This week marks our first-ever pride issue—just in time for Charlottesville’s Pride Festival this weekend. Check out our other feature stories on deciding whether to marry as a gay couple, on what it was like to be gay at CHS in the ’90s, and on the festival itself.
The dorms at the University of Virginia became home to more than 3,500 new first-year students last month, and so began the quintessential college experience of learning to cohabitate in close quarters with strangers. But for transgender and gender-queer students, the dorm room anxiety can run a lot deeper than agreeing on music volume and whether or not to share milk and peanut butter—especially at UVA, a school that does not have a housing policy that specifically addresses the housing needs of trans students.
According to national LGBTQ advocacy group Campus Pride, more than 150 colleges and universities across the U.S. offer gender-neutral housing, which allows students to choose their roommates based on the gender and orientation that makes them feel safest and most comfortable. For one first-year student who was openly trans in high school but has not yet come out since arriving on Grounds, the lack of housing options was almost enough to make him turn down UVA’s offer of admission.
“If I were going into a different major, I would have gone to George Mason,” he said, noting that the Fairfax university announced its new gender-neutral housing option in February of this year. The student, who was born female but identifies and functions as a male, asked to remain anonymous.
“The academic merit of UVA made me choose it,” he said. “But I was very close to not choosing it just based on the fact that gender-neutral housing wasn’t available.”
Since arriving on Grounds he’s learned that housing isn’t the only challenge facing transgender and gender-queer students.
“There are not a whole lot of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, and that’s pretty frustrating. I don’t pass [as a male] particularly well, so I just use women’s restrooms. But I intend to change that within the next few months,” he said, noting that he plans to start taking hormones and physically transitioning this fall.
When filling out the housing application earlier this year, rather than delving into his gender identification with an administration that he wasn’t sure would be receptive, the student requested a single room.
“I really didn’t want to have that conversation with them, so I just kind of crossed my fingers for a single,” he said. “Honestly I’d prefer to live with a male, but at least next year I wouldn’t necessarily have to live on campus.”
He got lucky. Being assigned a single dorm—even though it’s on a female floor—soothed some of his nerves, and LGBTQ organizations on Grounds like the Queer Student Union have thus far made him feel “fairly safe and comfortable” as a new college student.
The LGBTQ Center, the on-Grounds organization founded under the Office of the Dean of Students in 2001 that works to raise awareness and foster inclusion among students, faculty, staff, and alumni, is taking careful steps toward addressing the University’s lack of gender-neutral housing. According to LGBTQ Center coordinator Scott Rheinheimer, a recent survey gauging students’ interest in a new policy will go in front of the Housing and Residence Life staff soon, and he hopes a committee to push the process along is on the horizon. It’s a sensitive subject, and one that’s been broached more than once—a 2011 change.org petition to bring a gender-neutral housing policy to Grounds lost traction after garnering more than 100 signatures—so Rheinheimer said the LGBTQ community is “trying to do this in a very pragmatic way.”
University spokesman McGregor McCance didn’t comment on the effort to implement a new system beyond saying UVA doesn’t have a “stated policy” when it comes to gender-neutral housing.
“The University does consider requests related to undergraduate gender-neutral housing on a case-by-case basis,” McCance said.
Student representatives from the Queer Student Union did not respond to requests for comment. A representative from the queer and allied gender-inclusive fraternity Sigma Omicron Rho said gender-neutral housing is a “very important topic,” but members of the group were not willing to go on the record discussing UVA’s policy.
UVA isn’t the only school in the Commonwealth grappling with how to accommodate transgender students. GMU was the first Virginia university to officially adopt a policy that allows students to choose on-campus roommates regardless of gender, followed shortly by Virginia Tech in February of this year. Campus Pride’s curated list of schools with gender-neutral housing policies includes universities and colleges from more than 30 states, but not everyone is jumping on board. Last fall the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s board of governors banned all UNC’s campuses from offering the option, just days before a previously approved gender-neutral housing policy was supposed to go into effect.
Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund Executive Director Michael Silverman, who works with trans kids and adults to ensure equal access to education, health care, housing, and employment, said all the schools that have adopted gender-neutral housing share one element: student activism.
“The key, crucial ingredient is an activated student body that wants to ensure a nondiscriminatory environment for everyone,” Silverman said. “These schools are small, big, public, private, southern, northern. They have nothing in common beyond student activism.”
Silverman noted that even some traditionally single-sex schools have changed their policies so transgender students can attend and live comfortably on campus. He regularly encourages college students to get involved, and his advice to LGBTQ students at UVA is to keep fighting for it.
“One of the best tools for the activists is to simply demonstrate what other schools have done,” Silverman said. “Student activists, trans students and their allies, have been at the forefront of these changes.”