Breaking Down Walls

Gender inclusive housing gains momentum on campuses nationwide.

College life has changed tremendously over the past half century. Institutions first had separate campuses for the opposite sexes, and then separate buildings. The trend moved to separate floors for men and women in the same dorm, to the current model of co-ed student housing. Progress never ceases, and we are now conquering the separate room model.

Gender neutral housing (or gender inclusive housing*), can be defined as housing options tailored for transgender students, non-gender-conforming students or students looking to room with members of the opposite sex. The number of schools offering such living arrangements has grown tremendously in the past five years, largely in response to the needs of transgender or transitioning students.

Such change can be seen as part of a bigger movement for advancing transgender rights. While same-sex marriage has taken the spotlight in recent years, the executive branch has quietly done a lot for the smallest sector of the LGBT spectrum.

To start, President Barack Obama is the first president to even say transgender in a speech. He is also the first to name a transgender political appointee and prohibit job bias against transgender workers. Obama signed the first federal civil rights legislation protecting trans individuals against hate crimes, and has also made it easier for them to update passports and obtain health insurance under the ACA. In late May, the administration achieved its most recent victory in transgender rights by ending a 33-year ban on Medicare coverage for gender reassignment surgery.

O.K., but what does this have to do with student housing?

Private, apartment-style student housing—the type of housing off-campus developers like to build—is inherently gender inclusive with private bathrooms. Traditional dorm living—with communal bathrooms—is not, but can be with a few tweaks. With an increase in private-public partnership development and fee-managed on-campus housing, it is important to examine the current state of gender-neutral housing and the best practices for implementing the policy and managing such accommodations.

Progressive schools are coming to the general consensus that some form of gender neutral housing is needed, as “they have trans students who don’t feel comfortable being housed on a gender binary basis,” says Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center for LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual) advocacy at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

But it is not just transgender students who feel more comfortable with student housing that is not confined to a gender. Beemyn points out that while transgender students have been instrumental in establishing gender inclusive housing, “it has actually become more popular for other reasons, like a brother and sister choosing to live together, or someone whose best friend is someone of a different gender.”

A proposal for expanding the gender neutral housing policy at Yale,1 for example, cites that one of the major limitations of the gender binary model is the suggestion that individuals should primarily socialize with individuals of the same gender. This inherently prevents those of opposite genders from forming the close bonds created by living with another individual. Another good point brought up in the proposal is that gender-based housing normalizes heterosexuality by suggesting that men and women shouldn’t live together because it enables relationships. This train of thought suggests that homosexuality is nonexistent.

Finally, the gender binary model may be socially or psychologically harmful for gender-queer students or trans students who are transitioning.

College years are actually a popular time for transitioning, where individuals go through the process of changing sex. This can present unique situations for property managers both on campus and off. Yadeira Burnett, a community manager with EdR, was able to provide insight on how she handled placing a transitioning first-year student while managing Campus Village, a fee-managed 210-unit, 685-bed apartment asset at University of Colorado Denver. The 2006-built community was the first apartment-style housing developed on campus and was suitable for gender inclusive living due to its private bathrooms.

“We didn’t want to put her into a single,” Burnett said. “She wanted a traditional residence hall experience. A lot of times people are tempted to give out a single and be on their way. But that is not how we do it at Campus Village. We wanted, and she wanted, to get that traditional freshman experience.”

Burnett worked closely with the school and her leasing staff to help identify potential roommates that could be respectful and supportive of the transition process. The fact that EdR staff cooperated with CU Denver administration on orientation programming made the process a bit easier.

“We let the student life team at the university know about the situation so that we could get support and make sure we were asking the appropriate questions without being too invasive,” Burnett adds. “Ultimately, we wanted to make sure that we set the student up for success in their housing situation.”

After speaking with a few potential roommates, Burnett set the transitioning student up with a roommate who was comfortable with the situation, and they continued to room together even after their first year.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Having a building like Campus Village with suite-style living is a great start for offering gender inclusive student housing as it is integrated into the existing campus fabric. The other solution would be creating space in an LGBT dorm floor or themed house, which while successful in many instances, is not free of issues.

Isabel Williams, a rising senior at College of Charleston and summer fellow at Campus Pride, was tapped by residence life to kick off a gender inclusive policy after working to get the first gender-neutral restroom facilities installed on campus. She wants to make sure the gender inclusive housing “is not a convenient flop,” and hopes to eventually achieve a policy with a broad spectrum of options because “people don’t want to be further isolated by a physical space.”

As Beemyn points out, while integrating gender-inclusive accommodations into an LGBT floor or house makes sense on the surface, many trans students don’t identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

“Gender inclusive housing is not a community, per say, it is really an accommodation,” Beemyn adds. “It is not like a floor where people have anything in common such as a major, or identity. The only thing that people who want to living in gender inclusive housing have in common is that they want to live with someone of a different gender than their own.”

To get things started at her school, Williams is currently working on research with residence life. In a climate like Charleston, Williams understands that she needs to tread carefully in order not to go one step forward and two steps back.

“The school itself is open minded and has the interest of protecting all students,” Williams says. “But, our State and local government, as well as some of the parents and students, aren’t necessarily supportive.”

The subject of gender inclusive housing is a contentious one in some traditionally conservative areas. Take the case of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). A 32-bed/three-residence hall pilot program for gender inclusive housing was approved by the board of trustees in late 2012 with a target start date for fall 2013. The North Carolina Senate responded in March 2013 by filing Senate Bill 658, which, if passed, would have prohibited the University of North Carolina from assigning “members of the opposite sex to the same dormitory room, dormitory suite, or campus apartment unless the students are siblings or they are legally married.” Though the bill failed to move out of committee, the UNC board of governors ultimately barred all campuses from instituting a gender inclusive housing policy.

This anecdote supports recent Pew Research2 showing that American political ideologies are more polarized today than at any point over the past 20 years. On the other side of the equation, take the University of California system, a pioneer in gender-inclusive living arrangements with policies worth emulating. While many gender neutral housing policies only cater to juniors and seniors, UC Riverside became the first public university to offer all students a gender-neutral option way back in 2005.

Marty Takimoto, associate director of student affairs communications at UC Berkeley, says that a good approach starts with a mutual request from both participants followed by a bit of a screening process.

“One of the main reasons for a screening process is that we have had requests from high-school couples who have come to Berkeley together,” Takimoto says. “We are well aware of the success rate for high school relationships, so we advise the students and counsel them accordingly.”

There are roughly 20 students in gender neutral housing arrangements at Berkeley. Though they currently reside in the LGBT-themed Unity House, Takimoto says the school is open to expanding the program should the demand arise. As far as physical facilities go, the residents in Unity House will dictate how a particular suite’s bathrooms function, be it single- or mixed-sex. In the more traditional residences halls there is a mix of single-sex and mixed-sex communal bathrooms. In general, students have been accommodating to any changes given a bit of education.

“When we have taken a traditional men’s or women’s bathroom and converted it into a gender-inclusive one, we will put up signs that explain why,” Takimoto adds. “I think the students learn a bit and say ‘Oh, that makes sense.’”

A few small tweaks can work wonders for creating a gender inclusive facility. Before Burnett managed Campus Village, she worked in student affairs at CU Boulder while the school was taking steps to create gender-neutral housing in a traditional residence hall. The big change involved taking same-sex communal bathrooms and increasing the privacy so they could be used by all.

“Like many dorms, we had curtains that separate the shower, which were kind of flimsy,” Burnett says. “So they put up true stalls with an actual door in addition to the curtain; [this meant] you were getting a lot more privacy.”

A theme of communication emerges when examining best practices for gender-inclusive housing. One obvious place to promote conversation is between students and their parents, who are often paying for at least some part of their child’s education and housing.

“The biggest advice I would give to students is that they should inform their guardian or parents,” says Tom Ellot, senior associate president of student affairs at New York University and president of The Association of College and University Housing Officers-International (ACUHO-I). Each year, Ellot says there are anywhere from three to five parents who call in after seeing the name of their child’s roommate on a bill. “They wonder how we miss-assigned them with someone of the opposite sex. We then have to inform them that it was actually their son or daughter who has chosen the living arrangement, and that they need to talk to them about it. And that is usually a hard conversation for them.”

Ellot says that there are currently 600 students, or about five percent of the NYU student body, living in what the school calls “open housing.” Instead of focusing on the gender element, the school acknowledges that students have a choice of lifestyle, and they should be able to determine how they live. In what is perhaps a relief to some parents, Ellot says that it is “exceedingly rare” to have a couple apply for open housing, and he cannot recall a specific case where a relationship had dissolved while two students were living together. He expects the trend of more schools offering gender-neutral housing to continue, especially as society changes, and 18-year-olds are more able to make lifestyle decisions for themselves.

“No one ever thought we would have smoke-free residence halls, and we have done that,” Ellot says. “There are even schools that allow pets in individual rooms. Society changes. There will be a time when everything gets conservative again, and then it will go back the other way. It’s the pendulum of life.”