By Sarah Al-Arshani
Resident Advisors at the University of Connecticut signed an open letter at the start of the semester addressing concerns over a decision made by the university’s Residential Life office to remove a pronouns section on new door decals in residential life buildings.
Executive Director of Residential Life, Pamela Schipani said her intentions for the order was to not make anyone feel like they had to fill it out.
The letter signed by RA’s for Residents, which was published in the Daily Campus on January 29 stated, “To cut or cover up only the “My Pronouns” section of the door decs sends a transphobic message to their community and is explicit participation in trans erasure.”
Previously, RA’s created their own door decals but as part of a new Residential Learning Model (RLM), new facilitation guides were given to RA’s including a new door decal that would be used across all residential buildings, this past fall. At the start of the spring semester, four new decal designs were introduced which included a pronouns section.
The RA’s were told to remove the decals after some students returned to campus early and saw them. Some even filled them out, Levi Green said.
Green, a fifth-year communications major, is the spokesperson for RA’s for Residents, although not an RA himself.
“They felt it was literal trans erasure, so a lot of trans and queer people hearing this are extremely upset that they were excited that as the letter says there was an official UConn supported means of expressing their gender identity and to have that then taken away, including for people that had put their pronouns on their doors already, feels like that UConn doesn’t care,” Green said.
Schipani said she was unaware the door decals included the pronoun section for the spring semester. She said the professional staff within ResLife have been discussing the usage of pronouns for years, and that decals with a pronouns section were set to be used in the fall.
Schipani said those decals were not used because the RLM had not been fully implemented and students coming in might not be aware of the nuances of gender-identity.
“So, for the spring semester the folks who were working on the facilitation guides thought okay we’re there, okay we can put this [pronouns] on there,” she said. “ I totally own that I did not look at the facilitation guides until just before we opened. I opened it up and it said the pronouns and I said first day of the spring semester is not really different than the first day of the fall semester.”
Her concerns included the 3,000 students who were either new to on-campus housing or switched communities and their familiarity with gender-identity and how far the RLM has gone to create a conversation around gender.
“There’s lots of ideologies on our campus. There’s lots of people who support being authentic and being open and supporting all genders and then there are people who don’t think that’s the right thing to do…. Do we make people or have an expectation that people be public about who they are and then if something happens to them, can we protect them? Is it a safe environment?” Schipani said. “ I would love to think that our campus is safe and people are supportive of one another but I also know that we had 14 incidents where people wrote on those door decorations last semester disparaging things about people and we didn’t require people to write anything. They could write whatever they wanted.”
Green said many RA’s felt that if they addressed their concerns with the decision they could face possible repercussions including job termination.
Zane Carey is a fourth year urban and community studies major who serves as an RA in gender-inclusive housing and identifies as transgender. Carey felt that since the order to remove the pronouns came directly from the executive director, they [Carey] felt unable to contribute their opinions on the issue and that any objection to the order could cause job ramifications.
They said that the removal of the pronouns was disheartening.
“It just felt like my entire identity was secretly being taken away. Even though pronouns are not the most important thing about anyone or the most important thing about being transgender; they are a very public piece of it and being told that the public piece of my identity is confusing or pushing ideals on someone else feels really invalidating,” they said.
Carey said that they already included their pronouns on their own door decal previously and they didn’t think much of the inclusion of the section on the spring decals.
“This semester when I saw that [pronouns] were added on, I actually thought little of it. I didn’t think of it as a huge victory. I just went ‘oh, this is the natural progression of things. This is fine.’ and I didn’t think much of it; but, when we were told to just take them off, it was a huge gut-wrenching event because just to be told that what I saw as normal progress was something that needed to be secretly taken away or just cut off was a huge slap in the face. I was very emotional for a long time about it,” they said.
Schipani said her main concern if the pronouns were to be added is safety in the residence halls.
“Granted what the RA’s say in their letter ‘lots of people don’t fill those out anyways.’ Well, it’s an expectation that we have that students feel comfortable filling those out and that I have an expectation that it’s a safe environment, in residence halls; that’s what we’re trying to create. I didn’t feel comfortable that we were at that place yet,” Schipani said.
In an email to ResLife managers, Schipani said that she did not say students couldn’t keep their pronouns written if they wanted. In other words, those who had already written their pronouns could keep them up.
The Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Student Services Committee released a petition after the RA’s for Residents letter was sent out and students voiced concerns about the matter, Dylan DeMoura, a committee member said.
DeMoura, a first year political science major, said the petition collected close to 200 signatures.
Green said he has taken the issue to both the Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI) and the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), and was told that matter will be looked into.
ODI said they met with RA’s for Residents and referred them to to ResLife to work out a solution. OIE has not responded for comment at the time of publication of this story.
Schipani said that she’s had meetings with members of the ResLife office and will be working with students organizations to continue to engage the conversation around gender-identity and expression.
Michael DeMarco, a fourth year computer science and engineering major and an RA, said Schipani sent an apology email to RA’s last friday. DeMoura said his committee will be working with Schipani on pronoun and gender-identity related initiatives in the coming weeks.
“For me when this happened because I was so emotional I didn’t want to talk to other people about it. I didn’t want to lose my job. I didn’t want to get in trouble even though this was something so integral to me but a lot of my co-workers and I’ve seen a lot people around campus who were just completely enraged and it feels good to know that there are other people on the campus who are so invested in this,” Carey said. “Sometimes, when you’re a socially marginalized group you just feel constantly attacked and it can get really tiring to defend it. Knowing that students are invested even if they aren’t transgender or they aren’t gender non-conforming gives me a good idea that if we had a university wide conform or some discussion with students or USG or through some other method that students would come to a consensus or at least some reasoning that I could accept.”