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Hot on Campus | March 13, 2012

Neutralizing gender in campus housing

Roommates

Activists say schools should allow students to live together regardless of gender to make gay students safe and comfortable on campus

One day after Oklahomans cast ballots in the Super Tuesday primary, giving their electoral votes to the most conservative candidate in the Republican race, a few dozen students marched to the office of University of Oklahoma President David Boren demanding he support their call for gender-neutral campus housing. In the Pacific Northwest, schools have used housing assignment policies that blur the lines of gender for the last few years, but calls for open housing are spreading to America's heartland.

Homosexual advocacy groups champion the push for gender neutral housing, saying such policies are necessary to create a "safe and comfortable" living environment for students who do not conform to a normative sexual identity. But campus statistics show few instances of crime related to gender or sexual identity, raising questions about the need for housing policy changes. And depending on how they're implemented, the policies could force students to live with someone of the opposite sex, leaving them with few options if they object.

Deleting gender

At Lewis and Clark University, a small liberal arts school in Portland, Ore., Area Director Charlie Ahlquist said students who do not feel comfortable with the traditional single-gender rooming assignments can take advantage of the gender-neutral policy: "What we discovered was that many students simply feel more comfortable sharing their personal space with others who do not identify as the same sex as them, and we didn't want to prohibit this option simply because those students don't identify as LGBTQ."

At the University of Oregon, the housing application does not include an option to mark "male" or "female," only a space labeled "gender." Students are allowed to "self identify" their gender as male, female, queer, asexual or any number of defining attributes that describe their sexual proclivities, rather than their biological nature.

A prospective housing resident who is born male, but self-identifies as female, can indicate "female" as his gender on the application form and - unless the student is applying for housing on the Gender Equity Hall - could end up paired with an unsuspecting female student in one of the general housing residences.

If that happens, and one or both students do not agree to the arrangement, it is up to them to contact housing administrators and request a change, said Erin Honseller, the university's assistant complex director.

The school's Gender Equity Hall allows any student to room with any other student, regardless of gender. The program started in 2008 but was delayed for a year because it did not meet the minimum requirement for student participation. School officials expect to have 80 students living on the hall next year, up from 20 students in 2009.

The students assigned to Gender Equity Hall live in single, double, or triple rooms and share bathrooms, which include toilets in stalls and newly installed hard walls between each shower. Honseller said the school also installed mirrors for students who need to adjust their appearance to reflect their chosen gender before leaving the bathroom. Gender-specific bathrooms are available on another wing of the residence hall for students who prefer that environment.

Sheri Donahoe, assistant director for Resident Life, said the school is not a pioneer in this area and that most Oregon state schools have similar policies.

Limited interest

Such is not the case at the University of Oklahoma, where students with the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Friends organization and the Students for Democratic Society rallied last week. Although administrators encouraged them to limit their policy change request to upperclassmen only, the students want open housing for all, even the freshmen required to live on campus.

David Annis, director of Housing and Food Services, said students have proposed the idea for at least five years but the March 7 rally was the first public call for solidarity on the issue. According to The Oklahoma Daily, the school's student-run newspaper, about 50 people attended the protest.

"That speaks something to this movement," Annis noted. The school's Norman, Okla., campus is home to about 27,000 students.

Despite the increasing calls for gender-neutral policies around the country, few students who have the option are taking it. Out of the 5,800 undergraduates at Columbia University, only 20 - 0.3 percent of the student body - are participating in a gender-neutral housing pilot program this year. But, the school plans to expand the program to the entire campus this fall.

Participation is even less at institutions that have had the policy for a while. After eight years, Lewis and Clark University has, on average, four students - just 0.2 percent of the student body - choose the gender-neutral housing option each semester. Administrators at the University of Oregon expect only 0.3 percent of the school's 24,447 students to live on the Gender Equity Hall this fall.

Unsafe environment?

Both national and local organizations are coordinating the campaign for gender-neutral housing, although the effort looks slightly different on each campus. Supporters say colleges and universities need to provide safe campus housing for students who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, queer, bisexual and other self-authored descriptors. Proponents often cite the tragic death in 2010 of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after he discovered his roommate had set up a web cast of his homosexual liaisons in their dorm room, as proof of the need for change.

The story continues to make headlines as Dharun Ravi, Clementi's roommate, stands trial on charges of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. But a national campus crime report shows instances of violence and intimidation on college campuses are rare.

According to the FBI Hate Crimes report, 1,436 sexually oriented hate crimes were reported nationwide in 2009. The Department of Education's campus crime database shows only 43 reports of hate crimes involving violence or intimidation related to sexual orientation or gender in 2009. Hate crimes are defined as illegal acts that are motivated by a bias against the victim.

A recent demand for gender-neutral housing at the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill cited an unsafe environment for LGBT students, but the campus crime report shows no record of sexually oriented hate crimes. It does, however, note a spike in rapes from 6 to 19 between 2009 and 2010. The database shows no sexually oriented hate crimes filed between 2008 and 2010 on the University of Oklahoma campus.

"I don't remember the last time [a hate crime was reported]. It's been years," Lt. Bruce Chan, with the University of Oklahoma Police Department, said. No student organization has notified the police department of unsafe or threatening circumstances on campus, particularly in their living quarters, he said.

Even without a gender-neutral policy, Annis said he is confident the school's housing department creates safe and secure rooming assignments for all students. Annis is sympathetic to untenable roommate situations, saying he as a "tool box" of resources at his disposal to solve such problems.

But he cannot repair what is not reported, he said. Like the school's police department, Annis has no record of any students reporting unsafe or threatening circumstances on campus, even though YouTube videos from last week's rally show students describing deplorable living conditions.

"They never brought that to anyone's attention," Annis said.