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Gender Status and Single-Sex Dorms

December 20, 2007

Kourt Osborn started off at Southern Utah University living in a women's dormitory -- not surprising given that Osborn checked "female" on the institution's application and enrollment forms. Now Osborn -- who took time off for hormone and other treatments to become a man -- wants to return and live in a men's dormitory.

The university, citing advice from the state's attorney general, has said that to live in a men's dorm (at Southern Utah, dormitory buildings are either all-male or all-female), Osborn must submit medical documentation to "prove" that he is male. While Osborn identifies as male and has gone through significant body changes because of the hormone treatment, he hadn't had the surgery associated with switching genders. While many people who identify as transgender never have surgery or spend years in transition waiting for surgery, Osborn was told by university officials that without proof of an operation, he needed to stay in the women's dorm. Instead, he's gone public with his case, filed a grievance, and plans to live off campus.

Southern Utah's position has angered advocates for transgender rights. While only a distinct minority of colleges offer gender-neutral housing options (generally the top request for transgender students), the demand for medical verification strikes many of their advocates as betraying both insensitivity and arrogance about transgendered students.

"I think it's a terrible policy," said Brittney Hoffman, campus director of the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition. "That's another way of putting a person in a box, and saying, 'Unless you meet these criteria, you are not real.' " Hoffman's group, which works on behalf of transgendered people, is planning to formally object to the university's policy.

Since Osborn went public with his story in Utah this week, the issue has attracted considerable attention, with plenty of criticism on all sides. One commenter to The Salt Lake Tribune's forum on the dispute suggested that all students photograph their genitals and fax them to university administrators for verification while another wrote in: "This kid is not a 'victim.' Other students in those dorms have the right to know what his/her gender is even he/she is confused about it."

At Southern Utah, Dean O'Driscoll, a spokesman, said that Osborn lived without incident in a women's dorm and was welcome to continue to do so. O'Driscoll also said that because Osborn has not paid a deposit and application fee, it would be incorrect to say that the university had turned him away.

O'Driscoll acknowledged, however, that the university told Osborn he could not live in a men's dormitory, and he noted that in the university's single-sex dorms, bathrooms are communal. If Osborn lived in a men's dorm, O'Driscoll said, he'd "have to share restroom facilities as a group, so do the parents of the other students feel OK with having that interaction in a group restroom? This is more about watching out for the rights of the rest of the students in the hall. They think this is a one-gender area."

A spokesman for the Association of College and University Housing Officers International said that the organization has no official policy on how colleges should handle housing requests from transgendered students, but that the issue is capturing increasing attention as it comes up at more campuses.

Norb Dunkel, president-elect of the campus housing group and assistant vice president and director of housing at the University of Florida, said that he sees colleges adopting a range of policies -- from those like Southern Utah to colleges that have suites for transgendered students. The latter can be positive or negative, Dunkel said, as it may create a welcoming area on campus, but could also attract attacks.

Dunkel also noted that transgender students are on "a continuum" with some preparing for surgery and some never planning to seek it. Colleges need the flexibility to deal with different situations, he added.

Aaron F. Lucier, associate director of campus living at East Carolina University and chair of the housing association's LGBT Network, said that the situation at Southern Utah points to the difficulty of working out individualized solutions when facilities are divided along traditional gender lines and in traditional designs. In dormitories or floors where there are a mix of men and women, and where bathrooms have some level of privacy, he said, it's much easier to find a situation that can be positive for a transgendered student and the fellow residents of the hall. "It's easier when gender isn't the key part of the process" of assigning rooms, he said.

Lucier said it was appropriate to consider the reactions of others in the dormitory and he noted that many college students have little experience with transgendered people and may have traditional expectations about with whom they will be sharing a bathroom.

In addition, Lucier said that public universities face pressures from political leaders. "That's going to be a reality for any program and you have to be sensitive to the fact that you are responsible to the citizens of this state, and that there is a larger political environment around you," he said. At the same time, he said that with flexibility, it should be possible to help the students involved. "My first priority has to be to my students," he said.

 

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