University of Missouri-Columbia to offer coed dorm rooms
The University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) is on track to offer coed dorm rooms by next fall, if school administrators stamp their seal of approval on a controversial proposal that has even proponents of the plan expressing concern.
“Part of our mission statement is to make our community more important and inclusive and welcoming to all students,” said MU Director of Residential Life Frankie Minor. More specifically, he elaborated, the school will be more inclusive and welcoming to transgender students.
Some students expressed reservations about the effort to accommodate transgender students. “I do personally think offering coed dorm rooms for transgender students would be setting the students up for harassment,” said MU freshman Montana Allai. “I honestly didn’t even know there were transgender students here, and I feel like most transgender people aren’t apt to let everyone know they are transgender.”
The school already offers all students the option of living in the campus’s 25 residence halls—most of which separate males and females by floor or wing, if residents share communal bathrooms.
But a push to implement co-ed rooms stemmed from the school’s most recent Campus Climate Survey, conducted by the school’s Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative in 2009. The study revealed a majority of students who self-identify as transgender reported experiencing harassment on campus and feeling uncomfortable living in same-sex dorm rooms.
According to Minor, however, only a small campus population—an estimated less than 10 people in a school with 27,000 undergraduates—actually self-identifies as transgender.
“Similar to how we try to meet the needs of those with disabilities, we have to meet the needs of those who would benefit from living in a gender-neutral environment. It’s about making college the best experience possible,” said MU sophomore and Residence Hall Association (RHA) president Zack Folk.
The initiative to ensure this experience for transgender students began two years ago, Folk said, when RHA and MU’s joint congress (a group comprised of all student governments on campus) adopted a resolution to create gender-neutral housing—an initiative now awaiting the chancellor’s signature.
Setbacks in the plan arose as a result of concerns expressed by students and administrators that creating dorms specifically for transgender students would isolate the transgender community. Also, Minor said, “Any time students who have common interests or common identifying factors are grouped together, it’s easy to identify those folks.”
MU freshman Tim Albright reiterated this apprehension. “These people could definitely be targeted for harassment because everyone on campus will know whoever lives in a certain building is transgender,” he said.
For this reason, Minor and Folk said the coed dorm rooms—though geared toward the transgender population and most likely to be located in just one residence hall—would be open to anyone, including both homosexual and heterosexual students. “If you make someone state why they’re applying for [gender-neutral housing], you can cause institutional outing,” Folk said.
Additionally, as indicated by similar movements toward gender-neutral housing at other universities nationwide, this change in “tradition” can produce backlash from parents. After Rutgers University in New Jersey launched a pilot program for coed dorm rooms in response to student Tyler Clementi’s 2010 suicide – caused by bullying from his male roommate - many parents expressed outrage.
Blogger George Berkin wrote on New Jersey Voices (blog.nj.com), “Even in today’s ‘liberal’ attitudes toward pre-marital sex, most parents probably do not want their 20-year-old sons and daughters ‘cohabitating’ in an arrangement sponsored by the college. Even as a practical matter, what will happen when Joe and Jane, a hot item in August, break up at the semester? You can imagine the drama and the administrative headaches.”
Even universities have spoken out against coed dorm rooms—even against coed residence halls, which seemingly have become the new trend or social norm. In 2011, as part of an effort to curb binge-drinking and pre-marital sex, Catholic University President John Garvey converted coed residences back to same-sex residence halls.
Folk said the gender-neutral housing proposal has not yet received negative feedback from MU students’ parents, as the final measure still awaits approval and subsequent promotion. But he admitted there is no means of preventing opposite-sex friends or siblings from taking advantage of the limited number of coed rooms that would be made available under the proposal. “The best way to address this,” he emphasized, “is by marketing the intent of what gender-neutral housing is.”
“What we would feel the need to do is indicate that this type of housing is available for kids who do have that type of need, so if you’re going to live there, you need to be OK with that or at least not surprised by that,” Minor added.
But in terms of which students actually have what Minor described as a “need” for gender-neutral housing, he reaffirmed there are only a small number of students who self-identify as transgender. And, because dorm room space already is limited, Minor added, “I need to balance my demand for certain types of housing with the supply.”
To students who express concern about same-sex living arrangements, the Department of Residential Life currently offers single rooms. But, MU’s LGBTQ Resource Center advocates the benefit of living with and among peers.
“I think the thing that’s great about residential life—especially on campus—is the strong communities it builds,” said MU LGBTQ Resource Center Coordinator Struby Struble.
“While the gender-non-conforming students would benefit from gender-neutral housing, I think any student living there also would benefit. I think it disrupts gender stereotypes, at large.”