03/08/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gender-Neutral Housing: No Excuses for UNC-Chapel Hill

Safety for transgender college students needs to be a priority. According to Campus Pride's 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People, less than 7 percent of institutions of higher education have inclusive nondiscrimination polices with regard to gender identity and expression of transgender students, faculty, and staff. More than a third of all transgender students, faculty, and staff fear for their physical safety, and over half attempt to hide their transgender identity to avoid intimidation and harassment on campus.

On Feb. 7, 2012, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp rejected a student- and faculty-led proposal to adopt a gender-non-specific housing program. At the time national organizations like Campus Pride noted concern and displeasure at Thorp's decision and its failure to meet the safety needs of UNC-Chapel Hill's lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) student population.

Thorp said his school hadn't yet "adequately explained" the proposed gender-neutral housing program to its "stakeholders off campus." Thorp fails to recognize that the explanation is quite simple and straightforward to his "stakeholders." The first and foremost priority of any college is the safety and education of its students. It is the sole responsibility of college administrators and staff to provide for the safety and inclusion of their students. That's the explanation, Chancellor Thorp.

UNC-Chapel Hill would have been the first public university in the state to institute a gender-neutral housing program, following in the footsteps of nearly 100 schools nationwide, including nearly half of Chapel Hill's peer institutions, as well as three private schools in North Carolina: Duke University, Guilford College, and Warren-Wilson College.

Campus Pride has led the effort to challenge Chancellor Thorpe's rejection of the proposed gender-neutral housing program and the safety of students at UNC-Chapel Hill. Mara Kiessling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), further denounced the inaction, stating:

Put simply, Chancellor Thorp is just wrong. Thorp's decision now puts UNC-Chapel Hill behind dozens of schools across the country that have implemented gender-neutral housing options. There is no state law that prevents gender-neutral housing, and most importantly, transgender students at UNC may continue to face unsafe living and learning environments because of Thorp's decision. That is wrong, and Chancellor Thorp should reconsider his position.

When this issue arose at UNC-Chapel Hill, other UNC system campuses noted that gender-neutral housing options have been opposed by their administrators due to the fact that North Carolina colleges and universities are legally prohibited from offering fair, equitable, and safe housing to LGBT students.

Again, this is simply not true. There is no legal reason that North Carolina schools cannot adopt gender-neutral housing options or programs. On Feb. 27, 2012, Campus Pride issued a national joint statement with NCTE and others. Shannon Price Minter, Esq., legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, explained in the release the legal background:

There is no North Carolina law that would prevent a university from providing gender-neutral housing for students who would like to have that option. Specifically, there are no laws about cohabitation that would prevent this.

North Carolina has a couple of laws that prohibit cohabitation under certain circumstances, but they do not apply to gender-neutral housing in a university by any stretch of the imagination. In addition, after the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), those laws are also plainly unconstitutional.

Only two laws in North Carolina currently address cohabitation. One has been found unconstitutional on the basis that it violates the 14th Amendment due process rights established by the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas (2003). The second, though unchallenged, would almost certainly be found unconstitutional. In addition, neither of the laws apply directly to gender-neutral housing on college or university campuses.

In sum, universities and colleges in North Carolina are completely free to provide gender-neutral housing without running afoul of any law.

The safety of LGBT students stands at the heart of campus programs and policies like gender-neutral housing. UNC-Chapel Hill has no excuse for this inaction. Even Winston Crisp, UNC-Chapel Hill Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, recognized the importance of such campus housing safety measures, telling WCHL 1360 AM:

My recommendation was to do it on a pilot basis that would engage some of the issues around safety and inclusivity that the proposal addressed. ... My commitment is to try to make sure we have an environment where everyone has an equal shot at success. ... To me, that begins with feeling safe and included. There are segments of our community where we struggle, and this particular proposal is aimed at improving that.

Campus Pride, NCTE, and others have called on UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Thorp to reconsider the gender-neutral housing proposal within the year. Campus Pride further calls to action all North Carolina colleges and universities to consider, adopt, and implement gender-neutral and gender-non-specific housing options and residential life programs.

Gender-neutral housing options are essential to creating campuses that are safe and welcoming for LGBT students, especially transgender or gender-nonconforming students. These students should not have to feel unsafe or be fearful where they eat, sleep, and live on campus.

Enough with the excuses, UNC-Chapel Hill. The right thing to do has nothing to do with "stakeholders." It has everything to do with the safety of students on campus.