LGBT students at Iowa consider sex-studies floor

Lily Leung

University of Iowa senior Cianan Russel is seeking support from school administrators and students to create a sexual-studies-themed floor in his dorm that also serves as a “safe space” area for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students — an idea that Northwestern’s Rainbow Alliance considered and rejected in Winter Quarter.

Russell, a transgender student at Iowa, said the gender-blind area is aimed to increase awareness of LGBT issues and to “create dialogue that has yet to be initiated on (the) campus.” Russell, a chemistry major and undergraduate teaching assistant, is conducting online surveys of students and alumni asking about their experiences in the dorm to gauge interest for his plan.

“People get harassed in bathrooms because they look different,” Russell said. “Taking a shower or going to the bathroom were really difficult things to do, but that was my home. I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

Kate Rigot, campus outreach co-chairwoman for Rainbow Alliance, said NU’s version of Russel’s plan would have been modeled after the Healthy Living Unit in the Foster-Walker Complex. According to the Healthy Living Unit’s Web site, the floor has about 25 students who choose to live in a substance-free residence.

“We tried to do it this year, but we ran into logistical problems, so we gave up on it,” said Rigot, a Weinberg senior. “We also didn’t see a real need for it and it ended up being a lot of work.”

Rigot said Rainbow Alliance had to consider a number of factors, including parental consent, number of interested students and most importantly, administrative support.

“I think that even without a LGBT-exclusive dorm, students won’t feel alienated,” Rigot said, “even if they’re the only gay members in their dorm.”

Sarah Wolff, the listserv manager for Rainbow Alliance and former activism chairwoman, said the group is seeking other ways to offer resources to the LGBT community. Group members recently discussed ideas to help next year’s incoming freshmen find gay-friendly dorms on campus on their Web site (groups.northwestern.edu/rainbow).

Rigot said the group decided that ranking one dorm higher than another would lead to certain dorms being labeled “the gay dorm.” Instead they plan to list on their Web site students’ experiences in different dorms and will rank dorms by the number of “safe space” stickers on their doors.

“When I was a freshman, I just chose where I lived based on location,” Wolff, a Music senior, said. “But I was unsure if I was going to run into a homophobic roommate, which is a concern for many in the LGBT community.”

Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan, director of programs for the Women’s Center and co-chairwoman of the LGBT Support Network at Northwestern, said she sees the benefits of creating such a floor at NU but also sees the limitations it might create.

“It may be beneficial for students that feel unsafe and uncomfortable and provide them with a place free of some of the unfortunate realities of being LGBT in our society,” Lindsay Ryan said.

She also said it is important for members of the LGBT community to not isolate themselves.

“It is important for LGBT individuals to learn to integrate their identity into their place in the world,” Lindsay-Ryan said. “The reality is most LGBT folks will live and work in communities with heterosexuals once leaving the university, and providing them a false sense of security may not help them in the long run.”

Correction: Statement misattributed (Nov. 17, 2003)

Friday’s article about living spaces designated for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students misattributed a statement. Kate Rigot of the Rainbow Alliance said her group has refrained from ranking dorms in order of gay-friendliness to keep certain residence halls from being known as the “gay dorm.”

THE DAILY regrets the error.