Pictured and photo courtesy: UNC Senior Kevin Claybren  

CHAPEL HILL – UNC Chapel Hill has endeavored to improve student safety through University-wide efforts. Some have said that gender non-specific housing, also known as gender neutral housing, a program allowing males and females to live together in the same University dorm suites or apartments, might have saved some students from facing harassment because of their sexual identities. However, it was banned last week by UNC System leaders before the program could be begin its pilot year.

UNC Senior Kevin Claybren served as the Student Coordinator of the Gender Non-Specific Housing Coalition. He was set to live with three other females in Ram Village Apartments, the first four students to participate in the gender non-specific housing pilot program at UNC, allowing males and females to share bathrooms and common areas in suites or apartments, but not share the same room.

“Our Board of Governors, the University of North Carolina’s System Board of Governors, are not focused on student safety and student success,” Claybren said. “They are focused on other things and other agendas.”

Claybren said the Board of Governors’ decision, which affects the 16 UNC System campuses, put him in a bind to find housing, and now he is living alone.

“I looked forward to being around other people who would be able to affirm my identity and I could have affirmed their identity. I looked forward to being in that welcoming and inclusive environment where people welcomed the discussion and welcomed these challenging and hard conversations,” Claybren said, adding he believes that feeling safe in a residence hall influences positive academic success.

The Coalition worked for more than two years to make the program a reality, Claybren explained. The group held a sessions in which students shared how they had been bullied.

“We knew that gender non-specific housing was a way to address the bullying and harassment that was happening in our housing experience on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus,” Claybren said.

Terri Phoenix, UNC’s LGBTQ Center Director, served on the Gender Non-Specific Housing Coalition alongside Claybren.  She said that residence halls were the fourth most common location where students said they had experienced harassment because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression, according to UNC’s 2011 Campus Climate Report.  She said that half of the students who reported harassment identified themselves as heterosexuals. Phoenix said she believed that the program would have benefited a diverse group of students.

Fifty-five University departments and groups supported the policy, including the UNC Parents Council, the student government and the executive branch of the student government. More than 2,000 students signed a petition in favor of the gender non-specific housing. Most notably, the UNC Board of Trustees approved the policy last November, championed by former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp.

“We were able to demonstrate that this proposed policy had broad-based support from a number of student organizations and other departments. We made the case that this was an approach, one of many approaches, that we wanted to have at our disposal to ensure student safety,” Phoenix said.

Phoenix, who also served on the Sexual Assault Task Force this summer, said the point of gender non-specific housing, was not to randomly assign males and females to live together. She said it was about providing a safe environment, allowing students the opportunity to room with other people who elected to be a part of the pilot program.

“And this group of people then would have had the chance to say I want to live with these specific roommates, regardless of what their gender was, or they would have been assigned with other people who also said, ‘I have concerns about safety, I want to be in a place where people don’t have concerns about rooming with a LGBTQ person,’” Phoenix said. “That what this policy would have done, and that is what was prevented by this Board of Governors’ decision.”

Phoenix said she questioned the timing of the Board of Governor’s Decision, when students were not on campus and without hearing student or faculty comment. It not protocol, though, for the Board meetings to take public comment.

Peter Hans, Chair of the Board of Governors, replied last Friday when asked why the policy was banned:

“Our board wants every student to be safe and comfortable and included. The Board believes there are more practical ways to achieve those goals than assigning young men and young women to the same dorm rooms and campus suites,” Hans said.

Phoenix said his response was a “simplistic representation” of what the policy was.

Both Phoenix and Claybren said that despite the Board of Governors’ decision, they will continue to educate people about why gender non-specific housing is important, with the hope that the Board of Governors will revisit the policy in the future.