037. Inclusive, But

tldr: unofficial rules officially suck

The moment has finally arrived– I have gotten permission from my last source to publish my essay on McCormick. I am hoping to send it in to the Tech as well, but for now it will exist here. The last week has been a bit insane, but things are finally winding down. My list of things I need to do for the rest of the spring semester fits on two notability lines, and after this week it will fit on one. I am so, so tired, but so, so close.

What follows is my second essay for 21W.022 on gender at McCormick and MIT as a whole.

Inclusive, But

In the second house meeting of the semester for McCormick Hall at MIT, House President Adina Golden asked a seemingly simple question: “How should we define McCormick?” Adina was referring to the fact that “MIT’s Only All-Female Residence” (the first words seen on the McCormick homepage) is not actually all-female. The dorm also houses non-binary and gender queer people who do not identify as male. However, this rule is unofficial, which can be a big area of contention for both gender queer people looking for housing and for those currently living in said gendered spaces. McCormick’s lack of explicit rules for inclusion reflects a broader need for gendered spaces to think critically about what kinds of communities they foster or want to foster.

Even though I fit into the gender binary as a transgender woman, I constantly question my place at this “single-gender” dorm. I often wake up and wonder if I am woman enough to live at McCormick. As much as I wish that affirmations from other students would make this fear go away, the fact is that nothing written down in ink; there is not a bylaw or parenthetical describing how inclusive McCormick is on the basis of gender, and students realize that. Some students trying to present a more inclusive environment may think that the lack of rules in place would provide much more comfort to transgender and non-binary students.

Even though I fit into the gender binary as a transgender woman, I constantly question my place at this “single-gender” dorm. I often wake up and wonder if I am woman enough to live at McCormick. As much as I wish that affirmations from other students would make this fear go away, the fact is that nothing written down in ink; there is not a bylaw or parenthetical describing how inclusive McCormick is on the basis of gender, and students realize that. Some students that are trying to present a more inclusive environment may think that the lack of rules in place would provide much more comfort to transgender and non-binary students.

The fact that the dorm has continued to exist as a female-only residence after all this time is amazing, and the impact of McCormick has been profound. Even after the West Tower of the dorm was built, MIT’s admissions was trying to use the lack of female housing to limit the amount of women admitted to MIT, even though men were allowed to live off campus and in fraternities. This led to Katharine donating to build the East Tower of McCormick. After both towers opened, the number of female applicants and students doubled, and the number of female professors increased by 40% (Venkatadri 2-4). The dorm put necessary pressure on MIT to become a more inclusive environment in that moment of history, emphasizing that women both have a place at MIT and in science as a whole. This was extremely innovative compared to other engineering schools at the time. I hope that a rule explicitly expressing that both women and non-binary students can live at McCormick can once again influence an era of progression and inclusivity on our campus.

Which raises an interesting point for McCormick—how can we describe a place inclusive of women and non-binary folks without simply lumping these very different identities together? The sorority Delta Phi Epsilon (DPhiE) may have a good insight on how to do so. They have a specific policy on transgender and non-binary inclusion, explicitly stating “Delta Phi Epsilon International Society is welcoming and inclusive of trans women and non-binary students.” This simple sentence (along with a few more describing their zero-tolerance policy against transphobic environments) emphasizes two key points: 1) if you are a transgender woman or non-binary, you are welcome to apply to our sorority, and 2) everyone in the sorority understands that this is a welcoming place for said individuals.

Figure 1: McCormick Hall, with East (left) and West (right) Towers.

These two sentiments may unofficially be true in other gendered spaces at MIT, but there is room for contention unless the spaces state them explicitly in their rules and bylaws. Before moving to McCormick, I messaged nearly every student I knew about whether this dorm was a welcoming place. To be honest, I don’t think the responses were trying to present this dorm as a non-inclusive place, but rather, they recognized that the rules in place (or lack thereof) did not provide comfort to transgender and non-binary students like myself. So, a lot of these virtual conversations started off with “yes, but”. Even though the students I talked to were well-intentioned, I often left the discussion conflicted. For instance, “yes, but if there is someone that isn’t welcoming, you can move to another floor, or another tower.” This is easy to say about a dorm with two separate towers, twelve different floors to live on, and an annex with an additional three floors (Figure 1). I recognize the immense privilege that comes with the ability to simply move away from a difficult living situation, but while this isn’t as big of a problem at McCormick, it is in other spaces.

Figure 2: Random Hall.

Consider a dorm like Random Hall (Figure 2), which itself has 3 “single-gender” floors and are physically closer together than those of McCormick. In dorms such as Random, it can be much more difficult than simply moving to another floor, due to physical proximity, a limited number of single gendered floors, and distinct floor cultures. Random Hall specifies in their bylaws that “‘gender’ refers to a resident’s self-identified gender identity.” In other words, transgender students that identify as male or female are welcome to live on single-gender floors for that gender. Notably, this is more than McCormick currently has regarding transgender students. However, Random Hall does not include a policy on non-binary individuals on these floors.

Loop, an “all-female” floor at Random which also unofficially houses non-binary students, has had very difficult and controversial conversations regarding gender. Many residents of this floor wanted to be more officially inclusive of non-binary folks, which resulted in a few others expressing discomfort with the idea of living with “men who claim to be women”. One even opined that transgender women are not women. This exemplifies the common misconception that gender queer people who were assigned male at birth are trying to infiltrate gendered spaces that aren’t for men. Transgender and non-binary students often question their own gender identity, and this misconception can play a large role in this imposter syndrome. A lack of rules and policies regarding gender identity at dorms, sororities, and colleges allows room for discomfort for cisgender, transgender, and non-binary students alike.

This is one of the many reasons why institutions such as Wellesley College, a historically all-women’s college, are addressing applicants’ concerns with gender head-on, implementing new gender specific policies for both applicants and current students. In the frequently asked questions portion of their website, they have explicitly stated that they accept applications from transgender women and individuals assigned female at birth who identify as non-binary, and they do not accept applications from transgender men. Wellesley has also emphasized that students who come into Wellesley identifying as a woman and later realize they are transgender men will continue to be supported by the institution– a situation that has also occurred at McCormick. Notably, nothing is said for assigned male at birth non-binary individuals.

One concern with openly accepting non-binary people into a historically all-female space is that the space’s mission may fundamentally change, but this isn’t the case. As Sarah Brown notes in her piece on DPhiE’s policy change, “transitioning away from a women-exclusive membership didn’t mean giving up its women-centered mission. The policy just meant evolving with the times, staying relevant in the 21st century, and welcoming more students who really wanted to join the sorority.” As such, DPhiE is still able to strive for ‘sisterhood’, a word still fundamental to their identity but that the institution feels expresses the bond between members of the sorority. This sentiment is something I deeply resonate with. As a transgender woman, I feel my identity supported by McCormick, as McCormick does not house men. I may sometimes worry that I am not woman enough to live here, but I never feel like I am a man.

It is too often that the unofficial rules are meant to provide comfort to the marginalized. Instead, these tend to make the environment more unwelcoming. It is too easy for sororities, dorms, and colleges to say that they will deal with “issues” as they come up instead of fixing the system in place. Some groups that are a part of a national organization, like the MIT Panhellenic Association, may run into political issues. According to Kelly Chen, a senior in DPhiE, in 2016 an assigned male at birth non-binary student had issues signing up for a sorority’s recruitment process. The MIT Panhellenic Association had agreed at the campus level that non-binary students be allowed to apply to sororities. This was extremely progressive, given that this rule was not agreed upon at the national level. However, as progressive as the student body was trying to be, some delegates at the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) took issue with an assigned male at birth individual was going through sorority primary recruitment . Kelly stated:

The bigger the organization is, the more institutional inertia exists. However, with smaller student groups at MIT which are largely student-run, the students in those communities have a much larger influence over the culture and policies of the group and therefore a larger responsibility to make the changes that will make those groups more inclusive.

(Chen, Personal Interview)

In the end, the individual that Kelly was referring to got tired of the situation, ultimately opting out of recruitment. Nonetheless, some sororities in the MIT Panhellenic Association are trying to be vocal about being accepting of non-binary individuals. As Kelly noted, smaller student groups at MIT have the influence and responsibility to do the same.

This isn’t just for dorms and sororities. Any gendered space needs to consider how inclusive they are, and how inclusive they want to be. This includes both clubs and societies for women in academia, such as Women in Math and the Society of Women Engineers, and “single-gender” spaces for men, such as fraternities and other single-gender floors. I believe that openly communicating policies and making institutional change can benefit the community at large.

While I should hope that there isn’t a gendered space at MIT still upholding transphobic ideologies, I would still much rather know if I will not be accepted at this space. On the one hand, being transparently forward about accepting transgender and non-binary students can influence more students to apply without as much hesitation. There is a gap between the actual policies and the understood policies. I am an example of this– housing does not say explicitly that transgender women can live at McCormick, and yet I am a current resident. As exemplified throughout the essay, this can ultimately create a less inclusive environment. On the other hand, if a dorm/sorority is not welcome to transgender students, that is equally as important to know. This allows the community to advocate for change. It is difficult to make change when a space’s policies are not forward enough to know that change must be had.

In talking about this essay with Kelly, I told them I was worried that the conclusion would be too cliché— schools always need to improve their open communication regarding expectations. Kelly responded: “It feels cliché, because to us this is obvious.”

Chen, Kelly. Personal interview. 21 April 2021.
Delta Phi Epsilon. “Delta Phi Epsilon Trans Woman and Non-Binary Gender Policy.” Delta Phi Epsilon: Policies, dphie.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/TransNonBinaryPolicy-Revised-June2020.pdf.
Random Hall. The Bylaws of Random Hall, 9 Nov. 2003, web.mit.edu/random-hall/www/Government/bylaws/bylaws.html.
Venkatadri, Tara. “McCormick Hall and the Changing Role of Women at MIT.” History of McCormick | McCormick Hall, mccormick.mit.edu/about/mccormick-history.

Some may call this lazy, reposting this essay. But I think this is an important topic– I think people should read it. I will do a blog-gy blog soon.


Published by Paige Bright

Hi- my name is Paige Alexandria Bright. I am a rising junior at MIT interested in mathematics and philosophy. I have been writing this blog since the beginning of COVID. Lets see where this goes.

4 thoughts on “037. Inclusive, But

  1. im not sure if its so much the dorm putting the necessasry pressure on mit, as it is being a symptom of the times. its notable that the construction of mccormick happened alongside many other efforts to increase diversity in mit at the time, and this would be a continuous thorn in mits side through the 70s and 80s

    the national panhelleneic conference is very very wild lmao they have a handout with how to pronounce greek letters which i think is hilarious

    Liked by 1 person

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