In Focus: A program ‘doomed to fail’

Olivia Bobrowsky

Dan Q. Tham lives with a girl in 1835 Hinman and has never had sex with her.

Tham and Annie Ormson are just close friends – nothing special – but their relationship is historically significant. The Medill and Weinberg sophomores are Northwestern’s first co-ed, on-campus roommates in the Gender Open Housing pilot program.

It took a smattering of NU students years of proposals, petitions and negotiations, and this fall the program is finally here.

The problem? Tham and Ormson are the sole co-ed, on-campus roommates in the whole project.

In total, there are six students living in two doubles and two singles in that 1835 Hinman wing, which was reserved for gender-neutral housing. One of the doubles hosts two males. A man lives in one single, and a woman lives in the other. Eight rooms are unoccupied.

The story of what happened since last spring, when Undergraduate Housing set aside enough gender-neutral rooms for 17 students, is a complicated one: It involves a slew of accusations, some miscommunication and one deportation. And it’s left those students who fought so hard for the program’s implementation worried about its future.

‘A piss-poor job’

Advocates lauded the initiative as a safe haven for LGBT students, a practical measure for the general student body and simply a necessary step for a progressive campus – at least 53 other schools nationwide boast similar programs.

“It’s about serving real people,” said Weinberg senior Caroline Perry, the president of Northwestern’s Gender Protection Initiative.

Those “real people” may opt in for a variety of reasons, including discomfort with living with a roommate of the same sex.

Or just because they want to. Tham, who is a Daily staffer, applied just because he wanted to live with a friend who happened to be a girl. Even though he is openly gay, he said he doesn’t have a problem with living with a male roommate.

“My reasons for joining gender neutral housing weren’t necessarily that I felt uncomfortable around guys,” Tham said. “I love guys – not only sexually but also as friends, you know.”

In fact, he almost rescinded his application last spring because he thought he might not truly deserve a potentially fought-after spot. He figured there might be students who needed the security of gender-neutral housing more than he did.

But Tham decided to go ahead and sign up anyway, imagining a “gay mecca” in his future. Instead, he found a quiet hallway with a few friendly faces – nothing to complain about, he said, but he was left wondering what went wrong.

Doris Dirks, the coordinator of the LGBT Resource Center, said she has an answer:

“The administration did a piss-poor job.”

One angry Canadian

Dirks spends 20 hours a week running the resource center. When LGBT-related issues arise, they inevitably get pushed onto her plate – no matter who else the matter affects, she said. So after Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis approved the Gender Open Housing program in early April, Dirks was charged with collecting the names of interested students.

“She was the person who was most in-the-know in terms of who might be interested in this,” Associate Director of University Housing Mark D’Arienzo said.

Still, Dirks wasn’t happy. She advises 15 student organizations and works with the Center for Student Involvement to organize events like Senior Week and Dance Marathon. Between her “one million other job responsibilities” and her lack of housing knowledge, the project was “doomed to fail,” she said.

But she did as she was told, and the Gender Protection Initiative spammed e-mail lists with easy instructions: Contact Doris Dirks. Soon enough, the messages started pouring in – 17 in total.

It was then mid-April. It was three months after GPI originally presented their proposal to the University Housing/Food Advisory Committee and well after most upperclassmen had signed leases for apartments. Those who were still banking on the Gender Open Housing program were starting to get worried.

“The housing draft starts on the 19th,” an e-mail sent to Dirks on April 14 read. “What should I do when that day comes?”

It was a valid question and one that Dirks didn’t quite know how to answer. She replied with the same form letter she had sent to everyone else: “This e-mail is to notify you that you have been added to a list for placement. We will be in touch with you by April 23.”

But before Dirks, a Canadian citizen, could send any more details – or even figure out what those details would be – her visa expired, and she was deported.

Beyond the housing situation, Dirks had been in the middle of helping a student connect with Counseling and Psychological Services, scheduling a social justice ally training and dealing with an intern who was about to arrive from out of state. Overwhelmed with everything else, Dirks said she felt confident the Gender Open Housing Program would somehow get taken care of. She passed the names she’d collected by April 23 to D’Arienzo and Mary Goldenberg, director of University Residential Life.

“So that was it for me,” Dirks said. “And I don’t know what happened after that.”

Morty (almost) to the rescue

As Dirks was preparing to leave the country on April 27, she sent an e-mail to University President Morton Schapiro, updating him on her work. She mentioned her deportation in a postscript at the end of the note. Schapiro, considered to be an LGBT-friendly administrator, intervened.

“He took an active interest in my situation,” she said.

Schapiro talked to the University’s general counsel, and Dirks said NU’s Human Resourcesand the International Office suddenly seemed much more concerned about her predicament.

But it was too late. Dirks was terminated, and she didn’t know how long she would be gone for. Even though she was told not to work, she still answered e-mails and redirected them to D’Arienzo when necessary.

Meanwhile, D’Arienzo took over the Gender Open Housing program. He said he contacted all 17 individuals who e-mailed Dirks, and all 17 students replied to him. They were then offered spaces in 1835 Hinman, and he said 16 of them took the offer. One had decided to move off campus.

During the summer, 10 more students changed their minds and dropped out of the program, D’Arienzo said.

Medill sophomore Zach Wichter, an LGBT Resource Center employee and vice president of GPI, claims the transition wasn’t so easy. He said he knows students who applied but never heard back or heard back much too belatedly.

“People didn’t know what was going on,” Wichter said. “There was this gap in continuity in terms of people really being informed about what was going on.”

Banis sides with D’Arienzo. He said the administration responded appropriately to the situation and said the high attrition rate reflected a lack of student interest.

“If students choose not to live in the housing option, that’s the student’s choice,” he said.

And the administration has always been attentive to the needs of the LGBT community, Banis said. Although the Gender Open Housing program just launched this year, he said whenever an LGBT student asked the administration for special housing accommodations, “it was handled.”

Given the few number of students who have ever made such requests, Banis said he always expected interest in gender-neutral housing to be low. But that didn’t stop him from listening to GPI and making enough space available to accommodate the program.

And despite this year’s low enrollment, he still maintains he’ll be flexible if the program wants even more space next year – provided students show a “committed interest” early on in the housing process.

Unclear future

Former Rainbow Alliance co-president and Northwestern alumnus Patrick Dawson (Weinberg ’10) worked on the initiative for two years bef
ore he graduated. And he doesn’t want to see his efforts go down the drain.

“I hope that the apparent low number of residents doesn’t create a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure,” he said in an e-mail, “and instead highlights ways to improve the process for placing interested students in gender open housing.”

Perry, of GPI, is already laying the groundwork to make the program more successful next year. She and her team are gathering information to see where their priorities lie, and so far they’ve identified a few concerns to address. The problems generally deal with issues of longevity, such as opening the program up to freshmen, or of comfort and convenience, such as desegregating bathrooms.

With the current setup in 1835 Hinman, each suite includes one single-sex bathroom, so a student would technically have to walk down the hall to another suite’s appropriately labeled bathroom.

“Bathroom signs? That takes a piece of construction paper,” said Weinberg junior Jeff Geiger, Dawson’s replacement as co-president of Rainbow Alliance. “Some of the improvements are easy to ramp up.”

But the bathroom issue is actually more complicated than that due to legal issues, and Perry said GPI will have to negotiate it with the administration this year.

Expanding the program to freshmen is a more long-term goal, said Perry, who thinks the program will need to become more established on campus before it’s a possibility. Still, Banis said he’s open to the idea.

Dirks, now back on campus, also suggested an alteration to the program: Find someone else to help organize it.

“Some grad assistant could be told, ‘Three hours a week, this is what you have to do with your time,” she said.

All of the changes need to happen at a somewhat slow pace, Perry said, as they envelop a delicate issue not amenable to all.

She noted how the University of Michigan’s first openly gay student body president came under fire from a state assistant attorney general for being “a dangerous homosexual ‘rights’ extremist.”

Gender-neutral housing is now offered at the University of Michigan on a case-by-case basis, according to the National Student Genderblind Campaign. The Campaign compiled a ‘2010 Campus Equality Index,’ listing American colleges and universities with “inclusive rooming policies.” NU was one of the last added to the list – 44 of 54 schools implemented their policies before 2010. And these schools are not random: They are NU’s peer institutions, schools that consistently top college rankings.

Still, Perry wants to tread lightly.

“We want to make changes at a pace that is sensitive to what everyone feels comfortable with,” she said. “But at the same time, I think our biggest priority is to make students who might not be gender comforting feel safe and comfortable on this campus.”

Banis agrees that’s a concern, especially considering the recent rash of LGBT suicides and bullying across the country. He incorporated a prohibition against bullying into the code of student conduct years ago, and he was one of the authors of NU’s civil liberty policy. After a gay teen at Rutgers University committed suicide last month, Banis personally e-mailed Rainbow Alliance’s presidents to reiterate his no-tolerance policy regarding bullying and offer his support.

“Overall, I would definitely say Northwestern is a very safe place to be a member of the LGBT community,” Wichter said. “At least for me and for all the other LGBT students I know, it’s never really been an issue.”

But even if the overall NU community is an accepting place, that might not be enough.

“We’re not going to be able to attract LGBT students if they feel unsafe with where they actually live,” Wichter said. “It’s a supportive climate outside of the housing situation, but it’s important also that people feel safe when they go back to their rooms.”

[email protected]

Rowena Li contributed to this report.


This story was sent as a breaking news alert. To be the first to learn about what’s happening on campus, sign up for Daily Northwestern breaking news alerts here.