Rebooting Gender Inclusive Housing

Last week I attended a meeting of our campus' LGBTQA student organization, Pride, to present our newly revised gender inclusive housing policy to them. I often get nervous before meeting with student groups. In this case, it was more noticeable. For years we skirted by on a gender neutral housing policy that was... good enough. At least, that's what we told ourselves. I wanted the revised policy to be something students supported and, in turn, felt supported by. 

When I started in my role in October 2011, I inherited the policy. I didn't love it, but it was good enough for us to get by while we tackled bigger, more pressing challenges. I'm torn on this decision four years later. On one hand, it should have been a more immediate issue to address. Nothing should ever be 'good enough'. On the other, I didn't fully know what I needed to know to improve the process and the experience for students who were utilizing the policy. I'm not sure we would have arrived at our new policy, a much more student-forward approach, had we tried to revise the policy in 2011. We relied on student feedback and those who challenged us to give the policy the critical look it needed. 

Our previous gender neutral policy had significant barriers embedded -- heteronormative, financial, and otherwise. Students who requested gender neutral housing were required to meet with a professional staff member in residence life to make their request. They were then required to sign a gender neutral housing agreement, which explained that they were eligible to select a gender neutral housing assignment with their selected roommate, but if the roommate relationship dissolved, it was their responsibility to find another new roommate. They were required to sign a roommate agreement before even being able to select a room, meaning some students went through this process but were never able to obtain their desired housing assignment or live with their intended roommate. And what embarrasses me most is that students were only able to select gender neutral housing assignments in double rooms. All of the double rooms on campus for returning students are available in our newest hall and a recently renovated hall. Because we utilize a differential pricing model on campus, this meant students opting for gender neutral room assignments were paying more for their rooms than students in what we consider to be a standard room rate.

When I revised the policy, I wanted to remove as many of the barriers as possible. It was important that students be able to navigate the process in a way that does not force them to self-disclose their gender expression or reasons for requesting gender inclusive housing. The power differential that created, the discomfort for students, was a significant factor in students not using the availability of gender neutral housing. I also wanted to remove pricing as a limiting factor. And, while for many institutions, it makes sense to designate a hallway or wing as a gender inclusive community, I wanted our students to continue to have free reign to select the community that makes best sense for them. 

Pride overwhelmingly supported our new policy. They provided thoughtful, constructive feedback. They asked incredibly insightful questions. They identified potential concerns and helped me navigate how we could mitigate those issues to make our residence halls a welcoming environment for all of our students. Some of that involved backtracking and implementing new opportunities before we even think about students choosing a room. Our housing application now asks students for their preferred first names, something many students requested. We also ask a non-required "Are you interested in gender inclusive housing?" which will allow us to assist students who may not have an identified roommate but are interested in the options available to them. Gender, instead of being defined as binary, is now a fill-in-the-blank.

Our new policy allows students to create gender inclusive roommate groups without interference or assistance from any residence life staff member, unless requested. Groups can mutually select one another within our online housing module during the room selection process. Students can make almost any room on campus a gender inclusive space, as we've removed the requirement that they must live in doubles. If the group can fill a quad, they can have a quad. If the group can fill a suite, they can have a suite. We're fortunate as a campus that, with the exception of one older hall, our halls are largely equipped semi-private or private bathrooms. And in some halls where there are community bathrooms, we have a gender inclusive bathroom option on those floors. 

Students are no longer required to sign any paperwork or to complete a roommate agreement in advance; however, because we use online roommate agreements, the resource is always available to them as it is to all of our residents. 

There's a sense of relief, genuinely, that as we head into this room selection season that we finally got this right -- that instead of our policy on gender neutral housing dictating the student experience, the student experience has guided our approach to gender inclusive housing.