The hyphenated buzzword receiving the most attention recently within higher education: gender-neutral.
At a growing number of colleges and universities– in middle America and along the coasts– students are protesting, passing resolutions, and publishing commentaries calling for more gender-neutral housing and restroom options.
The push appears to be part of a larger student-led fight on some campuses for greater “transgender inclusiveness,” something The Oklahoma Daily recently hailed as the heart of “this generation’s civil rights movement.”
The Daily Texan reported in late February that more than 100 schools currently offer gender-neutral housing programs nationwide, a huge leap in the last six years. Other schools are expanding small pilot programs to all underclassmen, approving student requests on a case-by-case basis or for the first time considering related housing proposals in student government and high-level administration meetings.
As the co-founder of the National Student Genderblind Campaign told the Texan, “It’s a grassroots student movement that has mobilized the issue and many schools have realized this. It’s difficult to imagine that universities would not give students the opportunity to have a say in who they live with.
Last November, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent Samuel Levine, a University of Chicago sophomore, contended that “some students say an environment without gender labels has become an integral part of their college experience. . . . Gender-neutral colleges can be a safe and comfortable place for students who are transgender or who don’t identify with their biological sex.”
As a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, “a pioneer in gender-neutral housing,” similarly declared in The Daily Pennsylvanian, “Gender-neutral housing is very beneficial toward LGBT students. I think it’s really positive in terms of thinking about gender critically in the United States. We aren’t dividing ourselves along these arbitrary lines anymore.”
So far, two main issues have emerged as potential impediments to the progressive housing alternative: a lack of student interest and traditional ways of thinking.
In respect to the latter, the housing director at Appalachian State University– which considers gender-neutral housing for students who ask for it– told The Daily Tar Heel, “Parents are going to get more involved. We can’t forget we live in the South and we’re going to move more slowly on this than other issues.”
In the Southwest, one of the most publicized gender-neutral housing pushes occurred in early March, on the pages of The Oklahoma Daily. In a special issue, the University of Oklahoma student newspaper splashed an editorial calling for gender-neutral housing at OU across its entire front page.
In an online video explaining the paper’s decision, section editor Lindsey Ruta shared, “The decision to put the editorial on the front page is a really big thing. It’s not what we typically do. But big issues and big events call for big responses. . . . This is a social issue we can directly affect. . . . [W]e can influence a policy on our campus that is discriminatory and hateful against a certain group of our students. . . . I don’t think any of us can be proud to call ourselves Sooners until we know that we attend an institution that respects the equality and the rights and the liberties and the happiness of all of its students.”
Meanwhile, in the spirited editorial call-to-arms, the Daily argued, “The gender-neutral housing option . . . is an important right for all OU students, but it is particularly important for GLBT students because it provides a safe home on campus– something many do not have. Gender-neutral housing means the choice to live with someone whom students know will be supportive of their sexuality or gender identity. It means freedom from discomfort, discrimination, harassment and fear. . . . It means one small step toward equal treatment for GLBT citizens. It means a step into the 21st century for OU and for Oklahoma. It means the University of Oklahoma being a true leader. It means equality.”
By all accounts, restroom equality has been lagging behind housing on many campuses. As The Diamondback at the University of Maryland explained in the headline of a recent report that summarizes the problem facing most schools, “For some, struggle to find gender-neutral bathrooms persists. . . . Many old on-campus buildings have yet to be upgraded with new restrooms.”
Student newspapers have helped spread awareness about the need for “safe restrooms,” in part by publishing reports and op-eds about “the population on campus currently uncomfortable with gendered bathrooms.”
For example, in an op-ed earlier this semester in The Quad headlined “What’s with all of the potty talk?,” West Chester University student Rebekah Balmer wrote, “Many people do not think twice about going to the bathroom, but every time a transgender person has to use the bathroom they have to worry if someone will tell them they are in the wrong bathroom, or even worse, act violently towards them. We really need to be thinking about the safety of everyone, and by having gender-neutral bathrooms we are doing just that. We are making the bathroom environment safer for everyone.”
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