BEN CLASSON/Herald photo
Traditional walls are tumbling down at universities across the country because of a new policy allowing students to choose their roommates with no questions asked — including the gender. With nail polish shelved next to Xbox consoles and stilettos sharing closet space with oversized football jerseys, gender-neutral housing policies at campuses nationwide are allowing men and women to share dorm rooms. The University of Southern Maine was the first institution to implement a gender-neutral housing policy beginning in fall 2004. Jason Arey, assistant director of residential housing at USM, said the gender-neutral housing policy was developed because traditional university housing was not meeting the needs of all students. "We were getting requests from siblings who wanted to live together but happened to be from different genders," Arey said. "[We also] received requests from transgender students." Arey said the program — which has expanded every year since its inception — allows significant others to share a living space. Most USM students, Arey said, are very accepting of gender-neutral housing and think it is a good addition to the university. "[There was] some concern about [ab]normal types of housing, but most of our students and constituents are very positive and think this is the right direction to go in," Arey said. Arey added USM, which is a publicly funded institution in Maine, was initially concerned the gender-neutral housing policy was not going to be accepted by constituents. Gender-neutral housing, Arey said, provides students with housing options similar to the housing market surrounding campus in Portland, Maine. "If you go into any city or town and go to a landlord, they generally don't care who is living in that space," Arey said. "We're mirroring downtown Portland, so I don't think we're jumping off of any moral cliffs here." The program, Arey said, currently houses about 100 students at USM and will probably continue to grow. "I think [gender-neutral housing] is absolutely the right way to go; our students find it very popular," Arey said. "It makes all the sense in the world." With a policy similar to that of USM, the University of California-Riverside currently has 48 students living in gender-neutral housing, which first became an option on UCR's campus two years ago. Janette Bradeen, director of residence life at UCR, said the student-driven policy was implemented to meet the needs of transgender students. "[There were] several students who were applying for housing who were transgender, and we didn't have anything that would fit their needs," Bradeen said. The policy, Bradeen said, was welcomed by UCR students with open arms and has had a positive effect on the campus as a whole. "I've talked to several students who have decided to come to UCR because we have the gender-neutral housing," Bradeen said. "When somebody picks UCR over Berkley because of gender-neutral housing that says a lot about the program." Bradeen said the program has opened up communication between all students and faculty at UCR, while benefiting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students on campus. "LGBT students seem more open, and our LGBT center has seen an increase in the number of students … they feel it's because of the gender-neutral housing," Bradeen said. "Students looking at UCR know they will be accepted." Students at Colorado College followed in the footsteps of their peers at UCR by requesting the option of gender-neutral housing on campus in fall 2005. In an e-mail to The Badger Herald, Laura Bennett, spokesperson for Colorado College, cited the importance of offering students the option of gender-neutral housing. "I think it is an important option to offer students," Bennett said. "Our program works well because it is open to individuals who don't want to base their room assignments on the traditional gender categories but also open to allies who like the idea of it." Despite the overwhelming positive reactions to gender-neutral housing at schools like Colorado College, UCR and USM, the University of Wisconsin is not able to offer this program to students. Associate Director of Residence Life Kevin Helmkamp said the UW System Board of Regents regulates the housing options available on campus. "We have limitations in regards to the options we choose to offer by virtue of the Board of Regents' regulation," Helmkamp said. However, Helmkamp said University Housing strives to meet the needs of all types of students and will gladly work with concerned students on a case-by-case basis. "University Housing does try to stay very cognizant of the living options students would like," Helmkamp said. "We have not had a lot of conversations about [gender-neutral housing]." Helmkamp said housing is better able to meet the needs of transgender students with the new housing options springing up around campus. "With Smith Hall, we have some additional sorts of intermingling between men and women," Helmkamp said. "It's a different coed environment [than the traditional dorms]."