Beginning this year, several of the nation’s top schools have started offering gender-neutral housing options. But while schools like Dartmouth College and Stanford University are leading the way, the University of Michigan has remained passive on this issue so far, attributing its inactivity to a lack of demand. But the University must be proactive in creating a welcoming, progressive environment for transgender students.
The main goal of instituting gender-neutral housing policies has been to foster a more comfortable environment for students who do not strongly identify with any gender. In traditional residence hall settings, situations many of us take for granted like choosing which bathroom to use become difficult. The University currently has options in place upon request for transgender students, demonstrating its initial commitment to the cause. But nine schools across the country have decided that being welcoming requires more than minimal accommodations and are now offering gender-neutral housing.
The University’s justification for holding out is that there is not enough student demand for gender-neutral housing to merit a change in its policies. But it is likely that incoming freshmen are not even aware that there could be such an option, and older students often opt to move out of the dorms instead of trying to change the system. To break out of this cycle, the University must actively promote gender-neutral housing to give incoming students more – and better – options. The University already gives students options with its learning communities like the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, and this would be a change in that spirit.
Naturally, taking gender out of the housing equation offers transgender students an equal opportunity of finding a comfortable living situation. But the potential benefits extend to the rest of the student body as well. In addition to giving freshmen the same housing freedom afforded to upperclassmen outside the dorms, gender-neutral housing presents a valuable learning experience for students.
Admittedly, gender-neutral housing is not without its concerns, at least for some people. Gender-neutral housing could allow unmarried students of opposite genders to cohabitate, threatening traditional sexual morality. But the University has no obligation to enforce antiquated norms. Gender-neutral housing is a long-overdue change that shouldn’t be halted because some people fear it could degrade an already changing social tradition. Besides, students can live together in off-campus housing already, so what’s the difference?
Of possibly greater concern is the chance that people won’t understand what gender-neutral housing is and won’t be interested. There is one obvious solution to this problem: education. Prospective students aren’t making their housing choices without looking the different options. If the University provides the necessary information, it should go a long way to ease lingering hesitations.
As a self-proclaimed progressive institution, the University should be one of the first universities to offer gender-neutral housing, instead of waiting until the issue is safe. Holding back on facilitating a more progressive, hospitable environment for its students until it’s pushed to do otherwise is not the University of Michigan way. And it’s not a good example to set.