Gender-inclusive student housing is becoming the new normal, replacing a more traditional approach to housing assignments in more than 265 colleges and universities. The housing accommodates a need for comfort and safety among the LGBT community, which is growing, according to a 2016 Gallup poll, with 4.1 percent of U.S. residents, or 10 million people, identifying as members of the LGBT community, up from 3.5 percent in 2012. Unlike senior housing, though, this demographic growth does not provide opportunities for development of student housing.
Why? Traditional off-campus student housing is still a booming market and will continue to be. But with off-campus student housing, the need for a gender-inclusive community is essentially nonexistent, since the majority of students are choosing people to live with that they already know, eliminating the probability of being stuck in an uncomfortable or dangerous living situation.
On campus, it gets a bit tricky. A university can’t build separate LGBT-only housing, as that would create the same problem as not offering the housing option in the first place: segregating students. According to a recent survey from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 55.5 percent of LGBT students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. That being said, this community shouldn’t have to be separated from any other students in order to ensure their safety on campus.
The better alternative is to redefine rooms within existing on-campus housing as gender inclusive. This option helps reduce concerns by creating a safe haven without being exclusive.
“I think more schools are adopting this to make students (feel) safer and respected,” said Abigail Francis, assistant dean of LBGT Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There are more students coming out every year, so it is important to have options and resources for students identifying in this community.”
Tackling the issue
Among universities, the attention to this matter has changed drastically over the last 10 to 20 years. Although it was once not discussed on university campuses, now there is more understanding of and importance placed on the issue by both the administration and the student body.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges. The biggest obstacle is ensuring students are on board. Connecting them to the administration and making sure they understand their rights and the exact changes that will be made within gender-inclusive housing will help allay concerns. Critical in creating a request for gender-inclusive housing is addressing all members of the LGBT community and including them in the university’s anti-discrimination policies. Parental concerns and confusion must also be addressed, although the majority of college students are considered adults, with such a program allowing them to be treated as such.
“More universities are starting to understand that it doesn’t make sense to force someone to live with someone else based on what their birth certificate says,” explained Judy Jarvis, director of the LGBT Center at Princeton University. “Some students need this for their mental well-being, but others just want to feel comfortable and live with people they know and trust, or those who have a better understanding of what they might be experiencing.”