At the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester, the University of Nevada, Reno opened a new wing in the Living Learning Community—the Gender, Sexuality and Identity floor. The floor “is open to all qualified students who identify as LGBTQIA+ and/or allies,” according to the university’s housing website.
To fill out the floor, Residential Life, Housing & Food Services assigned the remaining rooms to NCAA athletes. According to residents of the hall, the combination has not been seamless.
As a high school senior, Elliot Schifferdecker decided to apply to live in the LLC, because he wanted to live with people like him—others who are transgender. However, he was unaware that this room choice would put him in a potentially unsafe living environment.
During the first floor meeting during the first week of classes, everyone was asked to introduce themselves and share their preferred pronouns. According to Matt Lacoff, a resident from an NCAA-designated room said their pronouns were “baseball”. GSI residents said this made it difficult to fully embrace their preferred pronouns, identities and livelihoods.
Later that night, GSI residents Matthew Lacoff and Indigo Hinojos met with the Graduate Resident Directors and other Residential Life staff. Hinojos expressed being uncomfortable around some of the student-athletes and uneasy about living on the floor with them.
“They equated us being uncomfortable around the athletes to being homophobic,” Lacoff said. “We felt like we were blamed.”
Lacoff, Hinojos and some of their other floormates made a request to the LLC staff for their floor to hold an open forum where athletes could ask any questions they wanted, and members of the GSI community could answer. The GSI students felt this could deflect potential problems and help both communities learn more about each other.
However, the request was denied because the staff was concerned the GSI students were stereotyping the athletes, according to Lacoff.
The slurs and insensitive comments quickly escalated due to lack of reprimand for the behavior. GSI students said it has turned into several instances of verbal and physical harassment.
Not feeling satisfied and increasingly feeling unsafe, Schifferdecker went to the Assistant Director of Student Leadership, Toby Toland. Toland agreed to hold a meeting on the floor to settle the tension between the residents on the floor. According to GSI students, the meeting left a lot to be desired.
In one interaction before the floor meeting between a GSI student and an NCAA-athlete, the GSI student told the athlete they had a “small d*ck”.
“He compared saying that the athletes have small d*cks [to] them calling us [tr*nnies],” Lacoff said.
Hinojos remembers the meeting being very one sided and felt Toland barely even addressed the athletes in the room. Schifferdecker explained that Toland seemed understanding but felt he was uneducated about the subject matter.
Toland has since stopped using the slur but argues that he used the word to explain what was going on. Toland said the meeting was focused largely on stating the policies at the University regarding harassment and teaching people “the value of being around people who look, live, love and pray differently than you,” yet many of the students only remember the use of the slur in the beginning.
Three Title IX suits were filed by GSI students at this point, but still felt like more needed to be done. The floormates searched everywhere they could for help. Schifferdecker, Hinojos, and Lacoff decided to go above Toland to Director for Residential Life Jerome Maese. In a meeting with Maese, the students brought the same query and concerns, which now additionally included with the problems with Toland. Maese explained he did not like how Toland had handled the situation, but needed to look at the situation from both sides. He agreed to sit in on a floor meeting of the LLC’s GSI and NCAA wings, but according to the students, has taken a while to do so.
“The attitude is very gaslight-y” Lacoff said, “Every time we reported it, it felt like we were blamed. I was offered to live on the floor [at a UNR event] before the year started, so I signed up. I feel cheated…it costs more to live here.”
Hinojos has since spoken to the senate of the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Queer Student Union, and UNRPD. So far, little has come from it.
Hinojos, Lacoff and Schifferdecker—all transgender youth—are left feeling frustrated due to the lack of physical changes in their situation.
As they continued to search for the right place in the college infrastructure to solve the issue, they keep getting the same results. According to the students, their search for help continues to yield in questions such as “What can we do to make you feel safe right now?” When they tell the staff that they want the behavior to be corrected or at least discussed, they are told they could start or join a club on campus, or run for senator for the GRI major and try to fix the issue by themselves.
“Clubs are just novelties to avoid the actual issues,” Elliot said. “It is dumb that everything has to be student driven, there are no resources for us. Like let me just fail all my classes [by running for senate], just so I can feel safe where I live. No one is educated, but no one is willing to start the conversation either.”
Schifferdecker said his mother is scared for his safety, as are other parents of the residents on the floor.
“My mom called the residential life office and yelled that this is going to make me become part of a statistic,” Schifferdecker said.
According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than half of transgender male teens have attempted suicide at least once in their lives.
The Nevada LLC requires most residents to take a specific class based on their wings. The GSI students are required to take an intro-level GRI class. According to Schifferdecker, he was discussing the situation with his floormates—who are also his classmates—when his professor Ximena Serrano asked what was going on.
Since hearing about the situation, she has said she is shocked and has tried to intervene and hold a training session for the residents and staff of the floor, but felt that the idea was rejected by Toland upon bringing it up to him.
Toland did not have this same impression after his conversation with Serrano, and said that he would pursue the meeting in the future.
Students feel the series of events that have transpired will deter the Nevada LLC from keeping the floor in the coming years.
“My biggest fear is that this is going to be an excuse [for UNR to] get rid of the floor” Hinojos said, but echoed by Schifferdecker and Lacoff. “I think that if they take our input on it, then it could be a safe space.”
Maese said that there are no plans to get rid of the GSI floor in the future. He also plans to assemble “focus groups” from the floor for the coming semesters.
“I hope to hear from the students again, and I am tremendously sorry that I let them all down,” Maese said.
“I am working with hall staff [to find] ways to educate the entire building on the different communities… we will be starting that soon,” Toland said.
Schifferdecker is starting a new GRI club on campus for those who are interested or are in the major. He is doing it in hopes that it might create some change for those in his community who feel threatened, like him.
“Your sexuality is something not everyone has to interact with, but your gender is something everyone has to interact with everyday because we live in a country that cares about it and speak a language that cares about it,” Lacoff said. “Everyone else has so much power over it, and there isn’t much you can do about it.”