UNC panel backs 'gender-neutral' housing idea

UNC trustees to discuss issue today

CorrespondentNovember 14, 2012 

Cat Wyatt (left) and Layla Quran, director of external relations of Campus Y, make a poster at a sleep-in for gender-neutral housing held at the Y on Tuesday night.

COURTESY OF MONICA CHEN

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CHAPEL HILL -- A campaign to give UNC-Chapel Hill students the option of living on campus with those of the opposite sex got a major boost Wednesday when a committee of the school’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the idea.

The issue will go before the full trustees board Thursday.

The University Affairs Committee’s vote, which came after a presentation and discussion Wednesday, came as a shock to the campus Gender Non-Specific Housing Coalition.

“We were wonderfully surprised,” said Terri Phoenix, director of the campus Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Center and a leader of the Gender Non-Specific Housing Coalition. “We did not expect that today. I think we made a clear and convincing case that it’s about safety and academic success for the students.”

The proposal would allow students who apply for the optional housing to choose roommates of either gender. Although UNC-CH has co-ed dorms now, students of different genders don’t share rooms.

The coalition thinks “gender-neutral” housing would help alleviate bullying and other forms of abuse that some gay and transgender students say they have faced in dorm rooms.

The coalition says gay, lesbian and transgender students sometimes end up with hostile roommates. Those students would like to be able to choose a friendly roommate, regardless of gender.

If the full trustees board backs the proposal, it would have to be approved by Chancellor Holden Thorp in January for it to be implemented by the start of the 2013-14 academic year.

Thorp rejected the proposal last year on the grounds that trustees, alumni, parents and others outside the university might need to be further educated on the issue.

After the trustees meeting Wednesday, Thorp said in a phone interview he was not ready to publicly say whether he would approve the proposal. But he recognized the students for their hard work.

“I had just wanted them to do that as information for the committee, but the committee was so impressed, they passed a resolution in support of it,” Thorp said. “This is a great step forward, and I’m thrilled for the students that they got this validation. ... In terms of what precisely that means in terms of next steps, I’m not ready to say. But this is a good step forward.”

Sleep-in to show support

Phoenix, of the LGBTQ Center, first began working on the idea in 2006. The campaign has gained traction in the past two years.

On Tuesday night, the coalition held a “sleep-in” at UNC-CH’s Campus Y, in which students spent the night. Backers say the sleep-in was inspired by students who, fearing harassment in their dorm rooms, sometimes sleep in places such as the Undergraduate Library.

“We’ll sleep out until we find a safe place to sleep in,” Phoenix said to the assembled 100 students in the Y.

The sleep-in, which featured LGBTQ students as well as straight students, had the atmosphere of a slumber party. There was pizza, soft drinks and performances by music groups. Groups huddled to paint banners and posters in the Y’s great hall; others created poetry on the second floor.

Phoenix said some students have come forward with stories of social isolation and cyber bullying because of their sexuality. Students have been threatened with baseball bats and have had their property destroyed.

Zaina Alsous, a senior and one of the leaders of the coalition, said the issue for her is community and everyone feeling a sense of belonging.

“No one should feel unsafe,” Alsous said. “Dorms are rites of passage, and no one should miss out.”

‘Not about morality’

Some alumni and other students have worried that the gender-neutral housing option might be used by straight couples who just want to live together. But Phoenix and others say this has not been a big problem at other universities that provide the option. Duke University implemented gender-neutral housing this year.

“This is not about morality or political affiliation,” Phoenix said. “This is not just an LGBT issue. This is about students having safe housing, so they can have a shot at academic success.”

If the coalition’s efforts are successful, UNC-Chapel Hill would be the first school in the UNC system to have gender-neutral housing.

After Wednesday’s vote on the resolution, leaders of the coalition hugged and shook hands with the 40 students and supporters assembled.

But board member Philip Clay offered a word of caution to the students, recalling his own experiences as a black student at UNC in the 1960s. One piece of institutional change will not solve entrenched problems, Clay said, and the push for inclusion should be the bigger campaign.

“I think the bigger problem is intolerance, if not hatred,” Clay said.

Chen: monicaxc@gmail.com

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