While a coed residence hall is a familiar concept for the typical MU student, a coed room or suite is not.
Many universities across the U.S., though, have introduced gender-neutral living options in residence halls, where men and women live together in one space.
Eighty-eight institutions provide “gender-inclusive housing,” in which students can have roommates of any gender, according to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute.
Many schools that offer such options are near either the East and West Coasts or are small, private institutions. The specifics vary: Some schools only make the option available to students after their freshman year, and some only offer it in apartment-style halls.
The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., is perhaps the most progressive. The school features the Rainbow Fort, an entire apartment-style hall offering “safe-space housing” for LGBTQ students that is structured “to promote personal growth and community-building within a safe and supportive environment," The Evergreen State College website stated.
The only schools in Missouri offering gender-neutral housing options are Northwest Missouri State University and Washington University in St. Louis. As of the Fall 2012 semester, no school in the Southeastern Conference does so.
Recently, the issue gained national prominence after the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University whose roommate and another hallmate observed him, via webcam, kissing another man. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge soon after finding out.
On April 11, 2011, the Residence Halls Association Congress passed a resolution supporting the establishment of gender-neutral housing at MU by the Fall 2012 semester.
“(The resolution supported) almost like a living community-like area that would allow inclusiveness, safety and comfort for those who are part of the LGBTQ community and allow them to have just a better living experience in general,” RHA President Zack Folk said.
While the Department of Residential Life has not formally established gender-neutral spaces, it is still exploring its options and working toward formulating a proposal.
Residential Life is trying to gauge how much of a need MU’s student body has for gender-neutral housing and, in turn, the logistics of implementing the option.
“We certainly see the benefits of doing it for a certain population of our students — the question is, ‘Can we offer that as a standard living option for students?’” Residential Life Director Frankie Minor said.
The situations of those requesting gender-neutral housing can vary. Some students might have concerns about their living situations interfering with their individual gender expressions, and some might wish to live with a person of another gender.
Though some schools require students in gender-neutral housing to identify as transgender, Residential Life is not far along enough in the formulation of a proposal to lean one way or another toward what the options it would present would include.
Residential Life accommodates students’ individual requests on a case-by-case basis.
“(With) students who are transgender or transitioning, there’s an opportunity for them to indicate that they’re requesting an accommodation,” Minor said. “In those situations, we work with those students individually, (asking them) ‘What do you need at this point?’”
Those students often request single rooms or suite-style housing, options which offer more privacy in bathrooms, Minor said.
The deadline set by RHA passed without a concrete proposal by Residential Life, but the department hopes to decide about the feasibility of gender-neutral housing by fall 2013, Minor said.
Another issue complicating the implementation of that option is how the growth of on-campus living space has not kept pace with the recent increase in freshman class size.
Residential Life must take that factor and a multitude of others into account when responding to the demand for gender-neutral housing, but student needs and comfort remain key.
“The one place you want to feel welcome is in your own home,” Minor said.