UNC Asheville, Appalachian State University considering options, officials say

A move by the University of North Carolina board of trustees Thursday to approve gender-neutral housing at UNC Chapel Hill has campuses in Western North Carolina wondering when they will follow suit.

The board unanimously approved a provision that allows students at UNC Chapel Hill to request a roommate of the opposite sex. The initiative was proposed several months ago primarily to protect lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual students, but will be available to all students.

The board’s decision affects only UNC Chapel Hill and no other university in the UNC system. It will be available by fall 2013 on a pilot-program basis only in certain residential halls on the Chapel Hill campus.

But housing officials at UNC Asheville and Appalachian State University say it’s likely just a matter of time before the option becomes available on those campuses as well.

Efforts to introduce gender-neutral housing gained momentum among colleges and universities throughout the nation for the past few years, particularly after the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. Clementi jumped to his death after his roommate secretly used a Web cam to stream a romantic liaison Clementi had with another man.

Lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual students support gender-neutral housing to counteract harassment and bullying they experience in traditional same-sex housing arrangements.

“We’re very happy with the decision,” said Matthew Turpin, a sophomore from Sylva who is a member of the UNC Asheville Alliance, a student organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, as well as those with other sexual orientations.

Turpin said the board’s decision will likely help the Alliance’s campaign next semester to bring gender-neutral housing to UNCA.

“It’s likely to have quicker and bigger results because of it,” he said.

Last year, the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International conducted a survey of its member institutions, asking how many had gender-neutral housing. Of the 339 institutions that responded, nearly 27 percent said they did. Most of the respondents were four-year U.S. institutions; about half were public, and half were private.

“There has been a gradual, growing interest in gender-neutral housing in the past five years,” said Emily Glenn of the Columbus, Ohio-based organization. “Some institutions will probably never adopt these policies. And those that do it, do it in very many different ways.”

The option is available mostly to students who are sophomores or above. Colleges discourage students from moving in together for romantic reasons.

“I get the impression that they don’t really have a problem with that,” Glenn said. “Students really don’t want it, because they realize that if they break up, they’re stuck.”

Though UNCA has no formal gender-neutral housing policy, for the last few years, it has found single housing for transgender students, said Bill Haggard, vice chancellor of student affairs.

“I would predict that some day UNCA will go to something similar” to what UNC Chapel Hill now has, he said. “But I’m not sure when that will be or when we will be ready.”

Already it moves students who feel uncomfortable because of sexuality into different housing, Haggard said.

“But honestly, we have not had a large number of complaints or concerns related to the LBGTQ community being bullied or harassed in our residential halls,” he said.

Turpin agreed.

“UNCA is a very accepting school,” he said. “There have been some instances (of harassment), but that’s true for many schools, from my knowledge.”

The board of trustees’ decision was met with approval by many at Appalachian State University.

“It is certainly a positive development, in that it creates the best possible living situation for the student. And that is a step forward for ensuring academic success,” said Mark Rasdorf, a graduate assistant who manages the ASU LGBT Center, a social and resource center for the university’s LGBT community.

ASU students have not made a formal request for gender-neutral housing, said the university’s housing director Tom Kane, though they have talked with staff about the issue.

“We at the other schools (in the UNC system) were all kind of wondering what the (trustee) board’s (decision) would be,” he said. “This may spur more activity at the other schools.”

Like UNCA, ASU houses transgendered students in their own rooms, with their own bathrooms. It gets one to about three such requests every year, Kane said.

During the 2013-2014 academic year, ASU will create ASUnity, a “residential learning community” intended to promote “an inclusive, healthy, and supportive environment for students to explore social justice issues related to the expression of gender and sexual orientation,” according to an email sent by Dean of Students J.J. Brown.

ASU’s residential learning communities are housing communities that attract like-minded people whose living arrangements foster a better understanding of the issues and concerns that bring them together.

Housing officials at Western Carolina University did not immediately return phone calls Friday. Leaders of Unity! at WCU, a social and outreach organization for LGBTQ students and others on campus, did not return requests for comment either.

But WCU’s public information office sent an email stating that WCU has not received a formal proposal or request for an on-campus student housing option that is gender-neutral.

“Our Department of Residential Living has always looked at housing requests of any type – whether those requests are related to LGBT students or to other personal situations – on an individual case-by-case basis, and acted accordingly in order to provide a safe living and learning environment for our students,” the email stated.

“Residential Living staff members, as is true for the university as a whole, are committed to creating an engaged and inclusive campus community, and to following our campus Community Creed, which states:  ‘I will respect the dignity and rights of all persons,’ and ‘I will demonstrate concern for others and live up to my community responsibilities.’”

But look for public universities in WNC to follow Chapel Hill’s lead, some people in campus housing believe.

“I don’t know how long it will be,” said Kane, ASU’s housing director, “but it will be everywhere some day, just like coed housing is common now. One day gender neutral will not be an issue at all.”

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Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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