Providing the right housing environment for, particularly, closeted trans students can be the first step toward inclusivity and broader campus-wide change.
Question: Genny, please introduce yourself and the work you do:
Answer: I am the director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and have been working for more than 12 years to improve campus climates for trans students by encouraging and consulting with colleges to enact trans-supportive policies. I also keep track of the schools that have such policies, first as the campus consultant for the Transgender Law and Policy Institute and now as the coordinator for Campus Pride's Trans Policy Clearinghouse.
Q: In your own words, what is gender-inclusive housing and why do organizations have it?
A: Gender-inclusive housing (GIH) is housing in which interested students are assigned to rooms without regard to gender. A student can have a roommate, suite-mate and/or apartment-mate of any gender. More and more colleges are developing GIH so that trans students can have a safer and more comfortable living environment — recognizing that housing and residence hall bathrooms and showers based on a gender binary do not work when a growing number of students are transitioning or openly identifying outside of a binary.
Q: How did gender-inclusive housing begin at your university and in what ways has it evolved over time?
A: Here is a good example of why GIH is so important. When I came to UMass Amherst seven years ago, I encouraged the then-director of Residence Life to create GIH. She was reluctant, wanting to wait until there was a real need. I knew that there was already a need (closeted trans students were living on campus) and believed that waiting for a problem to arise before addressing the issue was misguided and potentially dangerous. Sure enough, the next school year a trans female student came forward and Residence Life had no good place to house her. She was from the U.S., but the department placed her on a floor for international students because that was the only place in our campus housing system that had a single-user bathroom and shower.
She had been kicked out of her home by her parents when she came out as trans, and her housing situation made her feel even more isolated and depressed. She attempted suicide in her room and then dropped out. Thankfully, we now have a really great senior administration in Residence Life. We have long offered a suite-style LGBTQA floor (it was actually the first in the country), and for the past few years have had GIH. Our trans students live on the LGBTQA floor, in GIH that is available in a suite-style building, and in general campus housing on a case-by-case basis.
Our GIH is still evolving, as we try to best address student needs. We had a big problem with students misunderstanding what it is and mistakenly signing up for it, so are trying to do a better job of explaining GIH to students.
Q: What is the status of gender-inclusive housing at institutions across the U.S.?
A: About 150 colleges and universities have some form of GIH, many of which have developed their programs in the past few years. I expect that the trend will accelerate even further in the next few years, as more schools recognize the importance of accommodating trans students.
Q: Who is gender-inclusive housing actually for?
A: It's for anyone who wants to live with someone of a different gender than themselves, with the exclusion of couples because of the potential for the relationship to end and the living situation to deteriorate. The fact that GIH is for trans students and allies, siblings, and male-female friends raises an important point: GIH is not a community like an interest- or identity-based floor. Rather, it is an accommodation.
Q: Why is there no one standard for gender-inclusive policies?
A: In part, that is because campuses have different housing stock and different campus cultures. It is also because campuses do not know the best practices.
Q: What would you like institutions to adopt as a GIH best practice?
A: Ideally, all campus rooms should be able to become gender-inclusive. In lieu of this, I would strongly suggest two best practices:
- GIH should be open to both incoming and returning students
- GIH should be offered in different parts of campus and, if possible, in different types of housing (doubles, suites and apartments)
Q: What are your thoughts on schools that have banned gender-inclusive housing?
A: The move is incredibly reactionary and sends a signal to all students that they are not responsible adults. Thankfully, the NC State school system seems pretty much alone in trying to revive in locus parentis and institutionalize anti-trans bias in this way. I foresee few schools moving in this direction, especially since most institutions do not seek or have to gain the approval of boards of regents or trustees.
Q: For an organization that is thinking about adopting a gender-inclusive policy, what would you recommend?
A: Create a policy based on best practices from the outset and have this policy on a visible website, so that students will know about this option. After the first year of GIH, the policy should be evaluated to make sure that it is best meeting the needs of students.