Gender-neutral housing at the UW

Mar 10, 2011, 2:36 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

UPDATE: 3/17/11 UW will not offer a gender neutral hosing option for the 2011-2012 academic year. There just wasn’t enough time for the RHSA to deal with logistics before student applications are available and due.

The University of Washington might join other college campuses around the country and offer an option to traditional dorm-style living.

Students at Rutgers, Columbia, George Washington and Emory have gender-neutral housing options.


Earlier this year the Residence Hall Student Association (RHSA) voted to introduce gender-neutral housing. If that’s to happen in the fall, a final decision will have to be made by the middle of this month.

I asked Emma Tessier, president of the UW RHSA, a few questions about how this would work.

Q: How did the suggestion for gender-neutral housing come up?

A: The RHSA Executive Board decided to take up gender neutral housing this past fall in response to several things. First, RHSA had passed a resolution in 2007 that supported gender neutral housing, but at that time there was no indication of strong student support behind it so nobody followed up on it. Second, there were a couple LGBTQ student groups on campus advocating for gender neutral housing. However, the most important factor was really that the RHSA Executive Board saw that there were students on our campus and in the halls who needed a gender neutral housing option to feel truly safe and comfortable in their living environment, and we wanted to reach out to those students and do something about it. It is our job to make sure our residence halls are a safe and inviting place to live, and it became clear that there were students who needed gender neutral housing to feel safe and happy living on campus so we really needed to do something for those students. Gender neutral housing exists at so many colleges and universities across the country now, and many in the pacific region, like OSU, Oregon, and Berkeley, and there is really no reason why the University of Washington shouldn’t be moving in the same direction.

Q: What are the objections from those who oppose the idea of gender-neutral residence halls?

A: In general the idea of gender neutral housing has a great deal of support. Many of the concerns that have been raised have been the price of offering gender neutral bathrooms, concerns about privacy and safety, concerns that gender neutral housing may became a target for harassment, or how applying to gender neutral housing would work and what the priority system would look like. All of these are important questions that we are working on answering. Passing the RHSA legislation was showing that the students strongly support the idea, and we have asked to form a Gender Neutral Housing Advisory Committee in order to work with the individuals who are best qualified to answer those additional questions. The Committee would include two RHSA Executive Board members, two ASUW (Associated Students of the University of Washington) student representatives, and relevant professional staff from the Department of Housing and Food Services and the campus at large. The only opposition we have run into so far is that some students are concerned about supporting an idea when those logistics have yet to be worked out. However, there is overwhelming support from students for the basic idea of offering gender neutral housing.

Q: Would this work just like apartment buildings? Basically where you have men and women mixed in a random fashion? Or would there be gender neutral floors?

A: According to the legislation passed by RHSA we are hoping that there will be a gender neutral floor in one hall and a few gender neutral rooms in a different hall. We are avoiding the on-campus apartments at this time because the reason for offering gender neutral housing is so that students can still have the experience of living in a campus residence hall and having a floor community, but still feeling safe and comfortable in their living environment. There is already an option that exists for students to request single rooms or apartments, but that is a more expensive option and it is a much different experience. So, the goal is to have gender neutral housing available in the more traditional residence halls for students who want that experience but also want a gender neutral environment for whatever reason.

Q: What’s the next step?

A: The final vote was in RHSA was 34 in favor, 2 against, and 0 abstentions. In terms of making a decision as to what gender neutral housing may look like at UW that is still a long process. The legislation called for the creation of a Gender Neutral Housing Advisory Committee to start seriously discussing the logistics behind offering gender neutral housing. This committee will have to develop a proposal that responds to many currently unanswered questions, such as safety concerns and cost, before moving forward with final decisions. We know that ultimately this decision will come from outside the Department of Housing and Food Services, and likely will end up in front of the Board of Regents. In order for gender neutral housing to be made available for the 2011-2012 school year the decision would probably have to be made by the middle of March.

Q: What is the attitude like on a college campus towards gay and lesbian students? I deal mostly with high school students who’ve told me the “It gets better campaign” has been a huge eye-opener for them in the past year.

A: Overall, I see the University of Washington as a very progressive campus. In order to answer this question I’d actually like to share some of the results of the gender neutral housing survey we conducted. RHSA created a survey this past fall that we sent out to all current residence hall students asking them how much they would or would not support different types of gender neutral housing options. Over 25% of the over 5,600 residents on our campus responded to the survey, and we had overwhelmingly positive results. There was one place where students had the option to fill in their own comments about gender neutral housing, and we had just over 60 people fill something in. I thought that the comments included in this section spoke a great deal about the attitude that students have toward GBLTQ students and the idea of a gender neutral housing community. Not a single person wrote a negative comment, and we had so many incredibly supportive comments. Residents spoke about how they would welcome the idea of living in such an open and accepting community, how much they think gender neutral housing would add to the diversity in the halls, and how supportive they are of students who would really benefit from that sort of housing opportunity. I believe that the attitude at UW overall is very supportive and accepting, and the biggest obstacles toward gender neutral housing will come from operational and logistical details like price, safety, and privacy, but not because people don’t support the idea.

The UW has seven different residence halls, and about 60 percent of incoming freshmen choose to live in the dorms. Photo courtesy the UW.

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Gender-neutral housing at the UW