A gigantic rainbow flag adorns one wall in Haiden Baier's new college dorm room, alongside a few photos, illustrations and the lyrics to a Fall Out Boy song. In past years, the University of North Florida junior said he would usually wait a few weeks to hang it up.
Baier, born female, began identifying as transgender two years ago. It took another year before he was comfortable coming out. He said in the past, he's played it down with roommates for the first month or so to avoid awkwardness.
"I kind of eased all my roommates into it . tried to make them a little bit more comfortable with it," he said.
This year, he put his flag up right away, "and no one cared," he said.
In a room next door, his two suitemates, William Brown and Taylor Holt, chatted about characters on "Parks and Recreation." Brown is gay and a junior. Holt, a freshman, doesn't identify as male or female.
They're all inaugural residents in UNF's first "gender-inclusive" dorm rooms.
For the first time, the college is offering its students the housing designed to accommodate transgender students, like Baier, and others who may not fall into traditional gender norms.
"When you're living with others, it can get very awkward, very quickly," said Dei Allard, associate director of UNF Housing and Residential Life. "So making sure that we created an environment that was safe and welcoming for them was the goal."
The university estimates about 10 percent of its students identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender based on data from its latest survey of campus climate.
Baier along with six other students are the first to occupy the new suites, located in one wing of the campus's Osprey Fountains housing complex.
For any student, the first days of living with a new roommate can be nerve-racking, but for students who don't fall into traditional gender norms, there's an added layer of unease, Baier said - concerns about being judged and making others uncomfortable. Up until now, he's been assigned to all-female dorms, where even seemingly mundane activities, such as using the bathroom, can create issues. It's the kind of thing many students don't even think about, he said.
"Most of them took for granted the fact that their gender was automatically assumed and automatically correct, and they didn't have to come out to anyone," he said.
Baier, now, has three other roommates, who share two bathrooms and a common kitchenette in the newly refurbished suite.
Brown, who transferred from Palm Beach State College this year, said the housing provides freedom from the judgment he might encounter elsewhere.
"It's one thing to deal with that in class or out in public, but when I come home to relax and unwind, I don't have to deal with that," he said.
Currently, about 200 colleges and universities across the country offer gender-inclusive housing to students, according to national college LGBT advocacy group Campus Pride.
UNF is the fourth college in Florida to offer the option, according to the organization, joining Stetson University, Ringling College of Art and Design and Eckerd College.
The new housing option also marks the 10th anniversary of UNF's LGBT Resource Center.
Since the Center's inception, shifts in public opinion and landmark Supreme Court decisions have created a significantly more accepting environment on many college campuses, advocates say. The Resource Center, itself, has seen the number of weekly visitors jump from a handful to a hundred, according to Baier.
However, advocates say there are still hurdles to overcome.
According to the latest UNF poll of LGBT students about the campus climate — taken in 2010 — about half report experiencing at least one incident of bias or harassment due to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. Those incidents range from verbal insults to physical assault. Many of those who reported the most severe cases identified as transgender.
In the city as a whole, the debate over expanding protections against discrimination to the LGBT community — a hot-button issue of this year's election — has not yet returned to City Hall, but the city is expected to make the decision later this fall.
"A lot of times, I think bigotry and prejudice occur because people don't have the education and the knowledge, and they don't know people whose lives are affected by these issues," said Kaitlin Legg, assistant director of the UNF Resource Center.
A new UNF poll of LGBT students is expected this fall.
Legg said with recent developments, such as the legalization of gay marriage and widespread coverage of celebrities Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox raising the profile of transgender people, she expects to see significant progress. "So much has happened in the past five years," she said. "We're getting students coming here who are a little bit more progressive in their thinking."
Holt expects the new university housing to also help push that needle forward.
"I think it brings in a new community," she said. "We kind of bond together as a group, but we also interact with the rest of our floor mates."
However, despite a comfortable new place adorned in LGBT pride regalia, Baier said there's no room for complacency yet. "There's still a lot of work to be done," he said.
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com
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