CHICAGO — Thirty-eight students live on the 22nd floor of Roosevelt University’s residence hall, and Brandon Rohlwing doesn’t know, or care, how many of those students are male or how many are female.
“You need to embrace who you are, and be the best you can be, and we’re going to help you with this,” says Rohlwing, 20, the West Dundee, Ill., native who runs the new Gender and Diversity Inclusive Living Community that occupies the entire floor.
If the focus were on the bathroom door, the traditional M for men and W for women would need an alphabet expansion to make room for LGBTQIA: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex and Ally. Even then, some groups clamor to add another Q for Queer and another A for Asexual.
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To address the needs of students who don’t fit comfortably under the male or female labels, Roosevelt University formed a task force in April 2012, says Bridget Collier, assistant provost for student affairs. Dedicated to finding a “gender-neutral” solution, members of the task force quickly learned and adapted.
First, they got rid of the term “gender-neutral.”
“Gender-neutral wasn’t the best,” Rohlwing says. “It really kind of takes away your gender.”
Changing the name to emphasize diversity and inclusion came naturally.
“We were founded on social justice,” Collier says of the university, named in honor of former President Franklin Roosevelt and dedicated in 1945 with a speech delivered by social justice champion Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I chose Roosevelt because of its deep roots in social justice,” says Rohlwing, a sophomore resident assistant. “Our university is very diverse and this option (the Gender and Diversity Inclusive Living Community floor) reflects that diversity.”
Rohlwing went through training last July to prepare for his role as a counselor, mentor, adviser, community organizer and keeper of order for students on his floor.
“Brandon has done a fantastic job,” Collier says, explaining how he’s scheduled programs on domestic violence, organized field trips to cultural centers, and distributed an “Inclusive Dictionary” filled with inoffensive word choices that reflect the diverse student community.
This week, he’s bringing in a speaker and hosting a “Sex in the Dark” activity that lets students ask questions and discuss issues anonymously. In addition to his work in helping students with issues of gender and sexuality, Rohlwing has spoken around the world on suicide prevention, a subject in which he is painfully experienced.
As the son of a special-education teacher and an Illinois State Police officer and descendant of the Rohlwing family that once owned a farm that now is Busse Woods near Woodfield Mall, Rohlwing says he tried to come across as just another typical suburban sports-loving, heterosexual boy during his middle-school years in West Dundee.
“Some students saw through that and saw the real me,” the gay man remembers. They punished him for being different. After gym class one day in seventh grade, Rohlwing discovered his school clothes inside his locker had gotten wet through the slats in the locked door.
“It wasn’t until I got to my next class that I realized it was pee,” Rohlwing says. “The hardest part for me was understanding why someone would do that to me. I remember thinking, ‘Is this what my life is going to be like?’ When you come out, you’re supposed to be more happy, and it seemed it was going to be the opposite for me.”
In high school, he remembers following the example of his parents and standing up for other victims of bullying. But he worried that being gay would “disappoint” his parents, active church members from a long line of Republicans.
“Building up to tell my parents was the darkest part of my life,” he says. Late one night, the summer before his senior year, he made a fateful decision.
“I didn’t need to be here anymore,” he remembers thinking, vowing to end his life that night. His computer search of ways to do so landed him on reachout.com, a website dedicated to suicide prevention and the issues surrounding such dark thoughts.
“I spent hours on that website, watching videos and reading stories from other teens,” Rohlwing remembers.
“That same night, I went to my parents’ bedroom,” he says, recalling how he cried as he woke them and announced that he was gay. “They just hugged me and told me that they loved me.”
He got that same support from his sister, Elizabeth, who was four years older and a film-school graduate. His sister, who combined the nicknames of Beth and Liz into her own nickname of Biz, once created an anti-bullying public service announcement for Community Unit District 300, where their mom remains a special-education administrator.
When Rohlwing became a teen blogger for reachout.com and began organizing events to help others struggling with the challenges of life, his sister sent a video to Ellen DeGeneres gushing about how her little brother was her hero. As a graduation present, Rohlwing had plans to meet his sister at her new California home and see the “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” together.
On May 19, 2012, the day of his graduation and his sister’s 22nd birthday, she committed suicide. While she had struggled with depression at times, her death stunned her family.
“I think that’s why I’ve committed myself so much to suicide prevention and mental health issues,” says Rohlwing, who, for the second consecutive year, will spend Father’s Day in Seattle with his dad as a team in the Overnight Walk for Suicide Prevention, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He’s hoping donors who search for his name at theovernight.org will help them top last year’s $2,000 donation.
Todd and Susan Rohlwing fund an annual $2,000 “Make A Difference Scholarship” in their daughter’s memory at Dundee-Crown High School and say they are glad to see their son using his own painful experiences to help others.
“He has this story to be told, and if he can save one life by telling it, it’s worth it,” says Todd Rohlwing, now a captain with the Illinois State Police. “He constantly makes us proud.”
Rohlwing’s hard work is reaping benefits, says Collier, who credits the new inclusion program with this year’s complete lack of incidents or vandalism reports on campus when it comes to gender and sexuality issues. The school’s success with the dorm floor will be documented in an academic book highlighting 10 programs across the nation. Roosevelt’s essay is titled, “Walking the Talk.”
Students have supported the diversity and inclusion efforts, even if parents sometimes need more education, Collier says.
“It’s 2014, and I still hear from parents who say, ‘I don’t want my daughter to live in a suite that isn’t all white women,'” Collier says. Some express fears about their son or daughter living with a roommate who is gay or has a “foreign” name.
“It’s a dynamic process” to educate all involved, Collier says. “My job is to create a safe space for everyone.”
The support Rohlwing enjoys isn’t limited to minority groups on campus.
“The majority of the students on our floor are heterosexual allies,” he says, using a term for those who support the struggles of a group of which they’re not a member.
“I just didn’t realize what prejudice could be like for people who don’t conform to traditional genders,” says ally and resident Kristen Herbert, a 19-year-old sophomore from Naperville. “It’s another thing to watch prejudice happen to your friends.”
Living on the floor has broadened the issue beyond the narrow scope of gay marriage or discrimination laws that dominates the discussion for some politicians and talk-show hosts.
“They want to make it political or an intellectual thing, and they don’t realize this is people’s lives,” says Herbert, who comes from a Christian background. “I think it’s fundamental to understand people and care for people. Our foremost calling in life is caring about others.”
Always available to meet with students who aren’t as far down the path or don’t have the support he enjoys, Rohlwing says he’s found his role in life.
“I tell them, ‘You can get through this. Things will get better,'” Rohlwing says. “My career goal is to help others.”
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