On-campus housing at college has historically been structured according to traditional gender norms, with boys and girls in separate rooms or separate buildings. But students at Elon University and other North Carolina colleges seek to change that.
“College should not be a time of being fragmented and having your own self-identity issues compounded,” said Shirley Buono, a student who is pushing for gender-neutral housing on Elon’s campus. “Forcing people to choose male or female, this or that, you’re really losing out on some of the great complexities of life.”
Buono and other Elon students filed paperwork last month to create something similar to a learning community that would not divide students by gender, but too few students agree to live on the hall.
Supporters of gender-neutral housing on Elon’s campus are concerned many students may not identify with their biological genders.
“If someone is transgender and they don’t feel comfortable living with someone who the university has decided is their same sex, but they identify as the opposite gender, that’s an unsafe situation,” said Robert Linklater, a student who worked with Buono to create a gender non-specific housing community.
Other universities in North Carolina, including Duke and UNC Chapel Hill, have established gender-neutral on-campus residence areas. UNC-CH will offer the arrangement for the first time this fall.
“In 2006 there was a transgender student on campus that needed a safe place to live in, but Chapel Hill wasn’t able to accommodate that,” said Kevin Claybren, student coordinator for the Gender Non-Specific Housing Coalition at UNC-CH.
Next semester, the university will afford students opportunity to live in suites where each room will still have students of the same sex, but the connected rooms may have students of the opposite sex. Also, campus apartments can now have people of opposite sexes in them.
“We acknowledge this is a stepping stone, so after the pilot program is done, after the research is done, we’ll get to where we need to be,” Claybren said.
Senior Laura Sturm, vice president of Spectrum, Elon’s queer-straight alliance, is also working on a proposal to make areas like the Oaks apartments and the upcoming Global Neighborhood gender non-specific, so that students of opposite sexes have the option of living together.
“You can have it at Mill Point, but that’s only for juniors and seniors and it’s out of the price range for a lot of people,” Sturm said.
While several universities in states including Maryland and Michigan have gender-neutral housing, Strum said she is inclined to believe the change will eventually come to Elon after UNC-CH approved the program in a somewhat conservative state.
“It’s kind of spreading like wildfire. Now that a couple schools have done it, everyone wants to do it,” Sturm said. “Every school has to have it to compete with each other.”
Kirstin Ringelberg, LGBTQ office coordinator, has advocated for gender non-specific bathrooms as well as housing on Elon’s campus. She said dividing housing by gender reinforces the traditional idea of what being a man or being a woman means.
“People choose their roommates now. Why not really let them choose?” Ringelberg said. “Many female-identified people would still pick female-identified people, but why not let them choose to room with whom they feel safest instead of dictating that based on false ideas about sex and gender?”
Linklater agreed. He said a person should not have to feel uncomfortable in their living situation on campus if they are transgender or do not identify as a male or a female.
“If a person identifies as female and they want to live with a cisgender female or a transgender female, I feel like that should be accepted,” Linklater said.
Although Buono and others did not get enough students to sign up, she said she received a lot of positive feedback from the Elon faculty members she met.
“When you go into an office, I’m always really surprised that they support the LGBTQ community,” Buono said. “It’s always a shock, and a good chunk of the people I met had Safe Zone stickers and rainbow pins.”