University of Minnesota wants to offer students gender-neutral housing

It’s about comfort and safety (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

Gender-neutral housing is coming to the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus.

In the fall of 2015, up to several dozen upper-division students will have access to campus apartments regardless of sex or what gender they identify with.

Transgender students have been pushing for the change. And the U will join a growing number of schools around the country in offering such accommodation — including a couple of sister campuses in the U of M system.

Jayce Koester, a transgender sophomore from the U’s campus in Morris, said such housing is key for transgender students to feel safe and comfortable on campus:

“Using non-gender-neutral bathrooms, and living in a non-gender-neutral space as you’re coming out, transgender students can face violence, they can face accusations, they can face physical, emotional abuse coming from a roommate. When students opt in to a gender-neutral system, what it allows for is this idea that gender is not a key component in why you’re matched with your roommate.”

Gender-neutral housing is different from co-ed housing, which the U already has.

Co-ed (or mixed-gender) housing allows for a room of men, for example, to be next to a room of women in the residence halls. But the U doesn’t allow a male and a female to room together in the same space.

In gender-neutral housing, gender doesn’t play a role at all.

At the U, it would work like this:

In a typical four-bedroom apartment, the university might place biological males in two of the bedrooms, and biological females in the other two. Or it might be some other combination. But both biological males and females would share the same apartment and living spaces.

Campus officials stress that students would have to opt into this arrangement.

Transgender people are those who may have been born biologically male but identify with being female. Or they were born biologically female but identify as male. Or they don’t identify as either. They may or may not have changed their bodies through hormones or surgery.

Many of these students are grappling with their identity in college. To them, gender-neutral housing is a safe place at what can be a challenging time of life.

Katie Burgess, executive director of the Trans Youth Support Network in Minneapolis, says placing such students with roommates who are not transgender can be fraught with peril.

Changing clothes in front of a new roommate can be awkward at best, Burgess said, and communal bathrooms and showers can be hazardous:

“People will say rude things to you, people are often physically assaulted, and when you’re in a shower situation, I think those things are exasperated. It’s already a place where I think everyone feels a little bit vulnerable no matter who you are.”

Some estimates put the number of U.S. campuses at 100 to 150. According to a student report to the university’s regents, the Rochester campus has gender-neutral housing already, and the Morris campus may implement it next year.

Susan Stubblefield, the U’s associate director of housing and residential life, says the U doesn’t ask about the sexual orientation of students or whether they’re transgender. But if students notify the housing office that they are transgender, she said, she’ll work to get housing that works for them. She says she does that for 1-3 students a year.

The housing will be open to the broader student body, Stubblefield said:

“Gender-neutral housing can be supportive of both transgender-identified students. But it also can be supportive of students who simply want to live with somebody of the other gender.”

The U hasn’t figured out a lot of the details yet — such as the exact opt-in mechanisms or the matching of students — so Stubblefield said it would be difficult to say how the process would work.

Koester said the housing should be open to freshmen, because that first year is crucial to shaping their college experience. But Stubblefield says the pilot project will be for sophomores on up until they work any kinks out of the system.