Family Matters

Rutgers Okays ‘Gender-Neutral’ Dorm Rooms to Help Gays Feel Safer

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Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Heading off to college is tough enough without getting paired with a bad egg for a roommate. Finding a good match can be even harder when you’re a square peg amid a circle of dormitory conformity — a student who’s gay or bisexual or transgender, as Rutgers senior Aaron Lee is. Now New Jersey’s state university has become the latest to announce it will allow male and female students to share a dorm room, in an effort to make the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community of students feel right at home.

Lee — who was born a girl but looks, sounds and identifies as a guy — has been working toward this goal since he was a sophomore. In years past, he says, administrators rebuffed his entreaties. But in the wake of the heavily publicized September suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi — the gay student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly streamed video on the Internet of his homosexual encounter in their dorm room — campus housing officials have agreed to make at least 100 spaces in three dorms available to students who feel uneasy living with someone of the same sex. (More on Cyberbullying? Homophobia? Tyler Clementi’s Death Highlights Online Lawlessness)

“It definitely was a wake-up call,” says Jeffrey Chang, a Rutgers law student and co-founder of the National Student Genderblind Campaign, which advocates for LGBT-friendly policies. “The real issue is safety. Many college students who are LGBT may not feel comfortable in their dorm rooms, but it wasn’t until Tyler Clementi’s suicide that a lot of schools started seeing the difficulties these students face.”

Two months ago, Joan Carbone, the university’s executive director of residence life, met with student representatives of the college’s LGBT community, whom she says became “more vocal” after Clementi’s death. For four hours, she listened to their concerns. “They were very clear about why this was important to them,” she says. “Living in a small space with someone who doesn’t accept who you are is a difficult situation.”

Rutgers is calling its new co-ed living arrangements “gender-neutral housing” because students can choose to live with whomever they want: two men, two women or a woman and a man. Freshmen will not be able to select a roommate, but they can indicate a preference for an open-minded person who is welcoming of different sexual orientations. (More on The Protective Effect of Family Acceptance for Gay Teens)

The freedom to choose the sex of your roomie is not unique to Rutgers; students at universities including Columbia, George Washington and Emory have similar options.

Although 50 gender-neutral rooms are available, Carbone expects no more than 10 to have been assigned come fall semester, when the new policy takes effect.

In a titillating perk for heterosexual students, the ability to request an opposite-sex roommate is open to any student; Rutgers has no plans to ask about the sexual preferences of the person requesting a roommate or about the nature of the roommate relationship.

Parents unhappy with such an unorthodox dorm-room living situation are pretty much out of luck since housing contracts are signed by students. “We won’t be talking to parents about this,” says Carbone. (More on Time.comA Glimmer of Hope in a Bad-News Survey About Bullying)

The changes come too late for Lee, whose college career is winding down. For most of his time at Rutgers, he’s lived in a room designed to accommodate one person, which helped him feel safe but also served to isolate him.

“A roommate is your first friend,” says Lee, who’s studying evolutionary anthropology and women’s and gender studies. “You go to the dining hall together, you meet people together, and I was precluded from having that. For a while, I felt like dropping out of school.”