Student Life

College roommates in the 21st century — Gender identity and campus housing

By Scott Sager

Who my daughter would room with as a freshman felt like a huge deal, the type of thing that could make or break her first year in college.

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High School Parent | College Parent

Wanting to believe it wasn’t random, I looked over her shoulder at the long housing form she was filling out that June. It contained detailed questions about preferred bedtime, study habits, social style, cleanliness and so on — pretty routine. But one item near the end stumped me: “Are you comfortable living with someone who identifies as your gender?”

After reading it a few times I still didn’t understand what it meant, so I asked my daughter if she understood it. “Sure,” she replied without missing a beat. “Would I live with someone who is biologically male but identifies as female?”

Her ready answer made me feel stodgy and out of touch. The language and public discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation has changed. What was “LGB” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual) 30 years ago is “LGBTQIA” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex, Asexual/Ally) today. I realized I needed a lot more information to understand what her college factored into its freshman roommate matching process.

story-icon-bar-convo-3There are good resources for parents with questions about gender identity and sexual orientation:
PFLAG is a national organization with local chapters around the country.
APA (American Psychological Association) has a number of online articles.

Stay with me! It’s not that mysterious once you familiarize yourself with the vocabulary in current use. (Parents of LGBTQ teens most likely have a head start here.)

First of all, “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” are very different things. Sexual orientation refers to whom someone is sexually attracted to. The words “straight” or heterosexual, meaning attracted to the opposite sex, “gay” or homosexual, meaning attracted to the same sex, or “bi” or bisexual meaning attracted to both sexes are most frequently used. On campuses, though, you may hear or see other, less familiar words like “queer” and “pansexual” to identify someone’s sexual orientation, generally meaning they don’t fit within the other labels.

Gender identity refers to a person’s sense of themselves as male or female, or their masculine and feminine qualities. For many people, their gender identity matches their biological sex (male or female) but for some, their gender identity differs from their physical sex. These people often use the term “transgender.” According to the American Psychological Association, “Transgender or gender non-conforming … is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity or gender expression does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.”

Transgender also includes people who make physical changes to their bodies, through medication, surgery, or other means, in order to better express their gender identity when it differs from that traditionally associated with their physical sex at birth.

Finally, “gender expression” is the way someone communicates their individual gender identity through clothing, language, and physical manners (for example).

On most campuses, especially public and private secular, non-religious schools, after a student’s first year, roommate selection is up to the students. Coed dorms, hallways, suites and even rooms are commonly available. Since housing selection is most often by student choice, no rules govern the makeup of a group in terms of their gender or sexual orientation.

Who my daughter would live with her first year, though, was up to her school. Her college, like most non-religious colleges, has a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation. This means that they won’t ask or take into account a student’s sexual orientation when assigning rooms. My daughter would have no input on whether her roommates were straight, gay or bi. This is consistent, though, with a big part of the college experience — meeting and interacting with people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives and learning with them and getting along together.

To my old fashioned mind, the possibility that my student could end up sharing a room with a man — i.e., a biological male who identified as a woman — took some getting used to. As for my daughter, she was hoping for roommates who were different from her in any and every way, eager for contact with people beyond what she called her “high school bubble.”

In some ways she was disappointed — she ended up sharing a triple with two young women who, on paper, appeared to come from similar backgrounds to her own. It turned out, though, that differences emerged, in interests, life experiences, religion, and more, and these differences made for a broadening experience. Their time together was fabulous, a key part of a great first year for my daughter.

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