Last week North Carolina saw a major setback for the rights of college students to live and learn in a safe and inclusive environment. The University of North Carolina's Board of Governors voted last Friday to place a ban on gender-inclusive housing at all 17 UNC campuses, mandating that students of different legal sexes cannot live together in any dorm room, suite or apartment of any UNC system campus unless they are siblings or legally married. The vote was passed unanimously, putting an end to plans of installing gender-inclusive housing for the upcoming 2013-14 school year. UNC students, faculty and staff were not granted an opportunity to speak out against the ban that would have a direct impact on their campus living.
In the wake of this upsetting vote against the safety and dignity of all members of UNC's student body, I have struggled to understand the rationale behind it. This sort of policy only ends up forcing students, especially trans students, into living situations where they are not respected, where they are harassed and where they must be on guard at all moments, without any reasonable option for moving into a safe living space short of moving off-campus. This further alienates already at-risk populations of youth when we should be focusing our efforts and resources on including these individuals and building them up. There are a number of other populations who are affected by the ban on gender-inclusive housing, including students of different faith backgrounds who would prefer to live together, and people who are differently abled and may have caretakers of the opposite sex among them. This is not just an LGBT issue, although transgender students will be the group most directly affected by this ban. The trans community will be impacted in a wide range of ways not even considered by UNC's Board of Governors.
Harassment and bullying of LGBT students in traditional housing is often a serious issue. By eliminating the option for these students, UNC is condemning them to a potentially hostile living situation.
This past July I was invited to present as a keynote speaker on behalf of the Tyler Clementi Foundation at Camp Pride, an annual summer camp and leadership conference designed to enhance LGBT and ally college students' efforts in activism and social justice. While there, I had a chance to speak with Anthony Dondero, a trans student heading into his senior year at UNC Charlotte. While I initially viewed the motivation for the ban as being rooted in transphobia, Anthony, being from North Carolina, could see a bigger picture behind the intention of the proposed ban. Anthony was of the opinion that the ban is rooted in a misguided attempt to stop college students from engaging in sexual activity. He pointed out, "It's ironic for a state with one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy."
There is a twofold problem. This ban is an ineffective and incorrect way of trying to "fix" an imaginary "problem" of adults having consensual sex, and the unforeseen, unconsidered side effects of the ban would harm several diverse groups of students who are not being supported or valued in any meaningful way by the universities' policies. Tragically, Anthony spoke to me not only about his own firsthand experiences of being harassed and mistreated by his peers but about the climate of intimidation and hostility that exists for many LGBT (especially the "T") members of the student body at UNC. I was devastated to learn that just four months prior to our time together at Camp Pride, Anthony had suffered a profound loss, one that mirrored the loss I went through in my own family: At the end of last spring's semester, a transgender student and close friend of Anthony's at UNC Charlotte ended her own life by suicide. She had been severely harassed and bullied due to her gender identity and gender expression by classmates on campus. She did not find a safe environment or accepting people to live with on campus, and eventually she moved into an off-campus apartment. The move off campus did nothing to alleviate the harassment she experienced. It also isolated her further from the university community. Anthony informed me that she was estranged from her family, who did not accept her gender identity. All of these factors add up to a volatile and dangerous situation for vulnerable and at-risk youth.
As young people move from home into the college environment, it is a moral imperative that their safety and well-being be prioritized and preserved by institutions of higher learning. This is not a political issue. It has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative. This should not be a controversial decision requiring debates and rallies. It is the only just and reasonable thing to do, the same as would be done for any other student. For transgender students, safe and inclusive spaces on campus means having access to gender-inclusive housing and gender-inclusive bathrooms. Banning students from having these options creates a second-class ranking for trans students and sends a message that they are not truly welcome to participate in the college community.
One of the focuses of the Tyler Clementi Foundation has been on highlighting the vulnerability of young people during times of transition. During the transition into college, young people find themselves removed from the familiar environments of home, family, friends and community and must learn to rebuild, relocate and redefine these necessary structures of support. This is just a normal process of growing up where many people get needlessly lost. LGBT students are at a higher risk of being targeted by their peers for bullying and harassment due to their sexual orientation and gender identity. An LGBT college student is most at risk to engage in self-harming behavior while experiencing harassment during this fragile time of transition. It is the responsibility of all institutions of higher learning to take ownership of the safety of all enrolled students. Colleges must provide their students with living and learning spaces that allow them to be themselves.
This issue is larger than any one school or state, but the Board of Governors' lack of concern for the well-being of UNC's most vulnerable student population is a truly shameful and public example of how far LGBT people still have to go before we can feel truly safe everywhere in our society. When the institution itself is sending out the message that it does not value or respect the rights of certain groups of students, it is not much of a surprise that those same students receive harassment on much larger levels than other groups that are protected, included and valued. This refusal to make UNC a truly inclusive academic environment has led to hostility, suffering and even loss of life for UNC students. This sort of culture needs to be challenged, not only for the current students enrolled at UNC schools across the state of North Carolina but for the thousands more who will enroll in the future.