Text adapted from the Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity (URGE) website (04.30.2014).
The Story of Gender-Inclusive Housing at Ohio State
Starting fall of 2014, students attending Ohio State University’s main campus will have the option of living in gender inclusive housing – a living situation that welcomes all genders. After over a year of research, meetings and emails, gender inclusive housing will be a reality on OSU’s main campus in Columbus.
The effort to bring gender inclusive housing (GIH) to Ohio State was spearheaded by student activists Katie Matuska, Chase Ledin and Ben Weekes. There were others (students and a faculty member) involved too whom I did not speak with. M. Gulick (a past graduate student), Chantel Lowe and Matthew Duncan and faculty member Dr. Moddelmog and her research assistant Madison all contributed to making gender inclusive housing a reality.
Bringing gender inclusive housing to campus has not been easy. I was able to interview Katie, Chase and Ben along with Ari Grubaugh, another student activist, about the process of getting university administrators to agree to such an undertaking. But first, a little about the activists.
Ben, Katie and Chase are all graduating seniors. Katie will be receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Political Science. Next year, she will be attending graduate school at the University of Vermont to study Higher Education and Student Affairs Administration, where she says she would like to focus on how institutions of higher education can de-corporatize and overall become more accessible places to enroll in, as well as be accessible in every capacity once students arrive on campus. Chase is an honors English and Sexuality Studies double major with minors in Creative Writing and Theatre. Ben is a biomedical engineering major and Ari is a third year student majoring in Sexuality Studies.
How It All Started
It was at MBLGTACC ’13 (Midwestern Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Ally College Conference) that Katie got the idea to have gender inclusive housing at Ohio State. She learned about gender inclusive housing at other universities and that inspired her.
“At the conference, I learned about gender inclusive housing initiatives other universities were working on, and thought that there wasn’t any reason that Ohio State couldn’t have Gender Inclusive Housing,” said Katie. “On the bus ride back to campus, I organized a group of students that would ultimately meet with student organizations, conduct research, coordinate with academic departments, meet with administrators, and write numerous proposals.”
This student group became the Gender Inclusive Housing Taskforce.
The Campaign for Gender-Inclusive Housing
The process of getting gender inclusive housing on campus was described by the taskforce members as “exhilarating” and “challenging.” According to Katie, it was especially challenging working with staff and administrators who are not well trained in queer theory and problems with the gender binary. “Some administrators had not heard the word transgender before. It was hard to both advocate for a resource while educating.”
But advocate they did. As head activist, Katie maintained contact with university administrators. Ben interviewed administrators at other institutions, Gulick began the research and provided the team with substantial university contacts before leaving OSU. Ari attended meetings with the GIH project to “give them a trans perspective because the three main people are cis identified.” Dr. Moddelmog and her research assistant Madison “provided crucial theoretical and research help on the foundations and creation of inclusive housing policies, not only for varying gender expressions, but also advocating for the expansion of inclusive identity-politics in university housing.” Chase, as the lead researcher and proposal writer, has created a database that includes extensive demographics about universities that currently have—or are in the process of implementing—gender-inclusive housing. He says he’s been charged with drafting the larger document that will soon be presented to administration to suggest the creation of a living-learning community in 2015.
With all of this data, the students went into meetings with university administrators well prepared. They came ready with research. But the reception from university administrators was not exactly welcoming. Wanting to not only change university policy but also be a part of the decision making process was a huge undertaking for the taskforce. Katie described some of the learning processes of the team:
“As students we are usually kept in the dark on issues of university policy change and did not know how to navigate that system initially. In many ways we still do not. Additionally, we are asking administrators to work in a very different way than they are used to. Not that tradition is an excuse for lack of transparency, but I do think that in some cases, the communication piece of the process, the piece in which university administrators failed to keep us clearly informed on how policy making works at Ohio State and how exactly they made decisions about GIH, could have been because OSU is not used to having students be part of decision making processes.”
And not having students be a part of that process is how the administrators came up with gender inclusive housing that failed to meet the original vision of the student actvists.
The original vision for gender inclusive housing included a living and learning community that is open to students of all grade levels. Students living in this community would agree to take classes on intersectionality. The community would be a traditional dorm style, on campus and with RAs.
Instead what the university proposed as gender inclusive housing was an apartment style housing that is, in the words of Ari “pretty far from what the GIH project envisioned it to be.” The proposed gender inclusive housing is literally far from what was originally envisioned. It is an apartment style housing that is located in a building off campus. The building is sandwiched between shops like Five Guys and Aveda Hair Salon. It’s certainly not grouped with the other housing that people get to see when they tour Ohio State. The university’s version of gender inclusive housing is not open to incoming freshmen. Housing administrators claim they want to keep the average age of the residents of the apartment building at 23.
Aside from not opening up gender inclusive housing to incoming freshmen, the university has done little to advertise the gender inclusive housing. Only students who are connected with the Multicultural center or who know someone involved with the taskforce know gender inclusive housing even exists.
At a recent tour of the proposed gender inclusive housing, students had many questions, among them why the proposed housing deviated so much from what the taskforce had envisioned. The university administrator present that day didn’t have answers for the students’ questions. He did say that gender inclusive housing is a “pilot program.” Which of course brings up questions about what happens when the “pilot program” is not successful.
Right now, returning students who want to, can request to live in gender inclusive housing.
Even though what is available now is not exactly what the task force envisioned, they are dedicated to working with the university to make their vision a reality. Ari, who will be returning to campus this fall, says they is looking forward to the next steps. “I envision the project continuing, hopefully more people joining in too. I am focusing on next year, make sure that what they did give us is as good as possible. The next step is making sure that what does happen, happens successfully.”
Katie, Ben and Chase will be graduating in May. All three recognize the current model of GIH as a first step that can be improved upon.
“In terms of the OSU’s plans for GIH for next year, I actually would be okay with it as a first step if OSU actively advertised it, not just by putting a small write-up about it on the housing website, and saw it as a first step towards a bigger project, more inclusive project,” Katie said. “Ultimately, next year GIH will not meet everyone’s needs in the Gateway apartments. It will be expensive, slightly off-campus, and away from all learning communities. However, I do understand that projects need to begin somewhere. I would just like to see it be a beginning that is fully supported and advertised by the university.”
This is just the beginning but according to Katie, the plan is not just limited to gender inclusive housing. “When people ask me what I hope to see for the future in terms of GIH expansion, my response is that it is so much bigger than GIH. Because to me, the implementation of GIH is about a safer, more accessible, and more equitable education.”
Why is it important that Ohio State is fully committed to gender inclusive housing? Katie has an answer. “If Ohio State University is going to call itself an institution that promotes and supports diversity and inclusion, they MUST provide Gender Inclusive Housing, as well as openly promote and support it.”