How Are They Doing?
Non-binary students on American University’s campus
by Sullivan Haine & Naomi Eskenazi
Multiple individuals interviewed for this article use they/them pronouns and are referred to in this manner throughout.
American University’s Center for Diversity & Inclusion held a meeting before spring break that centered around gender-neutral and ADA compliant restrooms across campus, with the support of students, PRIDE club leadership, and guidance from trans professor Perry Zurn.
Without gender neutral restrooms, non-binary students are forced to align themselves with either binary to use the restroom. Many buildings do not have gender neutral restrooms, and few dorms have gender neutral showers. Though in the early 2000s, there was an on-campus movement to install gender-neutral bathrooms unilaterally, it was eventually unsuccessful.
Freshman Max Miller-Edwards, stated in an interview that they’d found the university community to be less accepting of non-binary identities than they anticipated.
But bathrooms would only be the first step in moving the university towards a more inclusive and accepting future, where non-binary students are able to exist without public focus on their gender. Different sub-communities within the university offer differing environments for non-binary students, and their experiences are vast and nuanced.
The Non-Binary Experience at AU
Executive Director of AU PRIDE Charlie Everett identifies as nonbinary, and uses they/them pronouns. In American University’s efforts to be inclusive, they said, professors and faculty on campus have created environments where students are expected to publicly share their pronouns and/or gender identity.
In the past, they’ve worked with the Center for Diversity and Inclusion as an LGBTQ+ peer educator. According to CDI’s website, LGBTQ+ Peer Educators help younger students find their place in communities at AU and in D.C., as well as moderating some of the LGBTQ+ themed discussions that CDI offers.
“[As peer facilitators] we would be like ‘We’re always coming out, everyday,’” said Everett. “It’s exhausting especially at AU, because AU is such a ‘woke place.’”
When professors and communities at AU ask students to publicly share pronouns, trans students no longer have an option to not out themselves. Anyone sharing with a class that they use they/them pronouns instantly identifies themselves as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s hard for non-binary students to fly under the radar and not be publicly identified as transgender. This can turn them into a topic of education, discussion and debate in classrooms.
Some non-binary folks pick and choose who they are out to and who they are not. Sultana Qureshi, a sophomore in communications and theater, said that they do this themself.
When Qureshi came to American University, saw other people, like Everett, using they/them pronouns for the first time.
“I went ‘Oh! That’s lit, because no one’s making fun of you!’” said Qureshi.
In theater, Qureshi said they wanted to be known by everyone “as a person and as a professional,” which includes their non-binary identity and pronouns. However in communications courses, they prefer to be known only as a professional. Qureshi said because of this, they are more likely to tell professors and peers in theater to use their pronouns.
During their interview, Qureshi said they remembered in high school considering using they/them pronouns for themselves. At the time they didn’t know any other trans students or people using they/them pronouns, despite being out as queer since the age of 13.
When Max Miller-Edwards, a freshman, came to American University, they thought the school and community would be better about using they/them pronouns.
“I wasn’t out to a lot of people in high school,” Miller-Edwards said. “I was out to my theater company and my friends. People in my theater company were iffy about using they/them pronouns.”
Qureshi’s experience of theater at university juxtaposed Miller-Edwards’s, because that is where they choose to enforce correct usage of their pronouns most regularly. Qureshi began using they/them pronouns soon after arriving at university, when they saw campus culture accepting other non-binary students who used those pronouns.
“Theater is a much smaller group than most majors,” said Qureshi. “But it’s also just such a personal experience.”
Non-binary students have to navigate spaces on campus where they feel comfortable outing themselves. And in especially binary spaces, like bathrooms and housing, non-binary students will never fit into either male or female categories.
On Campus Facilities
American University does not have gender neutral housing options; trans students have to work with housing through other departments like CDI. Although in the past AU has offered a gender neutral housing option, this is no longer the case. Everett addressed this as well, calling lack of gender-neutral housing a “structural weakness” of American University.
What this means in reality is that non-binary students are forced to identify a gender — male or female — with whom they would be most comfortable rooming. The housing portal defaults students’ roommates’ genders to the one they were assigned at birth.
There is also a distinct lack of gender-neutral bathrooms, showers, and communal areas.
To have access to gender neutral showers, Miller-Edwards would need to move across campus from Leonard Hall to the freshman dorms. They do not have access to gender neutral restrooms on their floor and must go to the lobby to use the restroom.
CDI sponsored an Inclusive Bathrooms Mapping Project in which students went to every building on campus to analyze bathroom accessibility. They provided students with a checklist that had both ADA compliance and gender neutral accessibility standards. Many of the bathrooms fit ADA compliance, but a minority of them were gender accessible.
American University Professor Perry Zurn gave a background on the history of inclusive bathroom initiatives both at AU and across the country. The majority of bathroom inclusivity projects for trans non-binary or students with disabilities began across the country in the early 2000’s. AU had led its first bathroom inclusivity movement in the early 2000’s but received no traction and eventually fizzled out.
However, there has been one college who has fully transitioned to create gender neutral restrooms everywhere on campus. Professor Zurn spoke about Hampshire College being the first and only school to have successfully achieved this:
“They have been most successful in their bathroom inclusivity initiatives. All of their restrooms are accessible and gender neutral, every single one on campus. They were able to do this by engaging very deeply with students on the project. Faculty and staff were on board and they really had a lot of deep conversations with the community.”
This project began in 2000 and was finished in 2011. At first Hampshire College established a “self identified man/woman” bathroom sign system, but trans students felt this was an issue as they did not simply identify as a certain gender, but they were that gender. So trans students protested this by covering the ‘s’ on the “self identified” signs on bathrooms to read “Elf identified,” according to Professor Zurn.
After this, Hampshire changed their bathrooms from self identified to gender neutral. Professor Zurn described the initial issues the project had to go through, such as people feeling uncomfortable with the opposite gender being in the same bathroom. This issue was quickly alleviated by implementing privacy locks on the doors and stalls.
According to Professor Zurn, the current bathroom inclusivity project at AU is being supported by numerous departments and facilities management who have already developed plans to have at least one inclusive bathroom in every building within the next academic year.
However, there may be a few more years of waiting until AU switches all of its bathrooms to be gender neutral as Hampshire College has done. For this to happen, Professor Zurn said that not only do students and staff need to be on board, but the surrounding AU community as well. Going forward Hampshire College should be a standard that every university should strive for.
On Campus Resources
CDI offers support for students facing housing difficulties and has a history of working with trans students to make them comfortable on campus. They provide a resource guide online for transgender students to help them get acquainted with trans life at American.
“There aren’t enough staffing resources allocated to the Center for Diversity and Inclusion,” said Everett, who worked as a LGBTQ+ Peer Educator for CDI.
Additionally, an LGBTQ advocate and resource, Kameron Winters, left the Center for Diversity & Inclusion over spring break. He was a great resource for students, including one of the authors of this piece. He personally helped them to fix housing and name issues on campus.
Currently, Dr. Perry Zurn is working on a project to document the history of transgender life and experiences at AU. He and two students have compiled over ten pages from the American University’s archives, at Spring Valley. Their findings are currently on display on the first floor of the library.
Parts of American University are accepting and easy to navigate for trans individuals using they/them pronouns, but there is still room for improvement. CDI is doing the best they can with less resources, staff and funding than they need.
Qureshi said that as a person of color, they more often get read as a woman of color, but dislike using the term ‘woman’ to describe themselves. CDI is a useful resource for Qureshi especially, when they have to reconcile the intersection of their race and gender identity. Because CDI works with representation and treatment of student of color and LGBTQ+ people, they are fairly well equipped to help non-binary students of color.
“I feel like when I talk about myself as a person of color that takes away any female experience,” said Qureshi. “It’s always been very hard to reckon those labels with one another.”
“Every trans student here will likely be able to tell you some horror stories,” Everett said. And without someone like Winters on their side in CDI, the frequency of these stories might increase.