Walking through the open quad of West Halls, one can pass a number of traditional brick buildings forming a confined cluster of quaint residential halls.
From the outside, these aging dorms keep much of the inside out, concealing the vast and diverse communities found within.
In Watts Hall, a thriving community currently resides on the entirety of the third and fourth floors and half of the second floor.
Ally House, a special living option Penn State offers for sexual- and gender-diverse students, remains isolated from other living options across University Park, ultimately providing a safe living space for some of the campus’ LGBTQ community.
Having lived in Ally House since his first year at Penn State, Necla Kara currently serves as its president, operating as the organizer for executive meetings, a mediator for in-floor conflicts and a coordinator with Penn State Housing to ensure the requirements for special living options are met.
“Most of our residents are trans or genderqueer or in the LGBTQ+ community,” Kara said. “[Ally House] provides a really supportive environment for people in the community. We also have a close bond between all our residents — it’s like a little family.”
Kara said in addition to queer and trans students having the ability to live and communicate with each other in an affirming space away from Penn State’s typically cisgender and heterocentric environments, students also have unique opportunities to participate in community-building events and activities.
As part of the requirement for living in Ally House, residents follow a point system that grants them a guaranteed spot for the following year’s admission if they receive a certain number of points, which are given when they attend various programming events.
From frequent ice cream socials at Penn State’s Berkey Creamery to “Super Smash Bros.” tournaments, Kara said residents of Ally House have a range of options to satisfy the points requirement.
Serving as the Points Chair in Ally House, Nick Ferrara said programs are frequently scheduled, with upward of four events held in a week. He said Ally House’s executive members directly organize some events and the resident assistant puts together others.
Ferrara (sophomore-digital and print journalism) said the executive board tries to give residents a plethora of options to garner points in order to make the process easier and stress-free for everyone.
Along with unique programming efforts, Kara said Ally House also offers unique restroom accommodations.
Some dorms at University Park have standard bathrooms often separated as “men’s” and “women’s,” while some of the newly renovated dorms in East Halls offer single-person restrooms, which are open to anyone on that assigned floor.
Due to its traditional format in Watts Hall, the bathrooms within Ally House are naturally divided by a gender binary. To curb this and help create a more welcoming and inclusive environment, Kara said the signs are covered, and residents are welcome to use whichever bathroom they want, no matter their gender identity, all while maintaining a communal bathroom space.
Penn State Director of Ancillary Services Jennifer Garvin said when it comes to the way Ally House is run, the residents control a majority of the decision-making, and Penn State Housing’s role remains focused on providing the support it can to help continue improving that environment.
From programming to bathroom usage, Garvin said it’s important that students living within the space are given the power to alter it in a way that better fits the needs of its majority LGBTQ residents.
Even when it came to deciding whether Ally House should expand into a newly renovated area in a different dorm, Garvin said it was students who wanted to remain in Watts and continue expanding within that space. She said she believes keeping the process of expanding and making changes to Ally House should remain an “organic” process that its student leaders lead and fuel.
Beyond the physical differences compared to other residential halls, Garvin said she believes there are innate differences to what Ally House offers LGBTQ students.
“Outside of the physical space… I think there’s the pride of the students that live there, and I think safety and comfortable — those are the three words that come to my mind when I think of Ally House,” Garvin said. “Students enjoy being around others that they can identify with, and there's a safety in living with them and not being accosted by someone who may not understand what [they’re] going through.”
While Kara said living in Ally House can be a joyful and relaxing break from traditional living options on campus, he also said the actual process of applying to live there can be frustrating and difficult to navigate.
Along with any general troubles navigating Penn State’s eLiving system, Kara said students often aren’t aware of how to apply for Ally House, especially first-year or transfer students. Part of this comes from the lack of general student body knowledge on there even being a queer and trans focused living option, Kara said.
Mark Rameker, senior director of residence life at Penn State, said while this concern is valid, it can be difficult to find a balance on how much attention one particular special living option or living learning community receives compared to others. He said no one living option should receive more advertising than another, but he said he understands options like Ally House may not be the easiest to find for new students.
Rameker said student feedback is an important part of the process of finding ways to get the information out to students who need it most, and he said he encourages students to bring any suggestions or concerns they may have to Penn State Housing’s attention.
With numerous housing options available for every student at Penn State, Ally House gives LGBTQ students specifically the opportunity to live in an environment where they can thrive, Ferrara said.
“I think for queer and trans students, living in a traditional resident hall can be a big ‘what if,’” Ferrara said. “When you are forced to live around people that aren’t accepting, it can dramatically swing your enjoyment of your college experience. I don’t think anyone deserves that, and that’s why Ally House is a thing.”
Beyond the confines of Watts Hall though, there are LGBTQ students living in on-campus housing not specifically designed for queer and trans individuals. From South Halls to Nittany Apartments and Suites, some of these students at Penn State shared their experiences in these spaces.
Harper — a student who wished to remain anonymous — said they’ve experienced both positives and negatives of being assigned to traditional living options at University Park.
From pride flags hanging in the hallways to signs covering the gender marker signs outside the restrooms, there are clear signals within Ally House that indicate it is a queer and trans inclusive and accepting environment.
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While this inclusive environment is an incredible space to be in for LGBTQ students, it can also be a barrier for those who are not out to their family or friends, Harper said. This is one of the reasons they said they chose not to apply to live in Ally House, out of fear their parents may ever want to see where they live.
Working with students who are in similar situations as this student, Garvin said whenever LGBTQ students request a living option that can fit their specific needs, she works with them personally to find a proper match. She said she understands there are many students who are not out to the people around them, and she said she tries to give these students options for living spaces where they can feel safe and secure.
“It’s a hard population to get to because who do they feel comfortable talking with?” Garvin said. “I would hope that they know there are people at the university who will be here to support them. I may not be in that situation, but as a parent, I would want someone to advocate for my child — that's how I view my role.”
Garvin said she wants any student who feels uncomfortable in their current living situation or who has any insight on what queer and trans living accomadations would work best for students to contact Penn State Housing or the staff within the Jeffrey A. Conrad Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Though she said it can sometimes be difficult to navigate resources at Penn State, Garvin said there will always be someone for LGBTQ students to turn to for help with their housing.
Having lived in both shared living spaces and a single room, Harper said it is great to have a space to themselves where they don’t have to worry about what a roommate might think about them, but they said there are still issues with traditional communal bathroom spaces.
“If you don’t want to be actively in [Ally House], it’s hard to get bathrooms especially that you can go to,” Harper said. “Right now, mine is an all-female floor, which is OK, but it’s still uncomfortable.”
Having to function as a human being and go through their day-to-day routines can become a continuous process of deciding whether they are in a safe space to be themselves and live authentically, Harper said.
While he no longer lives on campus, Max, a student who wished to remain anonymous, said he continuously felt that Penn State Housing did not work hard enough to provide an adequate living environment for his specific needs.
As a transmasculine person, Max said his requests to be in gender-neutral housing were instead met with his placement in dorms with individuals who were all of the same gender.
In his first year, Max said he didn’t even know gender-neutral housing was an option, but he immediately signed up for it for his second year. When he got his rooming assignment, he discovered his request was not fulfilled and was placed on a same-gender floor.
“I was a guy on an all-girls floor… It was awful,” Max said. “I was still in pre-transition physically, but I made people uncomfortable in the women’s restroom — I was uncomfortable in the women’s restroom.”
Max said he felt uncomfortable with the idea of having to go to a different floor to use the men’s restroom as well because he didn’t know how people would react and was afraid whether he would pass as a man. Having to juggle living in that space with discovering his own identity quickly became an anxiety-inducing experience, he said.
Into even his third year, Max said he was placed in housing that was all male but still did not feel completely comfortable. He said he never wanted to come out to his roommates for fear of the consequences that might have come out of that.
Eventually, Max said he came to the conclusion Penn State Housing was not going to accommodate his needs and realized on-campus housing wasn’t a viable option for him.
While she said there are sometimes mistakes made or incidents to be resolved with on-campus housing, Garvin said via email students should understand her department “strives to accommodate all students.”
Garvin said if any student is in a position where they feel uncomfortable in their current housing situation, Penn State Housing staff are always available to ensure students feel safe and comfortable. She said conversations with students remain “private and confidential.”
“If a student feels that their room assignment is not meeting their [needs], [then] they should reach out to me so we can have a personal conversation about housing options available,” Garvin said. “I am available as an advocate and truly care for each student’s wellbeing and will gladly work with any student who needs support.”
While things may be improving for some LGBTQ students living on campus at University Park, Kara said there is still work to be done to make sure no queer or trans students experience feelings of distress in a place meant to be their safe space.
“I know someone who dropped out of Penn State because he didn’t know Ally House existed, and he couldn’t find a community — living was so hard for him,” Kara said. “It can really destroy your college experience having these negative experiences… That's where you go to study, to live, to sleep. If you don’t feel safe there, then you may as well not be there.”
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