University officials braced for pushback from BU parents after the announcement last month that BU was introducing gender neutral housing, allowing students to choose roommates of the opposite sex.
What they got was one complaint and three requests for more information. At the same time, a BU Today story about the new policy showed broad interest, with an extraordinary 21,000 readers and 47 comments, most of them supportive. Elsewhere, Nishmin Kashyap, director of housing, noted a surge in hits to Housing’s web page explaining the policy (1,064 over the 48-hour period following the news), and the Dean of Students office received a few comments from students who think the policy doesn’t go far enough.
“The phone lines have been quiet on this,” says David Zamojski, assistant dean of students and director of residence life. “It seems to me this transition is going to be smooth and easy for the community.”
Students at BU have been advocating for gender neutral housing, which is now offered by at least 90 colleges and universities nationwide, for at least four years. The University’s Student Government revisited the issue in 2012, conducting a survey that saw nearly 2,000 students voicing support for the policy. Concerned for lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students who felt “displeased, unwelcomed, and most importantly, unsafe due to the lack of this option,” Student Government representatives approved a proposal in October of that year that students be allowed to choose roommates of the opposite sex. In December, nearly 50 students held a sit-in in President Robert A. Brown’s office. While University officials expressed respect for the spirit of the students’ proposal, they felt that some adjustments would make it more tenable, and reworked the policy to be a better fit for BU.
This summer, Brown approved a University Council recommendation to introduce a gender neutral housing policy that will allow upperclassmen to choose roommates of the opposite sex, beginning as early as this fall through direct swaps. Implementation of the policy will begin in earnest next spring, when students can choose from a variety of housing options, both in terms of cost and location. Some student residences—Claflin, Rich, and Sleeper Halls, Warren Towers, the Towers, and the Myles Annex, all large dormitory-style residences with shared community bathrooms—will be excluded from the arrangement. Students who select this housing option won’t be required to explain their preference.
Freshmen will not be eligible to choose gender neutral housing, because University Housing assigns rooms to incoming students, and officials are reluctant to force anyone into gender neutral housing.
Zamojski says that when he announced the news to resident assistants during a training session, they seemed pleased with the policy change. “There had been an expectation that it would happen,” he says. “Now that it has, everyone’s just going with it.”
Bostonia spoke with six RAs who all say that they fully support the new policy and think it will not affect their jobs. RAs are familiar with roommate concerns and complaints, they say, and some have helped same-sex couples find alternative housing arrangements after a breakup.
“What we need is for everyone to feel safe and happy,” says Alexis Felder (STH’16), an RA at Kilachand Hall. “We need to be able to give students the benefit of the doubt, because they’re adults. It’s a matter of support.”
Warren Towers RA Caroline Snell (SMG’14) knows of at least two friends who moved off campus last year because they couldn’t live together. Had gender neutral housing been an option, she says, they may have stayed.
Students who advocated for the change say they appreciate the University’s decision. “It’s important for there to be an open dialogue between students and the administration,” says Sasha Goodfriend (CAS’14), the alumni and development coordinator for the Center for Gender, Sexuality & Activism. “This shows students that BU does care about what they have to say.”
While she is pleased that gender neutral housing will be available, Goodfriend wishes the option were also open to freshmen. “Unlike most upperclassmen, freshmen usually arrive without a community they can trust, and they are even more vulnerable to an unsafe living condition,” she says. “We know that there are freshmen who move off campus, or switch dorms, because of exactly this reason.”
Rea Sowan (CAS’16), a founding member of the student group Gender Neutral BU (GNBU) and a CGSA coordinator, agrees that freshmen should be included, and says GNBU will continue to push for gender neutral changing rooms and bathrooms across campus.
“This isn’t us packing up our bags because the policy passed,” says Sowan, adding that her opinions are personal and not representative of a student organization. “There’s still work to be done.”
Most RAs understand why the administration chose to restrict the policy to upperclassmen. Lauren Palitz (SAR’14), a Claflin Hall RA, says many freshmen are still uncertain of their gender identity and those students will have a better grasp of their housing preferences by the end of their first year. “If BU continues in the direction it’s going and if the student population really demands it,” she says, “BU might start offering the option to some freshmen.”
That would be good news for students like Scott, a College of Engineering upperclassman who prefers that Bostonia not use his real name.
Between the time he applied to BU and the time he was accepted, Scott had realized that although he had been born a woman, he wanted to live as a man, and he had come out. “There was really a rush to enter college as the person I wanted everyone to see me as,” he says. At orientation, Scott and his mother spoke with Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87) about their concerns. The dean called the registrar’s office, Scott’s advisor and fall professors, and Housing to ensure that they had his preferred name and that he would be reassigned to a single room with his own bathroom—at Scott’s request.
“I definitely think it’s a matter of being proactive,” Scott says. “If there’s something that you know that you want, you should ask for it.” In the process, he learned that Elmore had taken similar actions for other students. “BU is a welcoming place for everyone,” he says. “Whenever it becomes evident that something isn’t so welcoming, there’s always every action toward positive change.”