This August, Boston University announced that it would begin offering gender-neutral housing options for students. Under the new policy, upper-class students in select BU housing can now select their roommates regardless of gender. The decision made BU the latest of nearly 100 American schools that have diversified their housing options in response to students who demand recognition of LGBTQ individuals’ safety concerns.
The push for gender-neutral housing at Boston University began last November. “In my short time at BU, I have met so many people who have been uncomfortable with their housing situations,” says Nai Collymore-Henry, vice president of the student group Gender Neutral BU. “I’ve met people who’ve been ostracized by peers and made to feel worthless because of their gender identities. That’s not OK.” In December, over 50 students participated in a sit-in at President Robert A. Brown’s office after students were told offering gender-neutral housing was not a priority. Students also showed broad-based support through a Tumblr photo campaign started by Gender Neutral BU.
Other schools have successfully offered gender-neutral housing for years. Columbia University introduced what it calls Open Housing in 2011. “It grew out of a concern for individuals who may have felt uncomfortable under the then-current housing requirement to select a same-sex roommate,” says Alycen Ashburn, a student affairs spokesperson at the university. In spring 2012, Columbia extended the Open Housing option to all upperclass students, following the recommendations of a task force including staff and students.
But at many schools, gender-neutral housing remains a controversial issue. This semester, UNC-Chapel Hill has seen a heated debate following its Board of Governors’ decision to cancel a gender-neutral housing option that had already been approved. “[Gender-neutral housing] had support from UNC,” says Hayley Fowler, a student and reporter for the Daily Tar Heel. “Student government backed [the plan], and the Board of Trustees approved the decision. The student activists I spoke with were upset with the Board of Governors for overturning a decision that they felt was so clearly wanted and accepted here on campus.”
Rick Bradley, UNC-Chapel Hill’s associate director of housing and residential education, says he hopes that continued discussion will shift the Board of Governors’ views. “I suspect that if you talk to Board of Governors members, their reason for denying this is probably not accurate to the reasons the students are looking forward to it,” Bradley says. He notes that contrary to what some opponents have suggested, taxpayer dollars would not be involved in a move to gender-neutral housing, and no one would be forced to participate in the opt-in program.
At schools like UNC-Chapel Hill and Boston University, what was once a conversation within the LGBTQ community has broadened to the entire student body. And the fight isn’t over. “Our mission is to provide resources to BU students about gender,” says Collymore-Henry. “We also intend to push for more gender-neutral facilities on BU’s campus.”