UNC board bans ‘gender-neutral’ housing on campuses

cowens@newsobserver.comAugust 9, 2013 

  • Gender-neutral housing

    Gender-neutral housing policies have grown in the past five years or so, said Emily Glenn of the Columbus, Ohio-based Association of College and University Housing Officers-International.

    "It's gradually been increasing as an option on campuses, " she said.

    Fears of couples rushing to "shack up" have generally been unfounded, Glenn added.

    Terri Phoenix, director of UNC-CH's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Center, said 99 campuses across the United States have adopted similar policies, including Duke University and public campuses such as the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan.

— The governing board of the UNC system voted unanimously Friday to ban campuses from letting students of opposite genders live in the same dorm suites or apartments.

The decision reverses a housing policy that was unanimously endorsed by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees last year, and it comes just days before the plan was to take effect on the Chapel Hill campus.

“Gender-neutral” housing was pushed for more than a year by UNC-CH students who said it would give some gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students a place to live free of harassment. Opponents, though, didn’t like the idea of any students of opposite genders sharing the same bathrooms or living areas.

“Our board wants every student to be safe, comfortable and included,” said Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC Board of Governors. “The board believes there are more practical ways to achieve those goals than assigning young men and young women to the same dorm rooms and suites.”

The Board of Governors did not discuss the issue at Friday’s meeting before passing the ban.

Activists with Campus Pride, an advocacy group for gay and transgendered students, protested outside Friday’s meeting with signs that said things such as “Trans lives matter.”

Romeo Jackson, a summer fellow with Campus Pride, said the vote took place when many students weren’t around because of summer plans.

“Students’ voices really weren’t a part of this discussion,” he said.

The board’s action drew quick praise from Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the NC Values Coalition, who said board members were bringing “leadership” and “sanity” to the university housing environment.

“With this uniform policy, our public universities and colleges can get back to the business of educating our students and preparing them to be productive members of our society, instead of promoting co-habitation among students of the opposite sex,” Fitzgerald said.

But Stuart Campbell, director of Equality NC, an advocacy group for gays and lesbians, expressed disappointment. There is “no sound reason” to reverse the gender-neutral housing policy, Campbell said in a statement.

“This could literally make a life or death difference for kids who are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity and want to have a safe space they can call home while they are on campus,” Campbell said. “This move has stripped away an important tool university administrators had to protect their LGBT students.”

Four students applied

Former UNC-CH Chancellor Holden Thorp had hailed the endorsement of gender-neutral housing by UNC-CH trustees last fall, calling it “an important project for the university and one that I think is vital to protecting the safety of our students.” He referenced the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University who committed suicide in a case of gay bullying by his roommate.

UNC-CH’s Department of Housing and Residential Education had set aside 32 spaces for the pilot program this fall, but only four students applied for the program. Students move into campus housing starting Wednesday.

Rick Bradley, associate director for housing and residential education, said the department had anticipated Friday’s decision several weeks ago and already offered the four students traditional housing options. All have chosen to stay in university housing.

Some state legislators voiced disapproval of the policy during the legislative session this spring. But Hans said Friday that the UNC board wanted to maintain a “state of autonomy” over housing policy.

“I wouldn’t read more politics in this than are present,” Hans said.

The makeup of the Board of Governors was revamped earlier this year, with 16 new legislative appointments that ensure an overwhelming Republican majority on the board.

‘Incorrect information’

UNC-CH already has coed dorms, but students of the opposite sex do not share suites. Under the policy that was scheduled to start this year, students of the opposite gender still would not have been allowed to live in the same rooms. But they would have shared common living areas and bathrooms in selected suites and apartments, if they opted for it.

That’s no longer possible after Friday’s action. Students of the opposite sex will now be able to live together only if they are married, siblings or a parent and child.

Bradley, the UNC-CH housing official, said he is disappointed by the board’s vote. He said he thinks some people did not understand that state dollars would not be used for the program and that it was an opt-in program only.

“It’s upsetting that this was the decision, because I think a lot of it was based on incorrect information on what this program was about,” Bradley said. “It really was about student safety.”

Owens: 919-829-4567

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