College freshmen used to only check boxes for men’s, women’s or co-ed dorms.
Now schools are moving to expand the options to fit a more fluid definition of gender. Administrators say they’re adapting to a far more visible LGBT population.
In more than 200 universities across the country, including public colleges in Kansas and Missouri, residence halls set aside suites to be shared among students regardless of their gender identity, how they’re living out that version of themselves or their sexual orientation.
The University of Kansas and the University if Missouri-Kansas City each have assigned housing for more than 20 students who might be transgender, transitioning from the gender on their birth certificate to the one they identify with, or for whom the classic idea of male or female doesn’t fit.
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Those who pushed for the changes say the trend aims to make those students as comfortable with dorm life as any of their classmates.
“I (saw) some things that were treated a little more lax than they should have been.” said John Roberts, a former UMKC resident assistant. “I feel like that housing could have been more integrated, strove for a little more.”
He belonged to Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity founded by gay men that’s grown to embrace bisexual, transgender and other men across the LGBT spectrum. Working at Johnson Hall for two years, he saw harassment and intolerance directed at transgender students that he thought the university could have done more about.
“Just working with students who identified with other gender pronouns or gender associations, there were issues that were downplayed,” he said.
Roberts and his fraternity brothers pushed for housing that set aside a more comfortable space.
College dorms mark a particular battleground on campuses. Advocates for LGBT students contend schools can easily make a welcoming place for everybody they enroll.
Even conservative forces, groups that have pushed bathroom bills that would tie people to the gender they were assigned at birth, favor the trend in accommodations. Setting aside special transgender suites, they say, would protect students who don’t want transgender roommates.
Eric Teetsel, president of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, said that creating an option for students to live in what universities call “gender-inclusive” housing is better than opening all dorms to students with various gender identities. He talks about the issue in terms of privacy, whether a young heterosexual woman, for instance, would feel comfortable sharing a bathroom with a transgender student.
“Assigning all rooms on the basis of gender identity would be a violation of the privacy rights of students,” Teetsel said. “No one is arguing that people who identify with an opposite gender of their biological sex are predatory. But when applied to the public at large, somebody could take advantage of this.”
Phillip Cosby, a lobbyist and director of American Family Association of Kansas & Missouri, contends the trend of setting aside suites is driven by what he calls “gender confusion.” Why then, he wonders, would state universities make special accommodations?
“The whole subject of transgender is gender confusion,” Cosby said. “It’s not a scientific reality, not a biological reality, but it’s an emotional feeling.”
UMKC will expand housing in all four residence facilities that cover both Volker and Hospital Hill campuses, including Johnson Hall, while KU will open an entire wing of Lewis Hall to gender-inclusive housing in the fall. Both offer suites as an option, where two rooms are joined by a middle bathroom.
Katie Garey, associate director for Residential Life at UMKC, said she wants ongoing student input and to continue developing gender-inclusive housing even further in the future. She said students have been rallying behind this expansion for years. Every student who is interested in it, Garey said, will have a place to live this fall at UMKC.
“We want to make sure that gender-inclusive housing is available in all four of our facilities,” she said. “That way, if students are bound by a certain price point or they’re interested in staying in the Hospital Hill campus, they have every facility to choose. It’s been something on our to-do list for a long time.”
UMKC is committed to developing housing further as the need increases, Garey said, and there’s currently no wait list.
KU still has a small wait list, said director of housing Diana Robertson. But with an entire wing of Lewis Hall gender-inclusive this fall, she said there’s no immediate plan for expansion or continued development.
Both university administrations reported no backlash during the lengthy process of opening gender-inclusive housing. UMKC student and Delta Lambda Phi member Dylan Burd said there wasn’t resistance from faculty or staff, but that undoubtedly there were, and still are, community members who aren’t as open to the idea.
“This housing, I think it’s not just something for those within the community themselves,” Burd said, “but it is a learning moment and opportunity for those who don’t have a lot of insight into people with different experiences than them.”
Smaller universities like Pittsburg State University and Emporia State University handle requests for gender-inclusive housing on a case-by-case basis.
Melissa Beisel, associate director of housing at Pittsburg State, said there is no specific policy in place.
“If there’s a transgender student, they would need to contact us directly and we would work with them and figure it out,” Beisel said. “We have not had a large demand for that thus far, but in the last two years, we’ve probably had two students, one for each year so far.”
Beisel asks students where they would be most comfortable.
“Where are they in their transition process, or are they even transitioning? Would they be more comfortable on a male or female floor? It’s a case-by-case basis,” Beisel said. “We have a couple co-ed buildings where it’s co-ed on the floor. Some students want privacy, but some don’t want to be treated differently than anyone else.”
The University of Missouri campus in Columbia will continue to offer gender-neutral housing options on the first floor of the Social Justice Thematic Learning Community in College Avenue Hall, the second floor of the General Learning Community in Brooks Hall, and the third floor of the Carver Learning Community in Gateway Hall, according to Christian Basi from the MU News Bureau.
“No significant changes are occurring because of budget concerns,” Basi said.