Gender Neutral Housing (GNH) is a recent housing option offered on some college campuses. Wentworth Institute of Technology offers a definition of GNH as “a housing option in which two or more students share a [room] in mutual agreement, regardless of the students’ sex, gender, gender identity or gender expression.”1 Would GNH significantly improve the college experience for students at Virginia Tech? The goal of this research is to determine student reactions and perceptions that could affect the implementation of GNH at Virginia Tech.
Our study is important to individuals in the LGBTA+ community, especially those who identify as transgender or non-gendered. Its results will show willingness of the community at large, including the LGBTA+ community, to accept GNH. These results also indicates that the policy would make dorm life more acceptable for students of a range of gender identities. Overall, the results of our study may provide insight for the development of a GNH program at Virginia Tech as well as at other universities.
Terminology and Concepts
GNH is the beginning of a new wave in college housing development. Currently, most colleges offer co-ed dormitories that allow males and females to live in the same buildings, but males and females cannot share rooms. GNH allows for students of differing gender identities to share rooms if they so choose.2 . Before we begin our discussion on GNH, we should clarify vocabulary associated with the acronym LGBTA+. First, the term LGBTA+” stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and asexual individuals. The “+” indicates additional members of various gender and orientation identities. The acronym LGBTA refers to the Virginia Tech organization: The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Alliance of Virginia Tech. LGBTA is often the central support group on college campuses for those who identify with the LGBTA+ community.
To understand LGBTA+ issues, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the difference between sex and gender. Sex refers to one’s biological identity, determined at birth.3 Gender is a social, not biological, construct in that one’s gender is something that they create individually (not assigned at birth) through interactions with society.4
According to Maria Anderson, society historically has been rooted in a “binary culture,” in which the only recognized gender identities are male and female. As a result, an individual’s role in society has been expected to be either male or female.5 Those who do not adhere to these binary roles, sometimes including homosexuals, bisexuals, transgendered, and other individuals, often face discrimination in a binary society.
Other important distinctions are the differences among homosexuality, transgender and transsexual. Homosexuality refers to “an enduring pattern of or disposition to experience sexual, affectionate, or romantic attractions” with those of the same sex.6 Transgender is an umbrella term used to refer to all terms that encompass the general idea of someone’s identifying gender not being the same as their biological sex. Terms that would fall under the transgender category include transsexuals, cross dressers (also known as ‘transvestites’), and drag queens/kings.7 “Transsexual” refers to someone who takes measures to change their sex (though sometimes transsexuals will avoid some or all sex change surgeries).8 When one is in the process of changing their sex, they are categorized more specifically as a “male-to-female” or a “female-to-male” transsexual. It should be noted that at times male-to-female transsexuals are referred to as transgender females, and female-to-male as transgender males.
Rise of LGBTA+ Movement and the Contact Hypothesis
Gender movements began with the first wave of feminism, when women began to push for equal rights. However, this call for equality gained only limited traction until the second wave of feminism. The second wave went beyond a call for equal rights to a call for challenging the traditional notion of gender roles.9 Today this challenge to the traditional gender binary culture has been evolving into a third wave of awareness not just for women, but for LGBTA+ as well. As in the past, many homosexuals are victims of homonegativity, also called homophobia, which is discrimination against a person because they identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.10 In some cases, gay men face an extreme form of homonegativity due to the psychological effects of hypermasculinity: the strict, even aggressive, adherence to male gender norms.11
In their study, designed to examine the relationship between contact and sexual prejudice Axelton, Saucier, and Smith discuss the psychologist Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis. Alport’s contact hypothesis states that “interaction and positive contact with a member of a negatively stereotyped group can lead to more positive attitudes, not only towards that individual, but also towards that individual’s group.”12 Investigating this hypothesis, many studies have shown that it is important for LGBTA+ and non-LGBTA+ members to have contact with each other in a positive environment, for such contact can cultivate feelings of acceptance, understanding, and non-discrimination. Findings suggest that contact between homosexuals and heterosexuals were negatively associated with sexual prejudice, meaning heterosexuals who had more positive attitudes towards homosexuals were often associates of homosexuals. The study also shows that some heterosexuals who may have never had contact with homosexuals before the study tended to have positive attitudes after having interaction during the study. This may suggest that even short interactions can have a significant impact on reducing discrimination.13
The Residence Hall Mission
Kristen A. Renn, a scholar whose research focuses on identity in higher education, discusses three major areas of focus concerning LBGTA+ issues: visibility, campus climate, and student identities and experience. Residence halls are a key aspect of campus life and climate, student identity development, and group visibility. Higher Education housing programs have a mission to provide students with an environment in which it is safe to learn and grow. One of their primary objectives is to assist students with personal growth and development, and the best way to ensure this is for the students’ residence halls to feel like home.14 Other researchers note that on-campus residents experienced greater cognitive and intellectual development, personal growth, improvement in leadership skills, higher graduation rates, and a better overall college experience, compared to off-campus residents.15 They also are less likely to participate in socially negative activities such as those related to alcohol.16 However, the results of these studies do not always hold for LGBTA+ student residents.
As a result of homophobia and homonegativity, LGBTA+ students may suffer psychological effects such as self-doubt, isolation, self-hate, and loathing as well as poor grades.17 The five biggest problems they face in traditional residence halls are lack of privacy, unaccepting roommates, harassment, difficulty coming out, and lack of desire to be involved in residence hall activities.18 The fact that many students establish their identities in their college years indicates a need to help create an open, friendly, and safe environment to facilitate all students’ self-exploration.
As noted above with Allport’s contact hypothesis, studies have shown that those who interact more with the LGBTA+ community are more likely to become comfortable and accepting of LGBTA+ people.19 Residence halls might expand their missions to make student living comfortable for all, including LGBTA+ individuals. GNH is one way to further this goal.
Prevalence of Colleges Offering Gender-Neutral Housing
According to a 2010 study, only 54 of 4,000 American higher education institutions, or approximately 1%, offer some form of GNH.20Currently at Virginia Tech, the Residence Hall Federation General Assembly is investigating the possibility of offering GNH. According to a 2014 article in Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, Kylie Gilbert, then president of the Assembly, makes the very important point that, “[GNH] is not just limited to the LGBT community — it applies to a wide spectrum of individuals. It can be applied to romantic, married couples, siblings, opposite gender best friends, doesn’t matter the gender.”21 The article also states that George Mason University will be offering GNH on its campus in the future, making it one of the first public universities in Virginia to do so.22
An exploratory study on the prevalence of GNH and reasons for its inclusion into college housing programs was performed by Carroll, Larsen, and Willoughby, who noted four points in favor of GNH: (1) GNH breaks down traditional gender roles, allowing for more awareness and acceptance of LGBTA+ issues; (2) it gives more housing options for LGBTA+ and those who choose to live with the opposite sex or an LGBTA+ member; (3) living with the opposite sex or other genders exposes students to the experience of developing social skills relating to and interacting with those of other sexes and genders and (4) there is no clear evidence that it will increase sexual activity among students utilizing the option.23
From our literature review, we have determined that LGBTA+ discrimination is still prevalent in society due to societal norms that favor a binary gender culture. One way to break down this gender barrier is through increasing the community’s awareness of LGBTA+ issues. The best way for a college campus to increase awareness and acceptance of LGBTA+ is through implementation of programs that provide LGBTA+ individuals with a secure environment in which they can feel safe and be open about themselves and their identity. Currently, Virginia Tech provides this sense of security through The LGBTA at Virginia Tech, and by advocating a “safe zone” for LGBTA+ individuals. As cognitive development theories such as Allport’s Contact Hypothesis suggest, the best way to increase awareness and acceptance is to expose people to that with which they are unfamiliar within positive environments. Mostly, the LGBTA is a place for LGBTA+ students to come together and is not where one would find high interaction between LGBTA members and non-LGBTA members. The introduction of GNH would attract more than just LGBTA members and allow for a safe environment for LGBTA members to associate with non-LGBTA members while having a feeling of being at home.
We used two samples in our study and two data collection methods. The first, SP1, was an availability sample. We used this sample to explore how members of the Virginia Tech student body felt about GNH. We developed a survey and made it available on a website. Because we were unable to use student emails and listservs, we contacted three residence halls: The Honors Residential College at East Ambler Johnston, Hillcrest Hall Honors Community, and The Residential College at West Ambler Johnston. An email was sent to the dormitory residents, who were asked to follow a link in their emails to complete the survey. 259 students completed the survey, and our analysis includes 234 of those responses.
The second sample, SP2, was a purposive sample used to explore how The LGBTA at Virginia Tech felt about GNH. We contacted the organization to seek participation in our study. We used a snowball technique to obtain 10 participants. This sample was used in focus group interviews, and included LGBTA+ members and other LGBTA+ affiliated individuals.
From the SP1 data we determined the percentage of students likely to support, oppose, or have no particular stance on GNH. We examined the demographic data to explore response trends for sections 2 and 3 of the survey (e.g., gender, sexuality, orientation, religious affiliation, ethnicity, age, family or friends identifying as LGBTA+, and College membership). Section 2 of the survey is composed of five GNH related questions in which the respondent chooses one answer from a list of possible answers. The open-ended questions in Section 3 were analyzed both quantitatively and qualitatively.
We used seven grand tour questions during the focus group. We recorded answers and then transcribed the data for analysis. In the transcription, the names of the interviewees were omitted and replaced with numbers 1-10 to represent our ten participants. Participants were allowed to contribute other thoughts permitting us to gain more insight into LGBTA+ perceptions regarding gender-neutral housing. We developed response categories from the interview data for easier analysis. Responses were then compared to the data from SP1.
Of the approximately 1,230 students in the three residence halls participating in the survey, 259 students responded. Only 234 of the 259 students gave consent for their data to be included in the analysis. Responses to each question provided descriptive frequencies for VT student perceptions of Gender Neutral Housing. Some of our findings are presented below. The discussion includes analysis of sections 1, 2, and 3 of the web survey. Section 3 of the survey is given more attention because of the open-ended nature of the questions.
SP1 Results: Survey Sections 1, 2, and 3
The survey data showed the majority of survey respondents favor GNH. The only topic resulting in less than 50% agreement was regarding random roommate assignment with SP1-Section 2-Question 4 results of 38% yes and 41% no. 11% suggested that random roommate assignments should be available “in special situations.” Most of the respondents suggested random roommate assignment only “in special situations” and felt the GNH selection process should involve an interview to determine why applicants were seeking GNH.
While many students identifying with specific religious affiliations also responded positively to GNH, most students offering negative responses were religiously affiliated.
Some respondents indicated a lack of understanding of the concept “Gender Neutral.” Of the respondents answering “yes” to the question, “Would gender neutral housing affect you?,” some students perceived that they would be forced to room with students of the opposite gender, resulting in discomfort and an inability to opt out of the program.
Respondents also felt a need for more education about GNH, particularly those favoring GNH. Students identifying themselves as LGBTA+ felt they would be significantly affected by GNH and also had many concerns. Some believed that the community would lose respect for them for choosing to live in GNH. Others feared that non-LGBTA+ would believe GNH is just for LGBTA+ students, thus exacerbating the gap between each groups. Finally, some LGBTA+ students believed only LGBTA+ students would gravitate toward this housing option. Despite these concerns, the overall results from the survey indicate that students would like to see a GNH option available at Virginia Tech.
SP1 Results- Survey Section 3
Question 1 in this section asked “What does ‘gender neutral’ mean to you?” The majority of participants (57%) seemed to realize that GN does not just refer to the binary roles of men and women, but refers to all gender roles being neutralized. Some respondents did not indicate an understanding of the gender neutral concept (13%) and some believed its focus was on allowing men and women to live together (11%). 19% did not provide a response.
Question 2 was “Please describe any concerns you have with GNH.” Although responses varied, coding allowed us to determine the following:
- - 6% of respondents were not in favor of gender-neutral bathrooms
- - 8% of respondents were concerned about assault and violence
- - 22% of respondents believed couples would take advantage of the housing option
- - 5% of respondents were concerned there would be a misunderstanding of the purpose of GNH
- - 11% of respondents were concerned about morality or uncomfortableness in rooming with opposite sex
- - 33% of the sample did not respond to the question
- - 15% of the sample gave unrelated answers
From the results, it is obvious that the biggest concerns involve misuse of the policy by couples or those with bad intentions, such as “perverts.” Perceptions of the possibility of sexual assault against females or violence against LGBTA+ were also indicated.
Question 3 asked respondents to share any personal narratives they have regarding GNH. The majority, 70%, had no personal experiences and were unaware of friends’ experiences. 10% of respondents believed GNH would promote a less discriminatory and more accepting community and 6% shared narratives to indicate how GNH would benefit LGBTA+ students. Only 5% of respondents directly opposed GNH or had non-narrative answers unrelated to the question. Despite the low response rate for this question, it is evident that those who did respond believe that GNH will help the Virginia Tech community become less discriminatory and more accepting of gender expression.
Question 4 asked “If Gender Neutral Housing was available, would you participate?” 43% of respondents said no while, 22% said yes and 24% gave no answer. 11% said they would participate, depending on the exact policy in place. Question 5 asked, “Do you feel having Gender Neutral Housing as an option in residential housing would improve the overall college experience for Virginia Tech students?” The results showed that half of respondents, 51%, believed it would in fact improve the overall college experience at Virginia Tech. 24% gave no response or had no opinion, 14% said they believed it would not improve the experience, and 11% believed it would improve the experience for some students, mostly LGBTA+ affiliates, but not everyone’s experience.
Question 6 stated, “If you have any relevant comments, suggestions, etc. you would like to express, please do so here.” Not all participants chose to respond, and those who did were mostly those who felt very strongly about the issue, either positively or negatively. Additionally, other individuals chose to include their opinions on how GNH could best be implemented and in other cases how the survey itself could be improved. Some responses indicated hostility to GNH altogether, while others demonstrated a lack of understanding about the purpose of GNH and about gender identities. However, a majority of the responses indicate support for GNH, including requests that it be implemented because it is an important and needed step, and praising Virginia Tech for considering it in the first place. A few responses mentioned using Hillcrest Hall as GNH because of experimental housing situations there in the past.
SP2: Focus Group Analysis Results
Focus group responses were coded as: (1) reasons why GNH is needed, (2) perceptions of the intended use of GNH, (3) thoughts on potentially unintended consequences, (4) reasons for participation or non-participation, and (5) thoughts on GNH implementation. Our findings are discussed below.
LGBTA members felt a need for GNH as a “safe zone” for the LGBTA+ community. Interviewees agreed that regardless of anti-discrimination policies at Tech, LGBTA+ students are still going to face discrimination, so a GNH safe space would be both welcomed and utilized. Because college is a fragile time in an individual’s development. GNH can help relieve discomfort, especially when someone is gender questioning or is in transition. Transgender students are most affected by GNH because they may be in the position of transitioning from one binary sex to another and should the transition occur during a semester in which they reside on campus, the rejection by roommates, hallmates, and other dorm mates could be uncomfortable or even dangerous.
Some of the LGBTA students’ concerns mentioned are (1) that the majority of campus residents will not realize that GNH will be primarily used by LGBTA+ individuals as a safe space, (2) that heterosexual and homosexual couples may abuse the system, and (3) fear that any anti-LGBTA+ individuals allowed in GNH would violate the safe space for LGBTA+ individuals.
LGBTA members anticipated three potential consequences of GNH. First, they anticipated potential problems in random roommate selection. The group indicated a belief that random roommate selection would be done via the current campus lottery system, in which anyone could be selected to live in GNH. The biggest problem perceived was that ill-intentioned individuals could be allowed into GNH. One participant noted that although there is a possibility that ill-intentioned individuals may interfere with the “safe zone” aspect of GNH, the need is still ever present and fear should not be a deterrent. Further into the discussion, ideas for how random roommate selection could best be implemented were offered. A second concern was the placement of the dorm itself. Students did not want to be too far from campus, taking away from the campus life, or create the appearance or feeling of segregation; they also did not want to be too close to areas where discrimination could be an issue. One participant mentioned that Slusher Hall is small enough for staff to safely monitor and that it is also close to the center of campus. Others mentioned that West Ambler Johnston and other dorms that already have living and learning communities or other unique living situations. A third person expected a GNH consequence would be that other adults (e.g., students’ parents) would not understand or support GNH, believing it just an excuse for couples to live together, or that an LGBTA+ student not yet out to their parents could be unintentionally outed to parents on move-in day into a GNH dorm.
A majority of respondents said they would love to participate in GNH, but would only do so as long as they were not taking away from someone who really needed it, such as a transgendered student or a student who has been harassed and was seeking a safe place. Some respondents also said that should a friend ask them to be their roommate for safety reasons, they would oblige. Others said they would participate should there be gender-neutral bathrooms available, mentioning awkward bathroom situations they had experienced.
Category 5 responses were numerous. Interviewees presented many suggestions for GNH implementation. The most extensive discussions were about how roommate selection could be carried out and the selection and training of Resident Assistants. The biggest concern was ensuring that those wanting to use GNH were doing so for the right reasons. First, it was suggested that students be properly advised on the GNH intent and purpose before the application process starts and that the availability of GNH should be widely advertised so that those who might need it would be aware of the option. Participants indicated that the GNH application should include language such as, ‘The purpose of the GNH dormitory is … GNH is not just for LGBTA+ individuals, but for others such as ...”.
Participants also recommended that the application be used as a screening mechanism to ensure that those who need GNH, such as those who feel uncomfortable or unsafe in typical dorm situations, married couples, transgender students or non-binary students, or roommates for disabled students of the opposite sex, are in fact those placed in GNH first. It was proposed that to ensure an applicant’s good intentions, all should have to write personal essays and/or go through an interview process.
One student suggested that the application should allow friends of differing genders or gender identities to live together regardless of LGBTA+ status because sometimes they just feel more comfortable with each other, while others feared this would let in people who would abuse or compromise the system, like couples who break up and then have problems that affect other students in the housing area. Another student proposed a semi-random roommate selection process in which an individual could choose their top three preferred roommate identities to live with. Whomever they are assigned to should be of one of those identities. This was suggested because not all members of the LGBTA+ community are accepting of all members of that community. For example, not all lesbians and gays are accepting of transgender students.
With regard to Resident Assistants, there was a general agreement that even in the current dorm system, it is often the case that RAs do not understand gender and sexuality related issues. Respondents thought additional RA training was needed to ensure their awareness of LGBTA+ issues so that RAs can notice and react appropriately to potential issues, particularly violence. It was also suggested that RAs either come from or be recommended from within the LGBTA+ community, and if possible, GNH applicants should be aware of who the possible RAs may be. Participants unanimously agreed that at minimum RAs should be Safe Zone trained.
Finally, one of the most important points made was that an individual educated thoroughly in LGBTA+ issues and preferably a member of that community, be present and involved in the implementation of GNH. The LGBTA+ community should be involved in a proposal that is so important to them.
Comparative Analysis of SP1 and SP2
Some of the findings from the SP1 web-based survey were also present in the SP2 focus group results. First, both sets of respondents agree that Virginia Tech needs GNH and that GNH can potentially serve as a safe zone for LGBTA+ students. This conclusion can be drawn from SP1, Section 3, Question 3 and from the focus group data. Responses from SP1, Section 2, Question 2 show that 58% of respondents agree that GNH should be an option at Virginia Tech. We also see similar concerns across both samples. For example, in SP2, Category 2, a major concern was that the majority of campus residents would not see GNH as a potential safe space for LGBTA+ individuals and would use it for other purposes. This was reflected by 5% of respondents in SP1, Section 3, Question 2.
In SP2, Category 3, the main concern was that ill-intentioned individuals could be allowed into GNH. In SP1, Section 3, Question 2, 8% believed that “perverts” and physical or sexual abusers might be allowed in GNH and another 22% feared it would be misused by students for relationship purposes. In SP2, Category 4, most of the LGBTS+ participants said they would love to participate in a GNH option, while SP1, Section 3, Question 4 responses indicated that non-LGBTA+ students would not use GNH: 43% said no, while 22% said yes, and 11% said yes under certain circumstances.
In SP2, Category 4, focus group respondents made suggestions for GNH implementation, especially in regard to how roommate selection would occur. Most students across both samples indicated potential problems with random roommate selection, as was shown in SP1, Section 2, Question 4. Students were asked if random roommate selection should be an option and 38% said yes, and 41% said no. Despite the lack of support for random roommate selection, in SP1, Section 3, Question 2 and SP2, Category 5, there was strong support for a managed roommate selection process for those who specifically apply for GNH. Another suggestion was made in regard to the bathroom policy. Many focus group participants felt that gender-neutral bathrooms were not just needed for transgendered students, but also for non-gender conforming and gender questioning individuals uncomfortable sharing a bathroom. SP1, Section 2, Question 3 respondents agreed; 56% of them would prefer gender-neutral bathroom availability.
The overall intent of this research was to explore the types of student reactions and perceptions that could be expected from the implementation of GNH at Virginia Tech. Many respondents think the option would improve their overall college experience. Although GNH may be strongly desired by the LGBTA+ population, others are less enthusiastic about it. Though some non-LGBTA+ individuals have suggested they may utilize it if given the option, there are still concerns about potential abuse of the policy. LGBTA students feel deeply invested in and are very protective of the GNH process. Respondents offered suggestions which should be seriously considered in the implementation of GNH at Virginia Tech.
1Wentworth Institute of Technology Gender Neutral Housing Assignment Request and Agreement.
12Axelton et. al., 179.
13Axelton et. al., 187-188.
15Fanuccee, 26, and Anderson, 31-32.
21Austin, Collegiate Times
22Austin, Collegiate Times
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Mitchell, Robert W., and Jennifer Watjen. “College Men’s Concerns about Sharing Dormitory Space with a Male-to-Female Transsexual.” Sexuality & Culture. 17.1 (2013): 132-166.
Renn, Kristen A. “LGBT and Queer Research in Higher Education: The State and Status of the Field.” Educational Researcher. 39.2 (2010): 132-14.
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Sara Emsley is a History major (recently transferred to West Point- US Military Academy); Katy Shepard is a triple major in Studio Art, Philosophy, and Political Science (graduated December 2014); LeAnn Rhodes is a Political Science Legal Studies major (graduating May 2015); and Kaitlin Winfree is a Political Science Legal Studies major (graduating May 2016).
Beginning as a research design assignment in a Research Methods class, we quickly became attached to our topic and designed it in a manner that would allow us to pursue it as an Undergraduate Research project. We’d like to give a special thanks to Dr. Brandy Faulkner for all her support and excellent guidance throughout the design, implementation, and analysis of our study.