The University of Miami opened up gender-inclusive housing for sophomores, juniors and seniors living in the University Village (UV) for the first time this semester. The LGBT community was the main proponent for this housing setup in the past because it would allow students to pick their roommates regardless of gender.
The university’s LGBT community has been pushing for gender-inclusive housing for several years. During former President Donna Shalala’s presidency, the LGBTQ Task Force – a group composed of students, faculty and administrators in charge of providing guidance to make the university LGBT friendly – was created. The task force had been pushing for more inclusive housing since 2013.
In 2015, alumnus Ryan Aquinas wrote a letter to newly-appointed President Julio Frenk, urging him to do more for the LGBT community at the university. One of the things Aquinas specifically asked for was gender-neutral housing. On Sept. 10, 2015 Frenk officially announced the gender-inclusive housing program at his first Town Hall meeting.
Morgan Owens, chair of LGBTQ+ Working Group of the Standing Committee of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, has been an activist for issues pertaining to the LGBT community, including gender-inclusive housing. Owens, also part of SpectrUM, UM’s largest undergraduate LGBT organization, was one of the few students to question President Frenk about LGBT issues at the first Town Hall, last September.
“The individual level and often unreported instances of homophobic or transphobic bias that many students may have when arriving at UM makes the option of gender-inclusive housing a powerful way to let LGBTQ students choose to live with people who will not intimidate them or make them feel like they do not belong on our campus,” said Owens.
Every year, students would have to apply for residential housing based on the gender on their birth certificates. Before, the application only allowed students to choose among same-sex residents, whether female or male. The updated system provides students with more options.
“Student housing is here to support student learning,” said James Smart, executive director of Housing and Residential Life (HRL). “Roommates that you are comfortable living with are part of the equation…you are not eliminating 50 percent of the human race from your choice of roommate; it gives you more options.”
Smart said one of the main reasons why UM decided to implement gender-inclusive housing now was because the school had recently purchased software that was non-binary. Previously, housing assignments had been made so that the whole suite was the same gender. The new software allows the department to make room assignments by bed rather than by room.
Smart said the school had received inquiries about gender-inclusive housing in the past but “never many.”
“A lot of what we do in student housing is based on articulated student need, so we develop programs in response to things once students identify that that is something they desire,” Smart said. “This also coincided with the purchase of the new software. Its time had come, and we could support it.”
Gender-inclusive housing was made available for all continuing students in spring 2016, and incoming freshmen could contact HRL to specifically request it. According to Smart, two freshmen contacted the department over the summer saying they were interested in gender-inclusive housing, but neither ended up living in it.
In the past, Smart said transgender students often opted to live in a one-person dorm or, if they were not freshmen, off campus.
Of the 24 returning students who demonstrated interest in living in gender-inclusive housing, 16 of them are living in four-bedroom gender-inclusive apartments in the UV, Smart said. None of the students in the apartments identify as transgender, Smart said.
Smart said the drop in interest could have been because students could not find a group of four people to fill the apartment.
“I believe gender-inclusive housing is important because trans and gender non-conforming students have the option to live in housing accommodations that respect their affirmed gender, regardless of their legal gender marker. It also provides all students with the option to live in housing accommodations that do not follow the incredibly rigid gender-binary structure of the rest of our housing system,” SpectrUM treasurer Jeremy Penn said.
In January, the university made gender-neutral restrooms and all-inclusive restrooms.
According to Kirt McClellan, associated clinical director of the University of Miami Counseling Center, these new facilities have been a huge help in making LGBT students feel more comfortable on campus. McClellan said eight years ago, when he started working at UM, he saw transgender students coming to Miami – what they expected would be an accepting environment – and contemplating leaving UM because they felt so unwelcome.
Although the implementation of gender-inclusive facilities has led to a more accessible campus for the LGBT community, the mindsets and perceptions of some students have not changed. McClellan said he has heard this point several times from transgender students who visit his office.
“Recently, I’ve heard complaints from transgender students saying that they feel invisible,” McClellan said. “People won’t make eye contact with them. They won’t give them room on the sidewalk.”
McClellan said transgender students are frustrated the most by people not using their preferred pronouns, such as he or she. Penn said this issue was part of the reason LGBT students wanted gender-inclusive housing options.
“HRL professional and student staff would (and possibly continue to) misgender and misidentify trans and gender non-conforming students in official and unofficial interactions, and many of the residents who live with trans and gender non-conforming students would (and possibly continue to) do so as well,” Penn said.
Smart said he expects that the new non-binary software will help ameliorate this situation.
The previous housing assignments by legal gender posed challenges for gender non-conforming students. To legally change genders in Florida, a person needs a court order and may also have to undergo costly surgeries or hormone treatments to obtain a physician’s certification.
Penn said many trans students do not or cannot complete the number of steps required for changes, for a variety of reasons. Aside from the financial burden (surgeries can cost anywhere from $7,000 to $24,000 for trans females and up to $50,000 for trans males), trans people may choose not to have surgery at all, or not to transition while in college.
“The process for HRL to allocate housing fairly to trans students forced the trans students to jump through legal and medical hoops toward ends they may not have even wanted, just to have HRL assign them properly as male or female,” Penn said about the previous process.
The Counseling Center has set up their own system to make sure trans students who visit their office are not misgendered. When a student is searched for in the database, the system immediately indicates their preferred pronoun and name as a reminder to personnel. The center also has a therapy group for LGBT students struggling with sensitive issues.
For more information about LGBTQ resources on campus, go to miami.edu/lgbtq.