KNAYSI: Don’t be neutral about gender-neutral

Students should push for the University to offer gender-neutral housing options

More than 90 colleges — including George Washington University, New York University, and the University of Maryland — offer gender-neutral housing, a housing option that would allow students to select roommates, suitemates or apartment-mates without regard to sex or gender. And this number is climbing. Boston University recently approved gender-neutral living options after significant student pressure. As I write, Harvard students are voting on a referendum to universalize their limited gender-neutral housing policies.

Schools adopt such a policy for different reasons — some to grant students greater freedom and responsibility in shaping their college experiences, others to acknowledge the needs and preferences of LGBTQ students. The policy is a natural response to evolving cultural attitudes toward gender and sexuality. But with all this change in dorm room living, where is the University of Virginia’s gender-neutral housing movement?

In my five semesters at the University so far, I remember the issue being mentioned only two or three times. Researching our history with the topic, the last organized University effort I found was a 2011 petition on The most recent article I found in this newspaper that focuses on the University’s gender housing policies at any significant length is an opinion column that also dates to 2011. So while other schools have led entire (successful) movements — petitions, public discussions, protests — for mixed housing, students at our university have failed to even raise gender-neutral housing as an issue for debate. If we take the dozens of other colleges as case studies, it’s clear such policies require student action in order to become a reality.

The University of Virginia offers first-year and upperclass co-ed dormitory buildings, but each floor or suite is limited to one sex. It does not currently provide a gender-neutral living option and deals with transgender students on a case-by-case basis — generally offering single housing.

Proponents approach the issue from different angles, but perhaps least controversial at a “student-governance”-oriented school like ours might be the argument that it increases student freedom. Our school encourages students to mold the University into the type of community we desire. We run the honor system and the University Judiciary Committee, as well as hundreds of clubs and a complex (if not always effective) student government. With so many responsibilities, doesn’t the ability to choose our roommates — without conditions of sex or gender — seem consistent and fair? After all, students are legal adults who inevitably spend their entire college experience living and working among the opposite sex.

But perhaps the most common argument for gender-neutral housing is the recognition and support it shows the LGBTQ community. Though many students do not see the appeal of a different-gender roommate, many in the LGBTQ community feel safer and more comfortable in such living conditions. The high-profile suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi comes to mind — and Rutgers found that its subsequent gender-neutral housing options helped create a more inclusive environment. Such choices are particularly valuable for transgender students, who — besides fearing discrimination and harassment — might have a more difficult time expressing their identity in same-sex housing. All things considered, University policies that ignore the needs and preferences of LGBTQ students are insensitive and neglectful at best, and outright discriminatory at worst.

As we are seeing this week at Harvard — as well as dozens of schools before it — student activism is the driving force behind gender-neutral housing. To start the transition, why not designate a few gender-neutral floors and suites? The process would be opt-in, so students who feel uncomfortable living among the opposite sex would not be assigned to such spaces.

Some students in residence life who I have spoken to worry that gender-neutral areas might become targets of anti-gay attitudes and marginalization. I do not find this convincing. Even at our Southern, relatively conservative school, attitudes toward the LGBTQ community reflect those of the nation (i.e. increasing tolerance, particularly among young people). Moreover, higher education contains too many thriving case studies (for both limited and universal gender-neutral housing) to disregard these options with simple hypotheticals. I do not ask our university to be radical but merely adopt the more open and democratic policies of so many of its fellow educational institutions.

Would the University be responsive to student concerns and interests? At a school that emphasizes student self-governance, one would hope and expect so. One aspect is certain — gender-neutral housing will not arrive at the University anytime soon without support from its students.

George Knaysi is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. His columns run Tuesdays.

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