Gender-neutral housing may be offered at Slippery Rock University in coming years if a proposal before the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) receives approval.
Natalie Burick, the assistant director of housing accommodations at SRU and a lead author of the proposal, said the plan was accepted by the provost and president of the university, but that more research must be done before PASSHE’s council of trustees will give their approval.
“There really isn’t much research available on the effects of gender-neutral housing,” Burick, who is pursuing a doctorate on the subject, said.
The purpose of the proposal is to provide housing accommodations to students who may feel uncomfortable living with a member of their biological sex, such as transgender students and those of varying sexual orientations, she said.
“Our transgender population isn’t huge,” Burick indicated. “So we’re planning to release a survey to assess student interest in the plan.”
The proposed housing plan would resemble many of the Living Learning Communities SRU already offers and students living there would be expected to participate in educational activities on gender and sexuality, Burick said.
“Gender-neutral housing helps create a campus climate that is welcoming, inclusive and supportive for all students,” she said, indicating that non-LGBTQIA+ students wishing to live in a diverse environment would be welcome to live there as well.
The pilot program would include 24 beds in the Rock Apartments and would be open to sophomores, juniors and seniors, Burick said. Residents of this LLC would be surveyed at the beginning, middle and end of their stay to assess satisfaction with the program.
“We can’t offer gender-neutral housing to first-year students until we’ve tested it out,” Burick noted.
If the pilot program is successful, gender-neutral housing may be offered in the residential suites as well, she said.
Junior English and philosophy major, Haley Crompton, the president of RockOUT, SRU’s LGBTQIA+ student organization, indicated that housing cost is a problem with Burick’s plan.
“We need housing that’s comfortable and available to all students regardless of their economic status,” Crompton said, noting that the Rock Apartments and residential suites are significantly more expensive than the traditional dorms, which are not expected to feature a gender-neutral option.
Patrick Beswick, the director of residence life at SRU, said he agrees that gender-neutral housing should be available at all income levels, but that “the university has to begin somewhere.”
He indicated that Rhoads and North Hall feature communal bathrooms, which may not be right for students living in gender-neutral settings.
Crompton expressed further concerns that designating an area for gender-neutral housing might make the area a target of harassment.
“I’ve heard of slurs being used,” Crompton said, referring to a case where homophobic language was written on the whiteboard of a gay student’s dorm. “I haven’t heard of any physical violence, but it may not been reported.”
RockOUT is currently working with the Association of Residence Hall Students to develop a student proposal to bring gender-neutral housing to SRU, she said.
“I do believe that all state schools will eventually have gender-neutral housing,” Crompton said, noting that the option is already offered at other PASSHE schools, including Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Burick said the housing proposal is not designed to allow couples to live together on campus.
“That’s exactly the thing we don’t want to have here,” she said. “We want to make these LLCs an educational experience.”
Timothy Oldakowski, an English professor at SRU and a co-chair of the President’s Commission on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation, proposed a solution to the issue of couples who might use gender-neutral housing as a way to live together on campus.
“There should be an application process and applicants should meet with a residence director,” he said. “Students who truly need this type of housing will be willing to work for it.”
However, the current proposal would not prevent couples from living together in gender-neutral settings, Beswick said.
“Students are adults and we need to treat them like adults,” he said.
Beswick acknowledged though, that students are young adults and that there should be a meaningful mediation process for students who encounter issues as a result of living with a romantic partner on campus.
Oldakowski said that, while he was unaware of the proposal, GISO supports the idea of gender-neutral housing.
“Every student should feel safe and respected,” he said.
Beswick indicated that gender-neutral housing is becoming widespread on college campuses across the United States.
“Other schools have it and it’s done in so many different ways,” he said. “Some schools provide apartments, some have it in their residence halls and some may offer just a floor of a residence hall.”
Because of the many approaches to gender-neutral housing, Beswick said any comparison he could make to SRU’s proposal would be lacking.
The Human Rights Campaign features a list of 151 American colleges and universities that provide gender-neutral housing on their website.
Until gender-neutral housing is available at SRU, Burick said she already accommodates students who feel uncomfortable living in traditional settings.
“There haven’t been any issues with transgender students living on campus before,” she said. “We’ll work with you.”