10 for Presentation, 3 for Execution: Being Non-Binary at Tufts

One of the first acknowledgments of gender nonconformity I experienced at Tufts was a question that popped up on my Tufts’ Student Information System page. It was simple: “What title should we address you as: Mr., Mrs., or Mx.?” As mundane as that might seem, to me, a queer kid from Missouri, it meant everything. I expected this would be the standard for all of Tufts’ interactions with gender-nonconforming students. Unfortunately, reality came up short. Tufts has the framework and resources to make non-binary individuals feel at ease, but the university priotizes words over taking action to achieve true inclusivity. 

Take the housing process, for example. When signing up, students are given the option to select gender-inclusive housing. Sounds great, right? Well, for me and a fellow enby—queer slang for someone who is non-binary—checking this box did nothing to ensure we were placed in inclusive housing. In 2021, we were both placed in Carmichael Hall’s “all-female” wing with no gender-neutral bathrooms. On top of us worrying about typical first-year issues, now we had to figure out what to do about housing that blatantly disregarded our needs. After a long game of email tag, the two of us finally ended up in Tilton Hall, where all the bathrooms are gender-neutral. The housing process, which claimed to be inclusive, failed my friend and me, and we had to rectify a mistake that shouldn’t have happened. 

In terms of gender-inclusive spaces, bathrooms force non-binary students to do more work than their cisgender classmates. Every time I enter a building, I have to figure out where the nearest gender-neutral bathroom is located. Some buildings make it easy with signs, but others make it exceedingly difficult. Some buildings have gender-neutral bathrooms tucked away behind walls, some have only one gender-neutral bathroom located floors away from where you need to be, and there isn’t a guarantee that the bathroom will be functioning properly. The issues don’t stop there; for students with physical disabilities, the spread-out nature of these bathrooms can make them nearly impossible for a disabled non-binary individual to use. These problems illustrate a need for multiple clearly marked gender-neutral bathrooms in every building to ensure no undue stress is placed on non-binary students.

The issues non-binary students face extend beyond architecture: there’s also archiTECHure, specifically the online identification process. Only one set of pronouns at a time can be selected on SIS, and your username and email require outside help to change. All Tufts identification methods are based on your birth name, and students who identify as non-binary and go by a different preferred name are deadnamed upon acceptance into the Tufts system. The SIS pronoun markers only change how automated emails are addressed to you; every semester, I have to send a “fun” email to professors before class even starts telling them I use they/them pronouns. These processes are difficult both practically and emotionally for non-binary students, and one potential fix to this could be informing professors of students’ pronouns automatically using an algorithm. While some effort is made to make student identification inclusive, the lack of depth in these systems leads to an environment far from inclusive.

Outside of the Tufts administration, the inclusion of gender-nonconforming students in student organizations has been hit-or-miss. Some groups have integrated non-binary students well. A campus favorite, TFL, once stood for “Tufts Funny Ladies,” but rebranded in 2017 to be just TFL. The group advertises itself as “Tufts’ only gender minority comedy group,” and it follows through on this in spades. The e-board and membership consist of pronouns from all across the board, showing that rebranding from a women-only space to one inclusive of all gender minorities is possible.

Some groups try, but ultimately come up short. One common example is student organizations’ names using a feminine word, but claiming they include non-binary students. For example, campus groups with “girl,” “woman,” etc. in their names. These names might seem inclusive, but it signals to me that non-binary people are just an extension of women—women lite™. The point of identifying as non-binary means you exist outside of the binary, so grouping non-binary individuals into binary labels is an invalidation of their identities. This grouping of women and non-binary individuals also suggests that non-binary individuals who are AMAB (assigned male at birth) or masc-presenting might have more hurdles to jump if they want to feel accepted in these spaces. Women and non-binary individuals face different struggles of oppression and therefore deserve spaces that acknowledge they are distinct. 

To some, these issues might seem small, but all of these details add to the severe pressure non-binary students face from outside the university. There have been more anti-transgender legislation passed nationwide in the last few years than ever before; states are making it impossible for people to medically transition and placing extreme measures to ensure trans women can’t compete in sports. Outside of the US, 71 countries explicitly criminalize homosexuality, and 15 do the same for transgender folk. For some, Tufts is the only space where students feel comfortable being forthcoming with their identities, and the lack of properly implemented institutional support can leave these students feeling like they don’t belong anywhere. Queer individuals are already at higher risk for mental health concerns and suicidal ideation, making it all the more important they feel supported at the university they call home.

Transphobic students also do, unfortunately, still exist on campus. Before I even came to Tufts, another admitted student doxxed me on Twitter and made fun of my pronouns to their followers. I was terrified, and I wish I had more support from the university. When I reported the incident to the Office of Equal Opportunity, I was basically told, “we can’t monitor what other students do online; do you want to talk to her?” This led to a frustrating game of email tag when what I truly needed was a concrete policy to protect me from prejudice and a university administrator that would take a strong stand against hate speech and transphobia. 

While I have been discussing Tufts’ mishandling of non-binary issues, I should acknowledge that the university does consider the needs of its non-binary students to some extent. Having gender-neutral bathrooms in almost every building and the fact that gender-inclusive housing is offered at all are both huge accomplishments. The LGBTQ Center facilitates important community-building activities, and I recommend that any queer student engage with this lovely space. When I got doxxed, the LGBTQ Center was the first place I turned to, and I received a lot of support from them. The Tufts LGBTQ-specific health services staff are also supportive people who always use the correct pronouns; you have no idea how thrilled I was when I found out one of the healthcare providers at Tufts uses they/them pronouns. Most of the Tufts student body has been welcoming and open to discussions about gender, and it’s only because of that that I feel comfortable writing this article. 

I’ve always been an optimistic person, and I do think Tufts students and administrators are on the right track for making this campus inclusive for non-binary students; they just need to think deeper. The university should ensure that students who request gender-inclusive housing are prioritized, make gender-neutral bathrooms more obvious and accessible in all buildings, and maybe even toss in a non-binary changing room at the gym. Regarding the community, campus organizations need to have conversations with LGBTQ+ individuals to ensure choices are made with regard to them. Instead of organizations regarding spaces for women tossing on the “and non-binary people”, why not rebrand the name to be a gender minority space? Another idea would be to not include non-binary individuals but make a separate space just for them, thus avoiding any implications of gender invalidation. There needs to be more collaboration with the non-binary community at Tufts overall, whether it’s about policy or semantic changes. The systems are all in place for great institutional change; Tufts just needs to commit to creating an inclusive space that is visible and tangible for all gender identities.