Overwhelmed. Intimidated. Confused. These are the feelings that mark the first few weeks of freshman year. Dorms, however, serve as safe havens for the hordes of new students in those first few weeks. On-campus living is valuable to first-year students, and this is why 70 percent of the 7,200 students housed on campus are freshmen seeking the security and belonging found in a residential dormitory. Due to the fact that on-campus dorms require same-sex roommate pairing, many LGBTQ students have to tolerate rooming situations that range from uncomfortable to unbearable.
The current same-sex roommate policy operates under very heteronormative assumptions. While it is intended to provide “appropriate” rooming situations, the policy ignores the unique housing needs of the LGBTQ community. Gender diversity in this community means students’ preferences and identifications fall beyond the traditional scope of gender norms, and the roommate policy does not acknowledge this diversity or support the many difficulties of this community. In fact, a study (Rankin and Beemyn, in progress) found that 44 percent of 50 transgender students from 14 universities experienced harassment in the form of derogatory remarks, verbal and physical threats, and denial of services.
“Living in all-female dorms during both of my first two years on campus [was] an uncomfortable situation since I began questioning my gender. My request to change rooms was denied and I couldn’t afford a single room [on campus],” said Bridgette Kieffer, co-director of LGBTQ political activist group StandOut.
Since then, the Division of Housing and Food Service has offered a welcome, though incomplete solution. “If an LGBTQ student is willing to share their gender identity, it is possible that they will be assigned an individual room at the same cost as sharing a room,” Kieffer said. “This is not ideal since it requires the student to come out to Housing, but it is a step in the right direction.”
Associate Director of Residence Life Hemlata Jhaveri, who oversees these types of housing issues at DHFS, has been working with StandOut for the past year to further evaluate the need for gender-neutral housing and study how it is provided at other universities. “It is very important that every student feels safe in their community living space, and we work with students on an individual basis,” Jhaveri said. Gender-neutral housing would give students the option to room together, regardless of the students’ biological sex or identified gender. DHFS has found that only two private schools in Texas offer it, and the majority of schools outside Texas offer it only to upperclassmen through university-owned apartments, suggesting its infeasibility at UT.
StandOut, however, is not satisfied with these initiatives and has continued to petition for a gender-inclusive housing option that would allow students of any gender to freely room together for over a year now. Last year, DHFS suggested UT’s off-campus dorms as a solution because they allow students to choose any roommate. “That shows that they just wanted to throw the issue off campus, and I strongly agree with the idea that you should live on campus your first year,” StandOut co-director Devon Howard said. Since then, StandOut has continued to push for an on-campus dorm with a pilot floor for gender-inclusive housing. DHFS, however, has not confirmed any plans of the sort, and LGBTQ students are still forced to manage with the roommate policy in the current on-campus housing options.
Even if DHFS did approve plans for a pilot floor, it is still questionable that that would completely solve the problem. “I don’t believe this is purely housing-related,” Devon said. “UT has pretty awesome LGBTQ policies, like the nondiscrimination policy or preferred pronoun change on non-legal documents. A lot of the issues come from the students and their ignorance – not much [that] the University itself can directly cure.”
I think I speak for all of us when I say it is time to reexamine initiatives to cure the true source of the problem – ignorance and intolerance. StandOut and DHFS’ initiatives to explore gender-inclusive housing are a sensible approach to sensitive student issues, but the solution has to start and end with education and stronger student initiatives to promote tolerance and diversity on and off campus.
Huynh is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Laredo.