Men at UT room with other men. Women at UT likewise room with women. The passage of a senate bill in the Student Government Association may bring a new option into the housing mix: gender neutrality.
The bill's implementation would allow those students who identify as transgender or genderqueer to sign up for housing that allowed them to live more comfortably. This would not promote housing arrangements with romantic intentions; it aims to accommodate those that do not fit into the typical boxes of "male" or "female." Terry Nowell, vice president of SGA, said that the gender neutral housing bill was passed just before Thanksgiving. It was a hotly debated topic.
"A lot of dissension was because of the public perception, the ideas that could be associated with its passing," he said. "With all the parents and outsiders looking in, the concern is that if it's not explained well, it could lead to those outsiders thinking poorly of the university, that we are immoral and doing things we should not be doing."
Although the debate was fierce and the margin of passage slimmer than most other SGA senate bills, Nowell supports the message.
"I think it would be great, it would be something that UT doesn't often do. We would be at the forefront of a national movement."
According to genderblind.org, that national movement has hit 60 colleges and universities across the U.S., most recently passing through the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jacob Clark, a junior and the writer of UT's senate bill, worked with the other schools as he researched the topic. He spoke with representatives at the universities of Connecticut and Oregon, as well as a small school in Vermont, and also gathered data from the University of Delaware. He found that the schools that have passed it are not much like UT.
"I mean, Connecticut is a totally different set of people, also in Oregon and Washington. These are very different places," Clark said, though he noted that UNC's recent approval of similar legislation will provide a comparable picture of how it would go over at UT. Because UT would be the first Southeastern Conference member to implement gender-neutral housing, Nowell predicts an especially careful public relations surge to the a highly conservative state atmosphere.
"I do think that we need to do it well, as the first SEC school. It's not wrong in any way to do this, but people might look into the university and not understand," he said. "It will require a big PR push, a well-run PR push."
Clark also recognizes the controversial nature of the bill, but for him, being the first SEC school is a good thing.
"It will put us in a leadership position to be ... I don't like to use the word progressive because it can have a negative connotation but ... progressive," he said. "Especially when lately we've been noted as a school that's been lagging compared to even other SEC schools. ... When you make a policy change that makes students more comfortable and gives them more choices you open yourself to get in better students, to retain more students. Everything can stem from that. It can make a lot of big differences."
He referenced a recent study by the Princeton Review that listed UT as one of the least LGBT-friendly schools in the nation. As president of UT's LGBT student group, the Lambda Student Union, Caitlin Miller can relate. Miller, who prefers gender neutral pronouns, identifies as transgender/genderqueer, a fact that made Miller's freshman year in the university dormitories tough to negotiate.
"I probably would've been into neutral housing. It was really awkward for me, because on the halls they'd have all the decorations and be like 'ladies, come over here' and it puts me in a really awkward position because I prefer gender-neutral pronouns," Miller said.
Miller always wondered why UT did not have any housing option for transgender people. The change would, in their mind, improve the existing climate.
"It would attract a greater diversity of people and would promote equality of all people because that's important," Miller said. "There are a lot of transgender students at UT who aren't recognized."
The bills passed by SGA are not always implemented. The process is intended to be a democratic way of telling the administration of student concerns. Clark admitted to initial doubts of his bill's immediate implementation.
"When I first started the bill, I thought, 'we'll pass it, we'll make some noise and then hopefully someone else will keep it going a few years later and it'll eventually get there,'" he said.
A conversation with Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Tim Rogers and Executive Director of Housing Frank Cuevas changed Clark's mind.
"Vice Chancellor Rogers was very warm to the idea, he didn't see why it couldn't be done, especially when they're already building new halls. Building new halls makes it easier because they can design the new hall for (gender-neutral housing)," Clark said. "I feel like sometimes, on issues where they might get push back, it's easier for them to go forward on things they might want to do if they have a student-led initiative. They can go 'students have said they wanted this. Two representative bodies for the student body have said they want this.'"