When Elliott Hobaugh applied to the University of Montana (UM), he was concerned about where to live on campus. As a transgender man, he wanted housing options where he could feel safe and supported. Although the university didn’t offer alternative housing, Hobaugh decided to attend regardless, determined to change the policy.
The type of housing Hobaugh was looking for is known as gender-inclusive housing, where room assignments are made regardless of a person’s sex or gender identity. In the past 15 years, colleges and universities across the nation have begun to adopt such housing options to promote a safe and inclusive residential campus experience for all students — especially those who identify as transgender or genderqueer.
One reason schools are moving toward gender-inclusive residence halls is the high rate of sexual assaults reported by students who identify as LGBTQ+. In 2015, the Association of American Universities released one of the largest surveys conducted on campus sexual assault and misconduct. Its findings painted a stark picture: LGBTQ+ students experience far higher rates of sexual assault and harassment than their heterosexual peers. Specifically, three out of four LGBTQ+ students said they had been the victims of sexual harassment, and 9 percent reported experiencing rape. Transgender, genderqueer or nonconforming, and questioning students reported some of the highest rates of assault.
“We should be taking steps toward making everyone feel safe on their campuses,” says Hobaugh. “If you don’t have secure housing or you don’t feel safe, you’re not going to be able to thrive in school because your basic needs aren’t going to be met.”
Trends in Gender-Inclusive Housing
The University of Massachusetts Amherst was the first school to adopt alternative housing for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students in 1992. According to Genny Beemyn, PhD, director of the university’s Stonewall Center, colleges across the country largely focused on meeting the needs of LGB students at that time.
“Back then, there wasn’t much thinking around trying to address the needs of trans students,” says Beemyn.
It wasn’t until the last decade, and particularly the last several years, that colleges started to recognize the importance of offering gender-inclusive housing as transgender students made themselves more visible on campuses. Wesleyan College became the first institution to embrace gender-inclusive housing in 2003.
“We’re not talking that long in the scheme of things,” Beemyn says, adding that recently, “there has been tremendous growth in the number of colleges offering gender-inclusive housing options.”
The desire for — and the right to — safe and secure housing is often what drives students to push for this housing on their campuses. Traditionally, incoming students are placed in residence halls based on their sex at birth.
“If you are transgender, how you identify is not the sex assigned at birth, so you will be assigned a roommate who is the ‘wrong’ gender,” says Beemyn. “This creates a situation where trans people are uncomfortable and unsafe. If you have a roommate who discovers you are trans, you’re potentially going to be subjected to harassment, assault, or destruction of property.”
The catalyst for change on campuses can begin with students — those who experience a gap in services and take action to ensure the availability of safe, comfortable housing options. At other institutions, staff and faculty drive this evolution — sometimes those who are responsible for LGBTQ+ services on campus, Beemyn says. However, Beemyn cautions school administrators not to mistake an absence of requests for gender-inclusive housing as a lack of interest.
“If you don’t have a place where students feel safe, they might not necessarily come forward,” Beemyn says.
Leading Change on Campus
“I was told that for many years before I came [to UM], people didn’t see [gender-inclusive housing] as that much of a necessity,” Hobaugh says. “It kept getting pushed off.”
During his first semester, Hobaugh built relationships with housing staff and informed them of the importance of offering gender-inclusive options. He knew research would support his case, so he pulled together a task force of five students to survey other universities. They focused on everything from safety measures to the type and size of housing to what to call it. The task force also spoke informally with friends and pride groups on other campuses to learn how to effectively advocate for change.
Students were “the driving force behind demonstrating that, yes, there was a need on campus to do this; there was an interest [in doing] this,” says John Nugent, assistant director of staffing and programs for UM Housing. “This is something that would be a benefit for students on campus.” He notes that the research led by Hobaugh laid the foundation and “set that base on which everything was built.”
When Nugent first entered his position over a year ago, he inherited the project from his predecessor. He jumped right in. As students researched, Nugent surveyed the facilities on campus to identify an appropriate location for this housing option.
“The time [students] spend in their residence hall is exponentially larger than any one classroom,” says Nugent. “This is the place where they come to relax, to feel comfortable, to live their lives.” That’s why it is so important to get it right, he adds.
The school administration was in transition at the time, so the task force shifted its focus and lobbied student government to support a gender-inclusive policy. They agreed, and with their support, Hobaugh says, the cause received more visibility. Shortly after, the administration approved the housing, which launched in the fall of 2018 in one wing of a residence hall. The space has 23 beds, and 19 students along with a resident assistant currently live there.
Nugent says the popularity of the floor makes it a “no brainer” to offer again next year as students and housing staff continue their partnership to improve upon the policy.
One of the challenges, he says, was outreach and making sure the incoming class was aware of the housing alternative. It was listed as a living-learning community and featured in the housing packet that all students receive. UM Housing also worked with campus health services, admissions, and pride groups to ensure that when people reached out for information about LGBTQ+ resources, they were made aware of the option.
“We’ve been really excited about how things have gone so far,” says Nugent. “But we try to be open [about the fact] that we’re learning as we go.” He says the university will hold focus groups in the spring to assess what’s working and what can be improved for next year.
As for the students, Hobaugh says their next project is advocating for more gender-neutral bathrooms in each campus building and ensuring they are also included in the blueprints for new construction.
He believes that when students drive change on campus, their voices lead it to be “more of a student-centered university”— one where their needs are valued.●
Sarah Edwards is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our January/February 2019 issue.