Gender-neutral dorm at UMW in Fredericksburg is unique
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Madison Hall sits unassumingly off the University of Mary Washington’s campus walk, behind a shroud of trees.
The dormitory forms a tri-unit with upperclassmen all-female dorm Ball Hall and Madison’s mirror-image, the coed Custis Hall.
But the residents of Madison Hall don’t make those gendered distinctions about their hall-mates. The dorm is home to UMW’s gender-neutral living community—the only one at a public college in Virginia.
They are residents such as Kaitlin Bosch, who simply goes by “Bosch” on campus. Bosch identifies as gender-fluid and prefers the “they” pronoun to being called “he” or “she” in conversation.
“Some days I’m more feminine, and some days I’m more masculine,” Bosch explained.
Bosch lives in the last room on the right with Julia Lattimer. Their interests are divergent—Bosch was involved in boxing during the first semester and takes classes in computer science and Chinese, while Lattimer, who is fine with being called a “she,” is more outgoing and actively involved in the English department and its clubs. Yet they get along famously and have a mutual respect for each other.
Both are actively involved in PRISM, People for the Rights of Individuals of Sexual Minorities, and the Feminists United on Campus club.
Both sides of the dorm room are papered in political posters and pictures of friends and family. On the back of their door is a poster of George W. Bush, and in a windowsill live the pet rats—Suki and Yue—that they both care for.
A freshman at UMW, Bosch said the community helped them feel safe about being open with their gender neutrality.
“I was not out as gender-fluid in high school,” Bosch said. “I was out as bisexual in high school and here it’s great, I don’t have to explain it to everyone.”
Bosch attended Brentsville District High School in Nokesville, and while there was no conflict about gender and sexuality in the school, it also had no gay–straight alliance group, and no one talked about those issues.
The gender-neutral community was not what prompted Bosch to apply to UMW, but it was what solidified Bosch’s choice to attend.
“I’m queer, and I needed a safe space,” Bosch said.
For Lattimer, though, the community was the reason she applied and what made the school her top choice. Even though students are required to live with someone of the same biological sex at UMW, even in Madison Hall, the dorm represents an accepting space for the campus’ LGBTQ community.
Lattimer went to an arts high school and said she feels more comfortable in a place that is open and accepting.
“Everyone here is really loving,” she said. “They’re sensitive to whatever. It’s not just gender and pronouns, that extends to anxieties and any problems someone is having.”
Even though the campus is friendly, Bosch’s friends who live in Randolph, Jefferson and Russell halls don’t have the same sense of community.
“Everyone here [in Madison Hall] are friends,” Bosch said. “It’s really friendly, really open and not at all what I expected. I expected to make some friends when I came here, but not to be welcomed with open arms by upperclassmen.”
Adrienne Davis and Hannah Hudson, both sophomores, live across the hall from Bosch and Lattimer. Davis and Hudson have lived in the gender-neutral dorm for two years and said the sense of community there keeps them coming back.
Davis, who identifies as female and pansexual, said the community is “really respectful. That’s something you don’t usually see in college dorms.”
ALONE IN VIRGINIA
Christine Porter, director of residence life at UMW, said the community started six years ago after a group of students began a conceptual-living group to meet the needs of the campus’ transgender members.
Conceptual-living groups are popular at the university, with students living together on campus under the umbrella of athletics and green living, to name a couple of groups.
The gender-neutral community currently has 38 residents, all living in Madison Hall.
“The premise was to educate people about gender along a spectrum,” Porter said. “It is not a binary. And it was important to educate people on concepts of sex, which is biological, and gender, which is sociological.”
A total of 97 American higher-education institutions now offer true gender-neutral living options, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, with Boston University and George Washington University joining the trend in 2013.
But none of those institutions, not even among private colleges, are in Virginia.
Colin Riley, a spokesman at Boston University, said the option is available in nearly all of that university’s residence halls. There has been no pushback from the community, he said.
“It’s rather straightforward roommate choice,” he said. “The primary factor in creating it was the safety and security of students.”
Porter said while UMW’s Madison Hall is a gender-neutral space, students are still required to live with those of the same sex.
“No institution in the commonwealth is doing true gender-neutral housing,” Porter said.
Josh Block, a lawyer specializing in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights with the ACLU, said Virginia is one of the states where creating gender-neutral communities is frowned upon.
In 2012, his office received a complaint from a college student in Virginia who was denied housing that matched the gender the student identified with.
“We heard that the Attorney General’s Office was telling schools that they [gender-neutral housing programs] were prohibited,” he said.
The reason for not allowing the communities was Virginia’s cohabitation ban, which was recently repealed, prohibiting unmarried couples from living together.
Block said that excuse didn’t “even have a fig leaf to hide behind,” since it applied to individuals in a sexual relationship.
However, Block was not able to obtain information from the Virginia Attorney General’s Office sent to public universities about housing.
The Free Lance–Star requested emails involving gender-neutral housing sent to public state universities from then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s office in December, but the request was denied due to “attorney–client privilege.”
A similar request was made by The Free Lance–Star to UMW and denied for the same reason. However, the university said that four pages of emails were withheld.
Newly elected Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s office had no comment.
In 2010, the College of William and Mary’s student assembly lobbied the school’s administration for gender-neutral housing but was met with resistance, according to an article in the Flat Hat, the student newspaper.
According to the article, the school was concerned about whether the option would be practical and about the political implications of offering such a program.
The ACLU’s Block said the issue should be student safety, not practicality.
“Everyone should be entitled to feel safe in their own room,” Block said. “ All students should be free from policies based on sex stereotypes. It’s a stereotype that you can’t put boys and girls together because they’ll have sex.”
He said people against the communities need to understand that gender-neutral housing is a choice.
“People don’t understand that it is an option rather than a mandate and how these policies affect LGBT youth,” he said.
Another state where schools face a hostile climate to gender-neutral housing is North Carolina, where it was banned on all 17 of the University of North Carolina’s campuses.
Gender-neutral housing was approved on the campus level at UNC Chapel Hill and was expected to begin in 2013, but the UNC board of governors later voted to approve a policy that reads, “The constituent institutions shall not assign members of the opposite sex to any institutionally owned and operated dormitory room … unless the students are siblings, parent and child, or they are legally married.”
Kevin Claybren, student coordinator for the push for gender-neutral housing, and Terri Phoenix, director of the LGBTQ center at Chapel Hill, released a statement following the decision, saying they are disappointed in the policy and are going to continue efforts to create fully inclusive housing at UNC.
CREATING A SAFE PLACE
The reception hasn’t always been rosy toward gender-neutral housing at UMW, either.
In a 2009 letter to the editor of the school’s newspaper, the Bullet, a then-senior opposed gender-neutral housing.
“UMW is heavily funded by taxpayer dollars, and as a taxpayer I would be disgusted to know that my money funds a university that encourages students to live together in an immoral situation,” the student wrote. “By allowing male and female students to live in a dorm room together, the school is allowing potentially indecent cohabitation to occur; that’s a gray, or even black, area, which this school should avoid.”
Even the office of residence life received some initial kickback, but Porter said the response to the community was never overwhelmingly negative.
But even if the community wasn’t available, Bosch said the campus is “really open and accepting.”
Porter said the inclusive atmosphere of the campus and the success of the gender-neutral community says something about the students at UMW.
“It’s a safe place,” Lattimer said about Madison Hall. “I imagine it’s hard, especially for transgender students, being in a gender-specific dorm. It’s an environment that could be threatening and dangerous. This is a good place to exist and grow.”
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LGBTQ: Initials standing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer. The Q sometimes stands for questioning.
Sex: The biological classification of people as male or female.
Gender Identity: One’s internal, personal sense of being a man or a woman.
Sexual orientation: Describes an individual’s enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to another person. Gender identity and sexual orientation are not the same.
Gender neutral: Does not distinguish between sex or gender.
Gender fluid: Moving between genders or with a fluctuating gender identity.
Bisexual: romantic attraction, sexual attraction or sexual behavior toward both males and females.
Transgender: An umbrella term for a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that differs from the one that corresponds to the person’s sex at birth.
Transsexual: A person who strongly identifies with the opposite sex and may seek to live as a member of this sex especially by undergoing surgery and hormone therapy to obtain the necessary physical appearance.
Pansexual: Sexual attraction, sexual desire, romantic love or emotional attraction toward people of all gender identities and biological sexes.
Conceptual living: Student-driven residence hall theme housing groups
—Compiled with help from Merriam–Webster Dictionary and GLAAD’s glossary of terms.