Letter to the Editor: An open letter about Residential Life’s actions against pronoun expression

Dear Editor, 

(Via RA's for the Residents)

Due to Residential Life’s new Residential Learning Model (RLM), the University implemented a “common door dec” program during the semester of Fall 2017. These door decs are filled out by Resident Assistants (RAs) and taped on each door throughout the residence halls. While previously RAs would create their own door decs, the department created a single door dec for residents’ names and room numbers, and included for an “About Me” section for residents to fill in. During the Spring 2018 semester, they implemented new pictures and added a section labeled “My Pronouns.” RAs in every residential area of campus were instructed to hang these door decs in their residence halls. 

Many RAs were excited about the addition from Fall to Spring. Including a section for residents to write in their pronouns acknowledges an important part of residents’ identities, and specifically provides an important platform for expression for members of the transgender/gender nonconforming communities. For cis-gender students, the common door dec also provides an educational opportunity for students who are unaware of the importance of gender expression. The addition of this section on the door dec represented Residential Life committing to their mission statement of “sense of belonging” in the residence halls for groups that otherwise feel marginalized. 

During RA training, prior to the start of the semester, the Hall Directors received an email from Pamela Schipani, Executive Director of Residential Life. She expressed in this email that the inclusion of the “My Pronouns” section went directly against orders, and that all RAs must be instructed to cut off or cover up this section of the door dec. This email was not shared with RAs directly. When the decision was questioned, RAs were told “decisions happened behind closed doors,” and no information about the reason for the instruction was shared. When asked what the consequences were for leaving the door decs as they were, no clear answers were given. Possibilities of loss of employment were suggested, but consequences remained unclear. RAs were also advised not to contact the Office of Residential Life directly in order to prevent targeted retaliation from the office. 

Despite the helplessness felt by RAs across campus, this instruction was widely found to be problematic. 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. Many students were excited by Residential Life’s initial move to support trans identities, but to literally cut off that support feels like a slap in the face. Students across campus have asked their RAs to refer to them with specific pronouns, and to have that RA cover up the expression of their identity on their doors does not create a “sense of belonging” in residence halls. Many RAs felt conflicted as this action went directly against their personal morals so action was initially delayed; therefore, students arrived back on campus and saw the door decs and began filling in their pronouns. Despite the participation of residents, the department came back with a stronger message that all of the door decs must be altered immediately to eliminate the platform for expression. This caused students to physically have their identity cut off, covered up, and erased. 

The only hint RAs were given as to the reason for the change was that Residential Life cannot “force” ideas onto students. The claim is that by putting “My Pronouns” on each door, they would be “forcing” residents into an expression that they may not be comfortable with. However, students have never been required to fill out their door decs, and most are usually left empty. The choice of whether to fill it out or leave it blank destroys the argument of any forced ideals. Residential Life has also had RAs put up bulletin boards in their communities such as an “Identi-tree” where residents could write in various parts of their identity on branches of a tree, including: race, class, ethnicity, etc. If residents can express these parts of their identity to the community without it being considered “forced ideals,” then what is the specific problem with pronoun expression? Is it because the group of residents who would benefit most from the door decs are frequently not cis gender? 

 (Via RA's for the Residents)

(Via RA's for the Residents)

Cutting this section off of the door decs sends a problematic message. Even if Residential Life did not intend to send a transphobic message, the impact of their actions cannot be overlooked. Due to complete lack of communication, it is not clear if the instruction came directly from Residential Life or from authorities above the department. But, in a time where “freedom of speech” is justification to bring far-right speakers on campus, many RAs are wondering where the First Amendment defense is for marginalized groups. 

Sincerely, 

RA’s for the Residents