Beginning fall 2017, UTD will be the first school in the UT System to formally adopt a procedure for gender-inclusive housing and one of the first institutions in Texas to address the issue.
Catherine Pickrel, director of residential life, and Matt Johns, assistant director for LGBT+ programs at the Galerstein Women’s Center both worked to bring this to campus.
“(This change) has essentially added a third gender in our system,” Pickrel said. “If you have opted into gender inclusive housing, that opens you to room with any student that has also opted (in), regardless of whether or not they’re male or female in Orion.”
If a student chooses gender inclusive housing, they can only view others on the system who have also opted in and are placed in a room with them. As of now, 23 percent of those who applied for housing, both new and returning, have opted-in. The option is only for university related housing, such as the residence halls and University Village apartments.
Because gender is a protected category under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, students will not be able to see the gender of anyone who has signed up. There is no specific area of the residence halls or University Village that will be gender inclusive, only individual suites and units.
“I think it’s really important to everyone on this campus that no matter how you identify or where you’re from or who you are, you’re not excluded or secluded in a certain area. We really want to have it integrated in all areas of campus,” Johns said.
The idea came from a growing number of LGBT+ students who wanted to be sure they could live in a safe place, Pickrel said.
Prior to gender inclusive housing, the housing department worked with students individually to find a place where they could feel comfortable.
“That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to move forward with this,” Pickrel said. “So that we can get them an option and so any student that is supportive or affirming, we want them to be able to have the same option as other students.”
A UTD task force was created approximately one year ago that researched what other universities were doing and how they addressed the issue of gender-inclusive housing. The team was created in response to the increasing number of LGBT+ students who approached the housing staff for rooms where they could feel comfortable. Johns was a member of the task force.
“Being the first UT system school that did this, it was exciting to be on that task force and for housing to be so proactive in making sure our students feel even more welcome than they already are on campus,” Johns said.
For the students that do opt-in, a follow up email is sent to make sure the student understands the implications. Any student can contact housing if he or she no longer wants to participate.
When students see the names of potential roommates who have signed up for gender inclusive housing, sexual orientation is not listed. Previously, the housing department worked with students on a case-by-case basis.
“This new procedure helps students to not have to out themselves if they don’t feel comfortable doing that,” Johns said.
The goal is to reduce the stress placed on students who might be worried about having roommates that are not accepting of his or her identity, Johns said.
Akira Lear, an ATEC junior and transgender male, came to UTD because the university would allow him to room with other men. Lear had to legally change his gender to male in order to room with other male students.
Lear chose to come to UTD because he knew there would be gender inclusive housing soon.
“It was kind of more of just a safety thing for myself, since even if I have do have my legal gender changed, I might go into a dorm even at this campus with people that are neo-Nazis or terrifying people that I don’t want to live with,” Lear said. “Having gender inclusive, which is this extra thing of safety, of this person knows you’re trans and they’re not going to discriminate against you for it.”
For the past year, Lear emailed his roommates as soon as he received their names to let them know he was transgender.
Lear said he appreciates the fact UTD will make gender inclusive housing possible. However, he said he does not like that students cannot show their gender identity.
“The fact that UTD was gender inclusive and did show me that it supported me specifically was something that made me choose to come here because my safety was one of the most important things,” Lear said.
Johns said UTD is showing support for the LGBT+ community through this change and that this is proof of the diversity at UTD, Johns said.
“I think LGBT+ students that see UTD implementing gender inclusive housing just feel more at peace, going to a university, knowing that they’re not hated or discriminated against. There’s so many times when they step off this campus that discrimination happens,” Johns said. “But if we can in any way make a student that identifies in the LGBT+ spectrum feel more comfortable, then we want to do that.”