Gender-neutral housing

Sidney Garland, left, a junior at Towson University, shares a dorm room with friend Nita Strickland in a gender-neutral housing program. They especially like the semi-private bathroom, left, that only the two of them use. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / April 12, 2014)

Nita Strickland and Sidney Garland, best friends since the sixth grade, have shared a lot — their hopes and daily frustrations, an interest in some of the same music and TV shows.

Now in college, even though they are of opposite sexes, the students share a tiny dorm room on Towson University's campus.

What would have been considered taboo just a few decades ago has become more common. Coed dormitories, which shocked some when introduced in the 1970s, have given way to coed rooms. The well-established trend even has a modern moniker: gender-neutral housing.

The Johns Hopkins University recently joined the mix of Maryland universities that will offer the option of living on campus with a roommate of the opposite sex, and St. Mary's College of Maryland officials have signaled that the school would also get on board.

Already, the University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Goucher College, Towson University, Frostburg State University and the Maryland Institute College of Art extend the coed option to students.

Before 2007, such arrangements were virtually nonexistent in Maryland.

While college officials say they've seen very little backlash, not everyone has accepted what soon could be considered the societal norm. For the first time this year, a delegate introduced a bill in the Maryland General Assembly to eliminate state funding to colleges that offer mixed-gender housing. The bill died in committee.

"I've talked to constituents who have said, 'I don't want people shacking up together on taxpayer dollars,'" said Washington County Republican Del. Neil Parrott, the bill's sponsor, whose conservative resume includes leading the failed effort to overturn same-sex marriage.

"We have social mores in our society, and it seems like these universities are trying to push that away," he said. Constituents "want to see colleges educating students and not experimenting with a whole new room policy."

Strickland and Garland, who grew up in the Oxon Hill-Suitland area of Prince George's County and finish each other's sentences, decorated their small living space with Towson University memorabilia and pop music posters. Having a private bathroom is a major plus, the roommates agreed.

"I don't see it as living with someone of the opposite gender as it is living with a really good friend," said Strickland, 21. "Hours will go by, we'll just be laying here talking about everything. Sometimes we'll wake up in the morning and be like, 'oh we stayed up till 4 a.m.'"

"A lot of people when they hear we're living together, they're like, 'How did you get so lucky?'" added Garland, 20.

University administrators say they began exploring mixed-gender housing after requests from students and have seen a growing demand.

The policies vary by school — some universities allow freshmen to participate, others don't except in special circumstances; and some universities only allow opposite-sex roommates in apartments and suites and not traditional dorm rooms.

Campus housing has evolved in other ways, too. Some colleges have floors designated as "quiet" or substance-free; others offer students the opportunity to live with others in the same academic program.

Coed arrangements aren't designed for students in romantic relationships, officials said, and students are not assigned to the housing unless they request it.

Though many different types of students live in mixed-gender housing, some schools began their programs to address concerns raised by transgender students, who can face harassment or discomfort in a traditional dorm.

"We have students who were bullied to the point of violence in high school," said Katie Boone, the director of residential life at UMBC. "They came to UMBC where they felt safe about their gender identity or expression, so this was helpful for them."

According to the national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy group Campus Pride, nearly 150 universities around the country offer the option of gender-neutral housing, including California's state universities, Yale University, Columbia University and George Washington University. Most programs started in the past six years.

Deborah Grandner, the director of resident life at the College Park campus, said a student housing advisory group first approached her about the option in 2005 and that she attended a forum sponsored by a LGBT group that solidified her opinions about why the program was necessary.

"The students there expressed serious concerns about navigating their living environment in our state-owned residence halls," Grandner said. "Their roommate situation could really make or break their college experience."

The program, offered in housing across campus, has grown from about 60 students to about 400 now, she said. About 12,000 students live in College Park's residence halls and the privately managed Courtyards and South Campus Commons apartments.

Alex Stoller's apartment on College Park's campus is a melting pot of six roommates from diverse backgrounds — and a blend of three men and three women, none of whom is gay or transgender.

"It's been eye-opening to live with people of the opposite sex," said Stoller, a sophomore from the Boston suburbs studying journalism. "There's also never drama. Girls can get catty and it can be harder, but with the guys it's nice because it's definitely a family dynamic. We're like brothers and sisters."

"If I want real girl time," she added, "I go to my sorority house."

The growing popularity of mixed-gender housing caught the attention of Parrott, who filed the bill this session to de-fund any institution that offered the option. The bill died in committee in March, but Parrott said he would reintroduce it next year.

Parrott said he was concerned that the housing option would lead to a rise in rapes and distract from the educational experience. He also said the housing option seemed aimed at "a small group of people in the transvestite community" and that "if someone's really uncomfortable, they could have a single room."

Susan Boswell, dean of student life at the Johns Hopkins University, where mixed-gender housing will be offered starting in the fall semester, said student requests to live with another student of a different gender had previously been evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Administrators are "becoming more sensitive to the broad range of needs that their students have," she said, and students are becoming more vocal about their different housing needs.

"We felt this was something that was being offered widely at many institutions," she said. "We felt we were somewhat behind in not providing this option."

Stoller, the College Park student, acknowledged that she could opt to live with students of a different gender if she was living off-campus. But she said living on campus was important to her, especially in her freshman and sophomore years.

"It's part of the college experience," said Stoller, who lives in the Leonardtown Community of apartments. "I personally think everyone should live in a dorm at some point in their life."

Stoller, who is Jewish, said her roommates are a mix of religions and nationalities: one Colombian, one Swedish, one Catholic, one Jamaican and one Vietnamese, making the experience even more diverse.

The roommates cook dinner together, adding to the family-like experience, said Stoller, who said having roommates of different genders and backgrounds has expanded her social circle. Her parents were "a little surprised at first" but have embraced her decision, she said.

"It took some time to get used to, but now it's not a problem at all," said Stoller. "Everyone seems to be supportive about it. They understand that we're really best friends."

cwells@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cwellssun

Campus gender-neutral housing

Frostburg State University: Started in 2008 and offered in Edgewood Commons, a privately operated apartment-style complex on campus. Administrators are considering expanding gender-neutral options.

Goucher College: Started in 2007; about 40 students currently participating. Applies to both dorm rooms and suites.

Johns Hopkins University: Students can apply for the program for the fall semester. It is not limited to any one building, but only applies to suites and apartments.

Maryland Institute College of Art: Started around 2001, not available to freshmen except in special circumstances. Students are assigned by lottery after they apply. Applies to apartment-style living only, not individual rooms.

St. Mary's College of Maryland: Announced in September that it would add gender-neutral housing and that it would be open to new and returning students.

Towson University: Program began in fall 2012 and about 40 students currently participate. Students must apply with a roommate in mind and be selected. They can live in any of three buildings, Barton, Newell and Millennial, and the arrangements are not specific to any wing or floor.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County: Pilot program launched in 2007; currently about 70 students participating. Opened program to freshmen in 2012.

University of Maryland, College Park: Launched pilot program in 2007; program has expanded over the years to about 400 students currently participating. Not limited to certain residence halls.