Following the controversy and uproar surrounding the removal of the “My pronouns” section on residents’ door tags, Residential Life issued a response in an email sent out to RAs that they did not want to out any transgender students with the inclusion of the section on the door tags.
According to a letter to the editor published in The Daily Campus on Jan. 29, the “My pronouns” section of the nametags had been removed following an order from ResLife. Though RAs protested the order, they were threatened with the possibility of losing their jobs, said Levi Green, spokesperson for RAs for Residents, the organization who sent the letter.
“This letter was not the first choice,” Green said. “This letter was the result of the Office of Residential Life cutting off lines of communication for residential assistants who were concerned with this. And so, unfortunately, several residential assistants were afraid for their employment.”
The letter was signed by over 100 students and RAs Green said, and also sent to the Office of Institutional Equity and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
“Hall directors came back to residential assistants and said that the pronouns sections must be cut off, covered, removed, or otherwise, ‘employment consequences could occur,’” Green said. “ResLife also told hall directors to say that this was not up for discussion and for resident assistants should not contact the office, and consequences would occur for resident assistants who did not [remove the pronouns section].”
Executive Director of Residential Life Pamela Schipani said that she did not directly address what would happen if an RA failed to comply with her instructions.
“I never said [the RAs would be fired] to anyone,” Schipani said. “That being said, with any job you have, when you are told to do something, there is an expectation that it gets done. When someone refuses, generally, the response starts with a conversation.”
One of the reasons for this “refusal” was that fact that the reasons given for removing the pronouns were “vague,” Green said.
“One thing that has become transparent with every RA I’ve been talking to about this is that RA’s want answers,” Green said. “They feel a lot of the answers that were given were not real.”
An RA who wishes to remain anonymous said that she was “frustrated” by the directive and the lack of explanation for the decision.
“As community leaders and people who are responsible for residents, we really think we’re responsible enough to deserve an explanation and to have our extra amount of work, especially, be explained to us,” she said.
Schipani cited concern for the safety and comfort of transgender students as its rationale for ordering the “My pronouns” section to be removed from residents’ name tags.
“I gave a directive because I was concerned about safety, I want to make sure that our actions do not expose students to negative reactions from peers and wanted to give students the option to share only what they feel comfortable sharing,” Schipani said in an email to ResLife staff. “But this is not about me, nor am I trying to balance out whatever view you may have of me. What I do want to tell you is that I do not want to silence anyone’s voices, nor do I want to stop students from sharing their identities.”
However, Green said the move to cut off the pronouns was “literal trans erasure.”
“People who wrote their pronouns on the door were not forced to write their pronouns,” Green said. “If [not outing trans people] was the reason, why were pronouns that were already filled out by residents cut off? We heard a lot of stories of trans people coming back and thinking it was a lone bigot that did this, that didn’t agree with expressing gender identity, and the resident assistants then said, ‘This was a decision by ResLife.’”
Schipani said she did not want to make students feel they had to disclose their gender identity.
“I feel like [if] we tell students to put their pronouns on there, we are forcing our agenda,” Schipani said. “We’re telling students you have to tell us about yourself… but using what’s important to us.”
The RA said she does not believe students would have felt they had to share their pronouns if they were not comfortable doing so, and that one of ResLife’s objectives is “challenge by choice.”
“You can express what you choose to express… and I think that’s pretty obvious,” she said.
“You can go to any floor and know that no one has filled out the about me [or] the stuff we’ve done on the bulletin boards and that’s okay because it’s a choice.”
Schipani said the point of having door tags is not that they should be viewed as “optional” since sharing information about oneself is an important aspect to community building. She added that she was concerned that individuals who are not tolerant of people who use non-binary pronouns would target transgender students and deface their doors.
“I have to be really concerned with protecting students to make sure that, if we’re saying this is a safe environment, that it is a safe environment,” Schipani said.
Lyric McVoy, a fourth-semester English major and Daily Campus news designer, said they viewed the inclusion of the “My pronouns” section as supportive of transgender students, and the removal of the section demonstrates that UConn is not as safe a community as they once believed.
“As a transgender student, getting the pronoun tags was a sign of significant respect, McVoy said. “It showed, at least to me, that UConn did care about their transgender population. It’s become clear that we as a group aren’t as safe as it was originally made out. Personally, I’m scared to leave my dorm with the knowledge that people I see daily could see me as subhuman.”
Schipani said she did not read the facilitation guides providing RAs with instructions for door decorations and hall boards until the Thursday before residents moved back in, and was surprised to see the “My pronouns” section had been included when ResLife had previously decided to not include it.
“Our role is to welcome and serve all of our students, even those who we find to be closed-minded or offensive to our beliefs. We don’t get to pick and choose which students to support, even though at times it is hard to support them all,” Schipani said in the first email. “If a student wants to share their personal pronouns then by all means they can – but by putting a specific spot on the door decorations for this information we are limiting students self-expression.”
Schipani said she made this decision based on her concerns for students.
“You may not agree with this, but I have to think about the campus as a larger whole, I need to think about things I know and I need to think about the safety of students,” Schipani said.
The RA said the opinions of students in the gender-inclusive community on campus should have been taken into consideration.
“If they’re part of the voice that’s saying they want the pronouns up, then I don’t think the director has the right to speak for them [and] silence their opinion,” she said.
Schipani said she told ResLife staff to save the sections they cut off so that if students wanted to add their pronouns to their name tags, they would be able to using the form.
“[Students] didn’t get the whole story, and I can take some responsibility for that in that I didn’t send to the students. I didn’t talk to the students ahead of time, but I did send it to my staff and I would expect that they would have shared [both] where it said ‘take these down’ [and] where it said, ‘make these available,’” Schipani said.
Schipani said she did not want her decision to make members of the transgender community feel unwelcome.
“I know people are hurt by this… but I never intended to marginalize anybody or make them feel they could not be who they are in their community. I wanted the opposite of it,” Schipani said.
Schipani said the Residence Hall Association and Undergraduate Student Government are working on a program to educate students about identity that will provide them with pronoun stickers they can put on their name tags. She anticipates the program will happen soon.
“I said ‘that is absolutely fantastic because that is totally by choice,’” Schipani said. “It’s another arm of residential life, student for student, saying, if another student wants to do this and a student group is supporting this, we will fund this.”
The RA said she supports the idea of doing this activity with residents.
“I think it’s cute to turn it into an activity because then we can talk more about why we’re taking this step,” she said.
The RA added that while she is pleased with Schipani’s response, she wishes that RAs could have received one earlier.
“The one thing I’m really not pleased with still is the timing,” she said. “We were really upset about this a month ago and there was just silence and a ‘deal with it’ attitude for a month, and it took people talking about it and getting that letter to the editor to have a response.”
She said it demonstrates a lack of concern for maintaining good communication with and respecting the RAs and ResLife staff.
“I just think that shows a lack of concern about relations within ResLife and within the staff… and more concern about our image and how things appear to be going,” she said.
Green echoed this sentiment, saying that ResLife had “cut off the channel of communication” in response to RA protest prior to the letter being sent out.
“[RA protest] was ignored,” Green said. “They wouldn’t listen.”
Schipani said before she feels confident that pronouns can be included without fear of negative repercussions, the entire campus needs to be ready to learn about accepting gender diversity.
“We want to reach everybody at the University of Connecticut and the culture and the climate is bigger than what happens on a floor, what happens in a building, what happens in Residential Life,” Schipani said. “The entire campus has to want to talk about this, the entire campus has to see the value in diversity of all sorts. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
The RA said that while the impetus for removing the pronouns section was not someone being offended, ResLife needs to consider the fact that most actions will offend somebody.
“I think it’s important for ResLife to understand in the future that there’s always going to be a party who’s offended, it just depends on which party you are most comfortable offending,” she said.
Schipani said she is glad that this controversy has drawn attention to an important issue.
“This has been a difficult time… I hope that we are able to turn what has been difficult into something that is really positive for the campus,” Schipani said. “This has taken up so much of my life in the last three weeks… but it’s all worth it if we create change at this campus… it’s about the students.”
Moving forward, Green said that, while Schipani’s email response and the USG initiative is “progress,” RAs for Residents hopes to address the larger issue of communication disconnect between resident assistants and ResLife, and mentioned the “possibility” of a meeting between his organization, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and Schipani herself.
“The email didn’t address the lack of communication,” Green said. “The environment the RAs were working in, they felt couldn’t bring up the issue with [ResLife.] We want to address the underlying theme that RAs feel they can’t communicate with them.”
Marlese Lessing is the news editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. She tweets @marlese_lessing.