral did not just mean living on the same hall with all genders, decided to switch. Two pairs chose to stay in their original assignment.
However, in August, then-University President Douglas Bennet and then-Interim Dean of the College Peter Patton reportedly pushed for the splitting of these pairs. According to the Trans/Gender Group’s website, this was because Patton’s moral values would not let him condone the pairing of a biological male and biological female. The Argus reported that, until August, Patton had not realized that the gender-neutral policy meant that two students of the opposite biological sex could be paired together.
“The historical rationale for same-sex roommate assignments is based upon antiquated heterosexist assumptions and obsolete concerns which no longer factor into University Housing Policy,” the resolution reads.
Within the month, the WSA conducted a student-wide poll about the policy, which had an unusually high response rate. Over 1,000 students responded to the poll; 92 percent of them were in favor of a gender-neutral housing option.
Over the next two years, student activists lobbied the administration to reinstate a gender-neutral housing policy. It was not until the fall of 2006 that a freshman class matriculated under the option to live with a roommate not of their biological sex.
Though degendering living spaces was the primary article of contention between administrators and student activists, degendering common spaces has been of key import for trans* and queer students since at least the early 2000s.
According to Strassburger, students put up a sort of public art project to degender bathrooms in 2002. Activists put up pictures, writing, and art in two bathrooms on the ground floor of Allbritton, with some level of permission by the University. The degendered bathrooms lasted for about one week.
“We wanted it to be in a place where people would see it,” Strassburger told The Argus this week. “But [we] didn’t necessarily want to take over the campus. It both provided a space for people who didn’t have other bathrooms to use and provided information, conversation, and education.”
In 2006, the Trans/Gender Group along with the Queer Task Force formed a group called Survey of Wesleyan Access to Bathrooms (SWAB). SWAB was created to tackle the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms on campus.
“Using a checklist employed at other universities and public spaces that they customized for Wesleyan, SWAB intends to use the data collected by over 80 volunteers to provide specific recommendations for physical plant, and to publish the locations of gender-neutral and wheelchair accessible bathrooms online,” reads an Argus article published that year.
It appears that the only specifically gender-neutral bathroom not in a dorm on campus at that time was in the Exley Science Center.
Since 2006, some other bathrooms on campus have been degendered. This is consistent with the University’s history (dormitories became co-ed and then degendered) of having gender-neutral bathrooms in dorms instituted by vote. (There have been some reports, however, that recent years have seen more students voting in favor of their dorms having gendered restrooms.) Still, the University administration, as well as faculty, staff, and some students, have remained apprehensive about the DIY degendering.
Strassburger, who is now an attorney representing youth in the foster care system, said that, while ze acknowledged that ripping down signs is perhaps not the best way to convert people to one’s cause, ze thinks it’s still a good way to start conversation on campus.
“I’m glad that Wesleyan students are still activists,” ze said. “And while I wish that this was an issue that could be solved so that students could move on to other issues, I’m glad that Wes is still weird.”
Trans* and queer activism at the University, while certainly moving in ever more progressive directions, is nothing new. Moxie Trissel ’07, in a September 2004 Argus article, was quoted on Wesleyan students’ tendency to push for matters of activism and justice.
“Wesleyan students have a way of taking things into their own hands, in terms of housing or otherwise,” she said. “Folks will end up living where they feel comfortable one way or another.”
Nov. 1, 2013: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Strassburger and Trissel wrote the Argus articles in which they were quoted.