Senior House, community, and conversations (we should have on campus)

I remember the day during my senior year of high school I wore a lace peter pan collar to class. It was my sister’s, but she let me borrow it after a few laughs. Having donned a pair of purple pants, matching socks that popped under black oxfords, and the bright peter pan collar over a black sweater, I presented myself proudly to my parents. My dad laughed and said he was glad I was “comfortable with my sexuality,” and my mom said nothing. I thought it was an extremely sick (out)fit, but the reactions of my peers and teachers conditioned me to think of it less as sick and more as sickening. I was conditioned to only talk about boxing, about working out, about “guy” things.

I was always excited for gender-swap day during my high school’s spirit week, when the way I wanted to dress was sanctioned by the school. But when gender-swap day was replaced with 50’s day, I felt like acting not masculine would be socially punished, and the conditioning began.

It wasn’t when I found myself signing my name on a piece of paper to pledge a fraternity that I realized conditioning had followed me to MIT. It was when I couldn’t shake how uncomfortable the comments brothers made about my roommate, Audrey, made me; it was when I felt terrible about my excitement over Audrey and I having the same shoe size; it was when it became impossible to ask new people anything more meaningful than their year and their course number; it was when I felt I couldn’t even begin an honest conversation without feeling judged anywhere except my dorm, Senior House.

I guess that’s why I chose to live where I do: Senior House allows me, and everyone in it, to have real conversations about anything. What’s treasured here is acceptance, openness, and respect. I can’t begin to describe how valuable Senior House is, especially to a community of people who have struggled to find acceptance and respect in openness and vulnerability. We are people who might not fit into one mold of race, of gender or sexuality, of socioeconomic class. We are people who have been able to develop our own metrics of success based on who we are, not on what others sanction. We’re all “weirdos”, but nothing is weird here.

Many Senior House residents come from traditionally marginalized backgrounds. This is to say in part that many Senior House residents have had to face a reality that seems systematically leveled against their ideal of themselves, their situations, their communities. But we can’t force that ideal into reality: working above the heads of whom those actions affect often brings more harm than help.

An example: I think I’d like to try Greek life again — a sorority, despite the fact that I don’t fit the classic template for a sorority member. And maybe a problem lies in the existence of that template that blocks people based essentially on years of tradition, outward presentation, and physiology,

but this isn’t a problem I can solve by blindly and aggressively pushing into that community.

Because I’ve been able to participate in the culture at Senior House, I’ve become more comfortable with being who I am, with being queer. Because of the culture at Senior House, I’ve been empowered to talk about things that I believe in, on campus or elsewhere, with anyone.

I’m concerned that the way problems in Senior House are being addressed now could mean many students isolated from people experiencing similar problems, conditioned to eschew honest conversation and to avoid vulnerability.

I’m concerned that the way the MIT administration has begun a conversation with the community through Senior House is initiating less of a conversation, and more of a series of steps to push out a culture that has been so beneficial to the health and personal success of students who have needed this unique type of support.

Senior House has taught generations of students how to begin conversations that matter.

So let’s begin the conversation.