For many prospective Elis, the toughest question on a college application is the personal essay or the short-answer statement.
But for Ian R. from New York City, the hardest question is not a question at all — just two empty boxes marked male and female.
“Going into the college process, what I really hate is filling in the gender boxes on applications,” he said.
That’s because Ian R. is a queer, transgendered high-school senior applying to Yale, and while he identifies primarily as male, he is physically female. Academics are a high priority for Ian when choosing a college, but as is the case with many transgender applicants, other social factors weigh heavily on his mind.
For Ian, whose last name is being withheld to protect his privacy as a college applicant, good news may be on the way: The University in April announced the formation of an ad hoc committee to consider creating a system of gender-neutral housing at Yale.
Administrators say they remain committed to meeting the needs of their students and have cited Yale’s unusual system of residential colleges as a complicating factor in moving ahead with such a move. But members of Yale’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, pointing to what they say is a disturbingly low number of openly transgender students on campus, are pushing the University to do more to make Yale feel welcoming to transgender students. Yale is currently one of only two Ivy League schools not to offer its undergraduates gender-neutral housing, and unless that changes, LGBT community members say, the University will get stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle that will make it difficult attract transgender students.
“It’s not mysterious what trans people want,” said Scott Larson DIV ’09, who is transgender and queer. “They want safety, they want accommodations, and they want to be part of a community that wants them to be there.”
While Yale currently has no formal policy regarding transgender students, Dean of Administrative Affairs John Meeske said the University seeks to accommodate its students whenever possible.
“Transgender students would be treated like any other students with needs who come forward,” he said. “Even though we don’t have a specific procedure, we will be flexible and do whatever we think is best for that individual.”
But for some students, that is not enough. “Transgender students aren’t validated at Yale,” said Benjamin Gonzalez ’09, the coordinator of the LGBT Co-op, “They aren’t thought of; they aren’t remembered.”
Added Gonzalez: “Their community, their culture [and] their identity aren’t take care of.”
JeriMarie Liesegang, director of the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coaltion, said Yale’s current housing policy does a major disservice to transgender students.
“You come marching into this school, and you get put into a box — male and female,” she said. “What does that have to do with you learning?”
But making transgender housing work within the confines of the existing residential-college system presents unique complications that other universities do not need to address, according to Meeske and Maria Trumpler, special assistant to the deans for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer issues. For example, while several universities dedicate a single floor in a given dormitory to gender-neutral housing, Trumpler said Yale would have to offer some form of gender-neutral housing in every residential college if such a policy were approved — a proposal that could be cumbersome.
While Yale students began lobbying for gender-neutral housing in 2003, multiple proposals from both individual students and organizations such as the Yale College Council have either been rejected or tabled by the administration over the past five years.
The ad hoc committee is not authorized to set any new policies, but it has been tasked with submitting a series of recommendations to University officials and the Council of Masters by this coming spring. Given the small proportion of Yale College’s population that is transgender, the committee’s focus is on the needs of all Yale College students, said Meeske, the chair of the committee.
The first Ivy League school to approve gender-neutral housing was Brown University in 2003, followed by the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. Princeton is the only other Ivy that has not yet approved gender-neutral housing.
But even at schools with gender-neutral housing, a minute fraction of incoming applicants are transgender. For example, at Wesleyan University, which has offered gender-neutral housing since 2002, each year only about five of the college’s roughly 700 incoming freshman decline to declare their sex on housing forms, said Fran Koerting, Wesleyan’s director of residential life.
Within Yale College, the transgender population is “a really small community,” Trmpler said, which may cause some transgender applicants to look elsewhere.
“For transgender students, [being transgender] is a really big part of their identity,” she said in an interview in April. “If, for a student, transitioning is something they really want to focus on, if they’re looking for a supportive community, Yale might not appear that.”
Ian agreed. For him, having — or not having — gender-neutral housing would be a defining feature of campus life.
“Emerging from a woman’s dorm every day doesn’t feel like I’m fully recognized, because the message that it sends … is that I am a girl,” he said. “What I do to show otherwise is negated.”
While Yale lacks openly transgender undergraduate students and gender-neutral housing, some applicants still find the school appealing because of its active queer population and renowned Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies program. In addition, the Co-op hosts an annual “Trans Week” meant to draw attention to issues important to transgender students.
Ian, for his part, said he remains interested in Yale, noting that the school’s strong academic fit – especially its renowned WG&SS program — acts as a trump card for him. He said simply having a community that is welcoming to transgender students is enough reason to consider a school like Yale.
“I’m going to — to a certain extent — suck it up,” he said. “Gender-neutral housing is a bonus, but in the end, I’m going to go where I think I can study the best.”
Yet many Elis active in the LGBTQ community said transgender students like Ian should not have to make that kind of compromise. Yale, they say, should be more welcoming to transgender students and potential transgender applicants.
“Part of what you’re talking about is not just a shift in policy, but also a shift in environment so Yale is a place that’s friendly,” Larson said. According to Liesegang, through its “gender-segregated” housing, Yale is “amplifying oppression” by not providing a comfortable living environment for all students.
Administrators have said they are worried that some heterosexual students might abuse a gender-neutral housing system to room with their boyfriends or girlfriends.
Despite such reservations, three administrators interviewed indicated they believe that gender-neutral housing has merit.
“[Gender-neutral housing] provides people with an opportunity to live as comfortably as they can,” Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said in an interview with the News last semester.
But for Bryce Taylor ’11, gender-neutral housing may carry an unintended consequence: self-segregation.
“People who feel oppressed in our society, be they homosexual, bisexual or transgender, usually tell people that they want to be accepted as anyone else would be accepted,” he said. “If they segregate themselves in separate housing, it seems to violate the very desire that they have been fighting for.”