I started college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when I was 17. I lived on the first floor Lewis Hall for the next three years. Lewis was a perfect place to live in a lot of ways. It was a dorm with a very strong communal atmosphere. I made several lifelong friends there. I'm going to be a bridesmaid in one of those friend's weddings later this month.
But still, there were issues. As a queer teenager suddenly thrown into an environment where I was in the company of a crowd of predominately straight men, nearly constantly, it was hard to relax, hard to start to explore what it meant to be a queer adult. Not many people on my hall knew I was trans. It was awkward. It was a very friendly place in great number of ways, but it was not a place with a lot of understanding or curiosity about gender and sexuality outside of a heterosexual, cisgender model.
My second year in Lewis, one of my dorm mates started "jokingly" telling me that he was in love with me. He was a politically conservative, involved with ROTC. When he was sober, he would make jokes about me being an enlisted soldier and him a future officer, and when he was drunk he would pound on my door and exclaim his love for me, try to kiss me, go on about how pretty I was. As soon as he sobered up again, he was quick to make it clear that all the love stuff was just a joke.
And who knows, maybe it was. Still, I never found it all that funny. More than anything, the dorms were a place where I had to be on and alert. It wasn't always a place where I could let my hair down and relax, a place where I could be goofy and enjoy being a young, excited queer person figuring out the world. It was a good place, but a place that could be exhausting.
Gender-nonspecific housing offers a solution to folks like me. Not just trans kids or gay kids, but to all students who want to spend more energy focusing on their studies than navigating a specifically gendered living situation.
Recently the UNC Board of Trustees approved a gender-nonspecific housing pilot program the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This would involve setting aside 32 on campus housing units as gender-nonspecific. According to Terri Phoenix, the Director of the LGBTQ Center at UNC-CH, these unit represent about one-third of one percent of the total on campus housing.
"It's an issue of student safety," Dr. Phoenix told me. "Gender-specific housing is where students report the fourth highest incidence of harassment." Gender-nonspecific housing may be new for UNC, but it has been tested at a number of institutions and is quickly becoming accepted as a standard best practice. According to Dr. Phoenix, seven of UNC's 15 peer institutions already provide some form of gender-nonspecific housing.
Gender-nonspecific housing is "grounded in national best practices and is designed to provide safety for students and to allow them to focus on academic pursuits."
So what's the issue? A bipartisan group of North Carolina State Senators has introduced legislation that would ban UNC from providing gender-nonspecific housing. Senate Bill 658 is being sponsored by Senator Ben Clarke (D-Cumberland), Senator Chad Barefoot, (R-Wake), and Senator David Curtis, (R-Lincoln); 658 would ban any form of gender-nonspecific housing.
Senator Curtis claimed in a new release that "the purpose of this bill is to help the UNC system regain its focus on the core mission of educating young people and helping them find meaningful employment in our state. UNC did not become a national leader in academics by wasting time and tax dollars on frivolous social experiments."
This issue is of course that gender-nonspecific housing is all about focusing on the "core mission of educating young people and helping them find meaningful employment." The issue is that gender-specific housing is often an issue that stands in the way of many students being able to completely focus on their studies because they don't have a place where they feel safe enough to rest and relax.
The basic issue here is the need for a little human empathy, a little recognition that not everyone is exactly the same and that making allowances to better suit all students not only makes sense, but is simply the right thing to do. As a proud Tar Heel, I hope that my state legislature is wise enough to reject SB 658 and respect UNC's adult student's ability to choose their housing situations, and ultimately their lives, for themselves.