If your residence life office is anything like mine, then you’ve seen an uptick in recent years of students and their families asking about safe housing options for transgender and non-binary students.
If your office has to scramble each time to come up with a solution, it is likely well past time to consider implementing a gender-inclusive housing policy. The following are some items to think about when you’re just getting started.
First, let’s focus on some definitions. Decisions around what to name your policy can leave everyone feeling really confused, especially if you’re all using different terminology. It can be helpful to all be on the same page about the following terms and definitions:
Sex: Biological sex assigned at birth based on chromosomes and genitalia. Sex is often considered binary, but that’s a misconception that does not take into account intersex individuals, who are born with multiple or ambiguous genitalia.
Gender: A social construct that determines how someone sees themselves in terms of their identity and how they choose to express it. Gender is a spectrum.
Co-Ed: Students of differing sexes and/or genders living on the same floor of a residential community. For example, one room/suite might be all female, but next door, the room/suite is all male.
Mixed-Sex: Students of the same gender and/or sex reside in the same individual room of a suite, but all rooms in the suite are not assigned as one uniform sex and/or gender. For example, there may be one room that’s only for male students and one that’s only for female students, or you may have a room with one female (or male) student and an agender individual and another room or rooms with individuals identifying a third way, such as genderfluid or two-spirit.
Gender-Inclusive: Any combination of individuals identifying as any or no gender and any sex residing in the same room, suite, or floor.
Because of the all-inclusive nature of the term “gender-inclusive,” many institutions are choosing this terminology for a housing policy meant to communicate that there is space for any student, no matter their gender, sex, or expression of it.
2. Structural Considerations
One of the first things to consider when drafting a gender-inclusive housing policy is where on campus you’ll offer this type of housing.
Is it a designation for specific rooms that can be scattered throughout your various housing options? Or are you looking to create a specific community, such as an entire building or complex, for the population of students wishing for such a housing option?
Either way, you will need to be explicitly clear that it is an opt-in policy. This will help ensure the safety of any students choosing it while assuring them and their families that no unwitting roommates will be assigned a living arrangement that they didn’t opt into. Or if you’re creating a specialized community, establishing it as a living-learning or themed community alongside already established learning or themed communities may be a smart move.
The types of residence halls built on your campus may also play a critical role in this decision. If they are all traditional corridor-style housing, then common area bathrooms may prove to be prohibitive if you are unable to fill the entire floor with students wishing to live in such a gender-inclusive environment.
For this reason, suite-style housing may be better, as suites typically have private bathrooms. In most cases, however, suite-style housing comes at a higher price point. Please bear this in mind when considering the home for your gender-inclusive community, as there should not be a price penalty for inclusive housing options.
3. Restroom Policy
As I just mentioned, restrooms can create structural barriers for gender-inclusive housing. But, even when this isn’t the case, you’ll need to define restroom policies for any gender-inclusive housing options.
Do you have a strict, single-sex-only bathroom policy throughout campus? Many institutions that have had such policies are choosing to rewrite them to explicitly allow students to utilize the restroom that most closely matches their gender expression, rather than their sex assigned at birth. Many campuses also work to include more single-user, lockable restrooms when renovating or in new construction.
In my own practice, the only concerns about implementing such a policy have come from the families of cisgender students. In five years of practice on a mid-sized college campus, there have been zero reported incidents of concern, nor any reports of assaults, from residents.
Once you‘ve determined the locations and types of gender-inclusive housing you’ll offer, you will need to determine if the option is available to all students or only to a specific category of students seeking alternative housing options.
A typical argument against gender-inclusive housing is “How will we stop heterosexual couples from living together?” Well, LGBTQIA+ students already have the option of living with romantic partners and indeed, they sometimes do. You could also counter this concern by pointing out that college students are capable of making their own decisions and may already be choosing to move off campus to live with romantic partners.
Other decision-makers may find this entire argument a quagmire that gets in the way of achieving the original goal of serving students who may feel unsafe or otherwise out of place in traditional campus living arrangements, most typically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex students. Whichever way you proceed, beware of those potential arguments that may derail your efforts.
The way your department chooses to advertise the new gender-inclusive policy will go a long way in determining which students decide to participate.
Advertising under the header of LGBTQIA+ housing can help ensure that you receive less pushback from stakeholders about who may choose such housing options. Institutions that have stakeholders who may balk at this type of categorization may also find success placing the policy in a policy section on housing accommodations, alongside information about other special housing accommodations students may require, such as those related to physical or mental health needs.
6. Training Hall Staff
If your RA training does not yet include modules about gender identity and expression, you should add it as soon as possible. Such training should highlight the differences between sex and gender, and provide real-world examples of how lack of knowledge of the difference between the two may impact residents.
Such training is important for all staff, but especially for RAs of gender-inclusive communities, suites, or rooms. Selecting RAs who are aware of and sensitive to issues facing LGBTQIA+ students will go a long way in ensuring the comfort of all community members.
7. Campus Name Policy
Does your campus have a policy regarding students’ preferred names? Such a policy allows students to notify the institution of a preferred name that they choose to go by, other than their current legal name.
While this is critical for trans students who may have not legally changed their sex or name (or are not able or don’t desire to), it’s also helpful to many other individuals, such as international students who may choose a different name to go by while studying abroad or other students who simply prefer a nickname. (For example, please call me Russ, not Russell. Thanks.)
Real-world application of a preferred name policy will come into play in res halls whenever your staff considers things like door tags, mail-merged email correspondences, campus mail, and other hall paperwork. Because you will want to be supportive of trans students by not dead-naming them, a preferred name policy can do the work of sharing preferred names without the students constantly having to notify anyone.
If your campus does not have a preferred name policy, advocate for one. You may find allies for this effort in collaborating with your diversity and inclusion office, your Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, or your Title IX office. Together, you can create a proposal for your divisional leadership, who can in turn advocate on the cabinet-level. In the meantime, ensure RAs are using chosen names for things like door tags and bulletin boards.
8. Themed Floor Decorations
Many LGBTQIA+ students are not out to their families. Because of this, the visible look of a gender-inclusive floor may become an important issue to discuss with everyone in the hall or floor.
If there are members of the community who are not out with regards to their gender identity and/or sexual expression, then queer and trans pride imagery may be a sensitive topic. To start the year off, avoiding such decorations might be prudent, especially if students’ friends and families plan to visit. Once community members are present, this topic can be discussed and a group consensus can hopefully be reached.
If you have chosen to create a gender-inclusive themed or living-learning community, one last key to success could be potential collaborators.
LGBTQIA+ and multicultural offices are a natural fit. Considering academic programs, student organizations, or other student support offices can reap benefits as well.
Think broadly, as beneficial partnerships can often come from surprising places. For example, I know of a geography professor who once had his students survey all campus buildings, including residence halls, to create and produce a gender-inclusive bathroom map for the campus. The students learned map-making skills and the resulting maps provide a valuable tool that is still helpful to students years later.
Although it can be difficult to wrap your mind around a truly gender-inclusive housing policy, and possibly even more difficult to convince all the required stakeholders, the potential benefits are great.
The opportunity to apply for and obtain safe housing with gender-affirming roommates and suitemates without struggle is one that all students deserve. Doing the work of ensuring this opportunity for them, before they apply for housing, communicates that they are expected, valued members of your community.