Gender Identity: Housing Edition

Hundreds of liberal arts colleges around the country provide gender-neutral housing for students who don’t identify with traditional gender identities. Hendrix does, as well; however, the degree to which gender-neutral housing is a priority for the school has been debated.

“There are very limited options, particularly for underclassmen, in terms of gender-neutral housing,” sophomore Lex Ellenthal, co-founder of Transgender Representation, Advocacy, Networking and Support at Hendrix (TRANS@HDX) said. “I think some people really prefer gendered housing, and I would not begrudge anyone that, but I do think we should have further options. If just one of the girls’ dorms was made to be a gender-inclusive or gender-neutral dorm, I think that would make a huge difference.”

Ellenthal defines themself as genderflux, a term which they say accurately captures their gender fluctuations on a day-to-day basis. Living in Raney Hall last year came with many challenges, particularly because everyone in the dorm was assumed to be female. However, Ellenthal tried to make changes that would help the dorm become more inclusive.

“It was a big deal last year when we got the bathroom signs switched from ‘Ladies Only’ or ‘Girls Only’ to ‘Residents Only’ to make it more inclusive,” Ellenthal said.

On the other side of campus, sophomore Jordan Borst was living in Martin Hall. Identifying as non-binary, they noted the struggle of being defined by a residence hall.

“Even though I’ve lived with roommates who are really chill, this idea of being a ‘Martin Man’ has always been impossible because I don’t identify as a man,” Borst said.

As much as Hendrix claims to be liberal and forward-thinking, it’s no secret that gender expectations still define huge parts of student life. For Borst, the experience of living in Martin is intriguing, even though it comes with difficulties.

“It’s interesting to observe, because you can see interesting parts of masculinity that aren’t necessarily toxic, but that can also be toxic at times,” Borst said.

Last October, Hendrix formally announced plans to build the Miller Creative Quad where Hulen Hall now stands. The building will be used for many purposes, including new co-ed living spaces. John Omolo, the director of Residence Life, said that the plan is to have some single rooms and some suite-style living spaces in the quad, with about 100 beds in total.

Ellenthal acknowledged that Hendrix is trying to make strides, even if the problem is not completely fixed.

“I think Hendrix is taking a lot of steps to become more inclusive, and everyone that I’ve worked with in the faculty and staff has been really understanding and really accommodating,” Ellenthal said. “Dean Wiltgen was very open to us starting TRANS@HDX…and Residence Life, despite the fact that it was a little chaotic getting me assigned to a room, did make an effort to make me feel comfortable.”

Omolo remembers when gender-neutral housing at Hendrix first began in 2007, when a couple of students came to his office and said they needed a place for gender-neutral living. Since that time, gender-neutral housing has become an official option for anyone seeking more flexible, inclusive living options. Students must go through an application process, and after they are selected, they are placed in either Huntington or Market Square South. Upperclassmen typically live in Huntington, while underclassmen live in Market Square South.

Gender-neutral housing is open to anyone with a particular living situation. For instance, siblings who may want to live together or friends who can’t normally live together because of gender restrictions are able to, thanks to gender-neutral housing options.

“When people live where they want to live, they perform better, they’re happier and they just enjoy school more because there are no limitations,” Omolo said.

Yet gender-neutral housing comes with some concerns from parents, students and the administration. Borst understands these concerns.

“From a business perspective, I see why Hendrix would keep [gendered housing] in place, because it attracts more people and makes people feel safer, and I’m not going to mock anyone for feeling unsafe when they’re surrounded by someone of a different gender, because those attacks do happen,” Borst said.

Yet they noted that misconceptions still define ideas of gender-neutral housing.

“[Attacks] can also happen in those single-gender spaces,” Borst said. “In Martin, sexual assaults can happen between a man and a man. In Raney, a sexual assault could happen between a woman and a woman.”

In other words, Hendrix’s housing needs to find a new perspective. Yet everyone can agree that the college supports improving access to gender-neutral housing.

“We are making strides, but we’re just not there yet, and in the meantime it’s really uncomfortable,” Ellenthal said. “I think there are a lot of temporary solutions that could be put in place very easily that we’re really not considering. We’re really thinking in the long-term, like putting in this new dorm that won’t be ready for a couple of years.”

The solution to the issue is not yet clear, and many ideas are floating around as possible options. Ellenthal believes that there are temporary solutions that can be enacted right now.

“We have a relatively large non-binary population on campus, which I know from running TRANS@HDX, but it’s not like we would take up a whole dorm,” they said. “If we were just given a floor in Raney, Veasey or Galloway, you could put anyone there, regardless of designated sex.”

Borst believes that Hendrix needs to make a huge leap forward with gender-neutral housing, although they admitted that the school might not be ready for it just yet.

“We need to create specifically co-ed spaces, more like Couch, or eliminate it all together and maybe make Hendrix one day an entirely co-ed campus,” Borst said.

Omolo said it best when he noted that the steps Hendrix has taken are not yet complete.

“We open the door, but we don’t open it wide, ” Omolo said. “It’s  just  partially  open.”

Photo Credit Aditya Katke

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