University preps for gender-neutral housing, new living option will be available for some students in fall 2015

Beginning fall 2015, the University of Minnesota will allow some students to share rooms in on-campus housing regardless of their gender.

MN Daily Editor's Note: Some sources in this story are referenced using the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them” because the sources do not identify with masculine or feminine pronouns.

In offering gender-neutral housing, the University is joining a growing trend in higher education. But while some are optimistic about the new housing option, others remain apprehensive.

“I think, in name, it represents something that is really potentially useful to a lot of different people … but that it needs to be implemented correctly,” said Gwen Carlson, president of University student group Tranarchy.

The location for gender-neutral housing, the number of units offered and the application process have yet to be determined.

Gender-neutral housing is different from the co-ed housing arrangement some University dorms already have. In co-ed residence halls, a room with males could be next to a room with females on the same floor. In gender-neutral housing, gender isn’t a factor in room assignments.

Stef Wilenchek, director of the University’s GLBTA Programs Office, said the new housing option could benefit both transgender students and students who choose not to identify themselves by gender or would prefer a roommate who doesn’t.

The University’s Transgender Commission had multiple discussions with administrators about implementing gender-neutral housing on campus. In its 2013-14 fiscal year strategic plan, Housing and Residential Life made plans to develop a gender-neutral housing option, said Susan Stubblefield, HRL assistant director.

She said student advocacy, including discussions with the Board of Regents, signaled to administrators that the University was ready for gender-neutral housing.

Implementing the option means some students who don’t identify as male or female can feel safer and more relaxed in their homes, said Charles Laikind, Transgender Commission co-chair.

“For some students who identify as gender diverse, residence halls can be a place where [they] have to feel on and alert all the time,” they said.

Stubblefield said the new housing option might not be offered to freshmen for the first year because it’ll be new to the University.

But for Carlson, the possible exclusion of freshmen is a “missed opportunity,” she said.

Carlson said freshmen who don’t identify with a gender don’t often know many supportive people at the University, so they could benefit from having a gender-neutral housing option right away.

“The students who are going to need it the most are going to be the younger ones who are new to a University setting,” she said.

Stubblefield said she works with transgender students every year who make special requests to change their housing situations.

Northwestern University is one of more than 100 schools around the country that offer gender-neutral housing. The university has piloted different models of gender-neutral housing for more than three years, said Mark D’Arienzo, Northwestern’s associate director of housing.

When Northwestern began offering gender-inclusive housing, D’Arienzo said, it was a challenge to make it cost-effective and keep students comfortable.

“For about the same money, you can go off campus and … basically be in an environment that’s more like home, as opposed to a residence hall,” he said.

Carlson said some transgender students don’t view on-campus housing as an option because it can be difficult to arrange.

Northwestern administrators learned through trial and error that trans-identified students preferred to live in single rooms in the gender-neutral environment, D’Arienzo said.

Laikind said the University has a long way to go to make campus more inclusive for transgender people. They said this is a “long overdue” step in the right direction.

“I’m glad that it’s being done,” Laikind said, “but I also think that there’s a lot more that we can do.”