Trans, nonbinary students unpack the challenges of campus life at Belmont
Stepping foot on Belmont’s campus as a freshman, Ruby was nervous.
She knew Belmont was a Christian university in Tennessee — having grown up in the Bible Belt, Ruby didn’t know if the community would be welcoming to transgender students like herself, she said.
Ruby, who goes by a chosen name and requested her last name not be shared to protect her privacy, began her transition from male to female in high school. She made the decision to come to Belmont knowing she might find herself in some uncomfortable situations.
“This is only four years, but that degree of audio engineering from Belmont is for the rest of your life,” she said. “It’s the perfect school for what I want to do, even if it’s a bad situation.”
Now a sophomore, Ruby has a bubble of students on campus who accept her gender identity. But it hasn’t always been that way.
The LGBTQ community at Belmont is growing fast, but for trans students like Ruby, life at the university comes with a challenge that many cisgender students don’t face — everyday interactions that invalidate who they are.
“The queer experience is really hard when you’re alone. But you’re not alone when you’re at Belmont,” said Ruby.
One of Ruby’s biggest obstacles as a trans student? Housing.
Belmont has male and female dorms, and students are housed by their “shared gender identity,” the university said in a statement to the Vision, meaning the information they communicate to the university on their housing application.
However, while the application asks students to share their sex as either male or female, there is no way for students to share their gender identity.
For Ruby, this was a hard question. Ruby was assigned male at birth but identifies as a woman.
Sex is assigned at birth based on anatomy, while gender is a matter of identity. When asked if she is male or female on her housing application, Ruby felt she had no choice but to answer male, because that is the sex she was assigned at birth. She was not able to indicate her gender identity on the application.
So her freshman year, Ruby lived in an all-male dorm with three male roommates who did not accept her gender identity, she said, resulting in a very uncomfortable living situation.
“I’m never doing that again,” said Ruby. “I decided I had to find other transfem folks to live with.”
Today, she still lives in a male dorm, but she shares her space with two transfeminine students and one randomly assigned roommate. All of them accept her for who she is, but when one moved at the end of the fall semester, Ruby was unsure whether she would be lucky enough to find a new roommate who is accepting of her gender identity.
Other trans students face the same uncertainty.
“Living with cisgender people can be extremely intimidating,” said freshman Benni Smith, a trans man living in an all-female dorm at Belmont.
“None of my roommates know because I didn’t want them to be uncomfortable. My roommate seems fine enough, but I still kind of worry about it,” said Smith, who said his roommates don’t know the specifics of his gender identity but respect his chosen name.
Both Smith’s and Ruby’s relationships with their parents have been complicated by their gender identities, and while many parts of college life can be kept private, some discussions are unavoidable.
When faced with the possibility of somehow switching into a women’s dorm, one of the biggest caveats for Ruby was the idea of moving in with the help from her dad, who does not fully accept her.
Belmont encourages students struggling with gender identity-related housing issues to bring their concerns to ResLife.
“Residence Life works to accommodate the individual student on a one-on-one basis, either by providing a different housing option (room in another Res Hall or a room change, as space allows) or waiving the on-campus housing requirement,” said the university in a statement.
Requests made midway through the semester may not be resolved until the following semester due to low availability of on-campus housing, the statement said. Roommate availability is another factor the university considers when processing gender-related housing requests. Belmont’s full statement can be found at the bottom of this article.
While Ruby and Smith have not taken the steps to get housing accommodations from Belmont ResLife, one student has done so successfully.
Morgan, a nonbinary sophomore whose name has been changed here to protect their privacy, lives in a suite-style dorm with roommates who are not of their same birth sex.
But Morgan says these living arrangements didn’t come easily.
They first made contact with ResLife before the start of their freshman year, they said.
“I called ResLife in the summer, before housing stuff came out, and was like, please put me in a coed dorm, I identify as nonbinary. They said they would do the best they can, and then put me in Hail, an all-female dorm, which is my birth sex.”
Some dorms, such as Thrailkill Hall, have both men’s and women’s housing divided by floors, while in others like Hail Hall and Pembroke Hall, the entire building houses one gender. Morgan hoped that living in a mixed-gender dorm like Thrailkill would make them more comfortable as a nonbinary person, but they were not placed there despite reaching out before the housing deadline.
Midway through the fall semester, Morgan called ResLife again, requesting to switch into a coed dorm.
“They were understanding when I called them, especially when I said that I had called them earlier and been put in an all-female dorm, so they were willing to make that adjustment especially since they had space,” said Morgan.
Morgan was moved into a coed dorm — but to an all-female floor. They were still not fully comfortable with their living conditions, but they had a solution in mind.
“My friends and I were talking about trying to get genderless housing passed as an option.”
The idea of gender-neutral housing was also brought up by both Smith and Ruby as their ideal living situation.
It’s not a new idea in higher education. A comprehensive list from the Human Rights Campaign shows countless colleges and universities have gender-neutral housing — including Duke University, where Belmont’s President Greg Jones previously served as dean of the divinity school.
Morgan and their peers wanted the same for Belmont and were ready to fight for it.
“We were ready to come up with a whole plan and start a protest if we had to,” said Morgan.
They emailed ResLife about why they felt Belmont needed genderless housing, and were told they did not have to push for it because the university was willing to make gender-related accommodations.
Morgan told ResLife they wanted to live with their male friends. As a nonbinary person, they felt they would be far more comfortable there than living in an all-female dorm. ResLife countered by offering to waive Morgan’s on-campus living requirement, something not normally allowed until students’ junior year.
“They went with the easiest option, and I told them that wasn’t what I wanted. And I also just couldn’t afford it,” said Morgan.
“So I called back and was very frustrated and angry. I cried on the phone, and the person I talked to wasn’t very understanding in the moment, but I got her to try again to see if they could approve it.”
When Morgan called back a week later, their request to live in a male dorm had been approved.
Finding a comfortable living situation on campus can be far more complicated for gender non-conforming students than it normally is for students whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex.
But the obstacles don’t stop at housing.
Everyday interactions that cisgender students might not think twice about are constant reminders to trans students that some peers and professors do not fully accept their identities.
“Sometimes whenever I am in class or something, I tell my professor I go by my last name,” Ruby said. “They’ll do that for a week and then never again, because they don’t realize it’s a gender thing.”
While something as simple as hearing their preferred name and pronouns can go a long way in making students feel more accepted on campus, even that can be complicated.
Transgender student Elise Abell attributes much of the issue of trans and nonbinary students feeling unaccepted by the community to a lack of dialogue about their presence at Belmont.
“It feels very taboo,” said Abell. “I would love for there to be a more open dialogue about trans people.”
Abell uses they/she pronouns, and while some of Belmont’s digital services allow students to change their pronouns, the third-party student portals on myBelmont and Blackboard do not allow this, which has led to students being consistently misgendered by professors, ResLife and peers.
Zoom is different. Students can write their preferred pronouns next to their name on the video conferencing platform so classmates and teachers know how to address them, but Abell said this can be intimidating when you don’t know how it will be received by peers.
“I was in a Zoom class with this guy who was very openly transphobic and homophobic. I was considering putting my pronouns in my thing, but as soon as he started talking, I just felt unsafe, or I felt like my identity would be made a talking point in my opinions,” said Abell, who eventually came out to the class.
Abell said they were later harassed by the same student but never reported it to the university.
Reporting harassment can be tough for anyone, no matter their gender identity. Belmont’s Title IX office coordinator Lauri Chaudoin affirmed that while Belmont’s non-discrimination statement does not explicitly include gender identity, the Title IX office provides the same protections to trans and nonbinary students as it does to every other student.
“Gender identity and sexual orientation are already included by virtue of ‘sex’ as a protected characteristic,” sad Chaudoin.
While efforts have been made to support the growing LGBTQ community at Belmont, such as hosting LGBTQ-focused WELL Core events and allowing Bridge Builders to form — still the only LGBTQ club on campus — some trans students at Belmont do not feel things are changing rapidly enough.
Abell feels strongly that more change, community and campus-wide acceptance will come without when conversations about gender identity move into the spotlight at the university.
“I think the idea that I don’t feel immediately safe with people who aren’t my roommates … is an indication that we just need to be talking about it on campus more,” said Abell.
Belmont ResLife Statement:
Belmont is committed to providing all students with comfortable housing accommodations. All students are housed by their shared gender identity. If a student expresses a need or desire for special consideration for housing or for a housing change, Residence Life works to accommodate the individual student on a one-on-one basis, either by providing a different housing option (room in another Res Hall or a room change, as space allows) or waiving the on-campus housing requirement. Residence Life approaches each students’ housing situation individually, understanding the unique aspects of each students’ needs, but requests that are submitted mid-semester might not be resolved until the start of the next semester depending on available on-campus housing options.
Residence Life has made several accommodations for students who were seeking gender-related accommodations prior to the start of the semester and since the semester began. If ever a student feels unsafe at Belmont (in their living arrangement or otherwise), we want to immediately address their concerns. As it relates to housing, students who are interested in accommodations for any reason, can reach out to Residence Life via their RD, by visiting the office in person or by emailing email@example.com. Required steps to requesting housing assignment changes for any reason can be found on the Residence Life website or in the Residence Life Handbook.
PHOTO: Belmont Vision Multimedia / Anna Jackson
This article was written by Connor Daryani. Contributory reporting by Allynne Miller.