Gender-Inclusive Housing: An Interview with Em Rademaker

Kaylyn HaslundIf anyone has started applying for future housing, you may be seeing a new option at the bottom of the online application, one that has the option for Gender Inclusive housing. Now what that entails is being able to live with people of, well, all genders. We were able to get in touch with housing Resident life coordinator Em Rademaker and get their input on the new policy and how the staff came to making it a reality.

Kaylyn Haslund: In the Fall 2016 semester, UAS Residence Life is introducing gender inclusive housing on campus. How did the conversation about this topic start?

Em Rademaker: So, the conversation actually started last February 2015, and I believe it was just a compilation of trainings that were happening and different reviews or assessments on current policies. Talking with different students about what their desires were, what their needs were. And realizing that we weren’t meeting the needs of part of our population of residents. Though we are a small campus, we have a very diverse set of students, and even if there’s one student who is uncomfortable in their living environment, that’s one too many. And so, we started talking as a resident life’s team, Associate Director Paul Dorman, the First Year Experience Coordinator Nathan Bodenstadt, Campus Life director Eric Scott, and myself, how best to go about researching the best policies and practices, or just gender inclusive housing option. What that would look like, what other schools were doing, and trying to see how we could gauge the current campus climate, in terms of how students might respond.

KH: What has been the response from students so far?

ER: Sure, our first gauge of that actually was at our EVI assessment, which is our departmental assessment that we put on every spring that helps us get what residents are think of our programs and how we can improve- we constantly looking for how we can improve and make a better living experience. And we included a question on there about, if there was a gender inclusive housing option i.e. a living option where two or more residents could live together regardless of their gender identity, what would be your opinion of that? A) Would you want to participate in that? Would you B) Support that on campus? Would you C) Not Support that on campus? Or would you D) Not have an opinion at all? And we found that we had over fifty percent that said that they would opt into that program. So, that was very encouraging and alarming, in the sense that ‘Oh over fifty percent of our residents who want to take advantage of something like this!’ But in terms of looking at implementing this process part of it is the education component. I know that there have been some concerns voice by students who may not quite understand yet what the program is… And that, I think, will be… Those concerns will dissipate as we’re able to better educate people, as we get the information out about it being an optional program. You have to opt in. We work with you to select roommates so that you know who’s going to be living with you. And in terms of creating an environment within residence life, it’s all about having people be comfortable. So if you are living with somebody who, even if they identify as the same gender as you do, but you’re not comfortable living with them and you would be more comfortable with someone else… We want to accommodate that. We want make you have an environment that’s going to support you being a successful student.

KH: That’s a good plan. Do you personally have any concerns with what could happen? Because there are concerns.

ER: Well, I would have to know what some of the concerns are.
KH: Well, some people think it’s just going to be couples applying for it, rather than people who actually need it for a comfort level.

ER: Sure, my response to that would be that we have LGBTQ+ peoples on campus who do live together. And because… It’s not something that we question. Quite honestly, I’ll go as far to say, it’s not any of my business. Your personal life is your personal life. Most university and UAS has this as well, we don’t necessarily encourage couples to live together, because in the college atmosphere couples can be very… Short lived. And so, there’s always the possibility that you could start dating somebody, then you’re not in three months and living together, and it’s awkward living with them and feel like you have to change roommates. But, realistically, like I said, it’s none of my business. We want to make a living environment that’s comfortable for people and if that involves living with your partner, then that’s your choice. And we’re going to work with you to make sure that you making the best choice for you.

KH: That’s a good viewpoint on it. So, from what I know, you have to be applying for this with people you know?

ER: Not necessarily. So, on the application there’s a box that is a checkmark. So, it is strictly opting in. So, if you don’t check the box then we’re not going to place you in gender inclusive unit. But the box explains that we do give preferential placement to people who select enough people to fill a unit. So a four-bedroom apartment that would be selecting three other people. In a two-bedroom apartment or a Banfield suite that would be selecting at least one other person. But we recognize that there may be people interested in this option who don’t necessarily have a roommate in mind, so our plan is to work with them one on one during the summer, when we’re working on placements, and introducing them to each other. Again, creating that community and really seeing if we can create friendships and good living arrangements that way.

KH: Has there been any other hesitations?

ER: Well, the national climate of regarding policies such as these and policies like all gender bathrooms which is something we’re introducing at the end of this semester… Is quite diverse. And there are people who have concerns about safety. There are people who have concerns about how do I interact with somebody who might live outside of the gender binary? And some people who don’t know what living outside of the gender binary means. We’re lucky to have some people on our staff who have firsthand, secondhand experiences that they can draw from and expertise on nurturing and supporting gender and sexual minorities. And we’ve used that expertise to inform our policies in the best ways possible. Regarding safety, there are no…research, studies, or data to suggest that a gender inclusive housing option is any less safe than a single gender housing option. So, that’s a fear and a concern that doesn’t have any factual foundation. And our policy to address that has been the current options that we’re going to be introducing at first and their going to be… You can have a gender inclusive suite or apartment but not a gender inclusive bedroom. So, for example, the two bedroom apartments would have a maximum of three people. One of the bedrooms would have on person in them, buying out the private room, and the other bedroom could have two people of the same gender or again one person buying a private. The same set up as the Bandfield suites. So, that’s one way that we’re looking at it, just creating that level of comfort with the fact that you can lock your bedroom door and have that extra privacy. We have a great set up, because we do have our entire campus designed as suite style or apartment style living. So you have a maximum of four people sharing a bathroom. And for our residence hall it’s often two or three people sharing a bathroom. So, we don’t have to worry about the traditional resident hall style common bathroom for an entire hall. That’s sometimes a little more difficult to negotiate, but I think we have a really great layout for making this a successful program.

KH: What is the level of precedent in the UA system as a whole?

ER: It’s actually kind of funny, because we started researching and putting together our thoughts on this policy last spring and then in the summer we realized that University of Alaska Fairbanks had introduced a policy this last year. And they’ve had great success with that. The University of Anchorage does not currently have a policy set for delivery, but they do have their residence association that recommended instituting a policy, so their department is working on developing that. So, the entire University of Alaska system is seeing this as valuable for students and seeing this as a desire that students have.

KH: What do you hope comes out of this policy?

ER: I think a lot of people might assume, and we’ve learned this from some our colleagues, that there are some people who see the gender inclusive housing on some universities as they ‘Trans’ floor. And as the place that LGBTQ+ students go. And realistically, the program is meant to make those who identify as sexual and gender minorities comfortable by recognizing that there are other living arrangements that are more comfortable. But, more importantly, we hope to…normalize the idea of people of all gender and sex identities living with people they find the most comfortable. And I know I’m using that word a lot, but that truly is the goal. We want people to feel safe and at home. We want people to feel at home on this campus. And however that may manifest. So, the department of education, the office for civil rights, they’re Title IX, they have explicit requirements that we have to follow in order to make sure that we’re not discriminating based upon sex or gender indemnity. And part of that is creating a community in which people are allowed to and able to feel safe in their living environment. One policy that we have previously started with… And we realized was not that best was… It began as identified a floor or a specific apartment unit that we would designate as the gender inclusive housing unit and we realized that was going to be alienating or segregating those people in those living options. And that’s not what we wanted, we wanted it to be a smooth integration into the current housing system. So that, you might live with your peers in a single gender apartment and next door is a gender inclusive unit and next door is to them is gender inclusive unit. So that it’s just is really normalized in people’s minds that this is the way that people live. We recognize that one of the reasons that people move off of campus is because they have peers who identify as a different sex or gender that they want to live with and they couldn’t do that previously on campus. And that’s something that when you…are not in college anymore you see that. That’s a normal practice. Your roommates often are not of the same sex or gender identity as you.

KH: And would this include having to disclose any information about yourself?
ER: So that was another component that we really wanted to be mindful of. That our current practice that we would work with students one on one, based upon with what they were comfortable with. For example, we might have a student who identified as female as was born male and they were transitioning and they wanted to find a place where they could feel comfortable doing that. And we would accommodate them as best as we could. We realized that that was not fair. Because that would require them to come to us. And while we do strive to be supportive and inclusive for every student, not everyone wants to come to us. And not everybody should have to, not everybody is at that place. So, this option, as I said before, we don’t question people’s motives. So, the people who are living in the gender inclusive housing option, our only assumption is that they have people that they recognize that they want to live with. And we do our best to accommodate them.

KH: That’s really good.

ER: The only thing you have to disclose is the information that was previously on the application in terms of biographical data, you know… Checking the box.

KH: Do you know any statistics outside of Alaska? Or was it purely based on the success within the UA system?

ER: Yeah. There’s actually a wonderful website called Campus Pride and it is a resource that gauges the inclusivity commitment from higher education institutions. And one of the ways that they do that is by listing the universities and colleges that provide gender inclusive housing options, to some extent. And there are approximately two to three hundred universities that are listed currently. I think there are many more that having policies in the work, because this is become a best practice in higher education. And it’s more and more common, especially on larger state universities and public universities. So, we recognized that this is a trend in the policies within resident life and I said at the beginning of our conversation, we’re constantly assessing and analyzing how we can better serve our students. So, just as the integration of digital and social media is a trend, so is gender inclusive housing. It’s a policy change, it’s a service that you’re providing to your students to have them… To give them better living experience.

KH: With the gender inclusive housing are you thinking of any sort of student training?

ER: Yeah, so, we actually changed our community advisor training slightly this past year, to have a larger portion of our time devoted to diversity and inclusion training. How best to be an ally, not just for our LGBTQ+ folk, but for diversity as it’s defined in every primary. And we spent about a day and a half going through safe zone trainings, something that’s offered on campus, going through talking about privilege, talking about accessibility, talking about the use of language, and how all of that affects how a community functions. As we move forward, we do recognize that in general we want to be very conscious that training our residents on crisis management, we already do a significant amount of that, but that’s something we are already hoping to kind of beef up. So it’s something that we want to make sure our professionals are very strong in and…because they may be walking into a different environment than they are previously used to. But, as I said before, we don’t anticipate any more instances or incidents, we have very few as it is.

KH: Even with the safe community, do you think that opening that training to the students who aren’t faculty, students who are just living here would be good in terms of making it even more safe?

ER: Absolutely. I work pretty closely with Lori Klein, who is our Title IX coordinator, and you know there are conversations all the time going on. We’re always working on ways that we can be more proactive and perceptive in training. In this past year alone, we have had… Just today we had a great body image program… So it’s something that we’re constantly aware of and it’s another trend that we’re trying to be conscious of and implement. We’d love to get self-defense training on campus and available for residence. We absolutely love partnering with our local organizations such as AWARE and Planned Parenthood and getting research from them to provide this information in a way that students are receptive to. Our students don’t really respond to a pamphlet, they respond to an active program that’s engaging and fun, but also delivering important information. So, as we see the results of the more program this type of advocacy information, we’ll be looking to implement more throughout the community. We do want to make sure information is out there for the entire residential communities, just understanding how to be a great roommate. That’s the first step to overcome! Just understanding there’s appropriate language that needs to be used to create a welcoming environment. There’s appropriate mindset that need to be adopted to make a welcoming community. There are different methods in mind that we have to implement that.

KH: Is there anything you want to say to either returning students or new students who may be excited to take this opportunity?

ER: I think, I’m so glad we finally have this on campus. I’m glad our campus is committing to our students in this way, because while the policy is not specifically addressed to students and people who identify as LGBTQ+, this policy means the world to the people who do in terms of creating an environment that is open, where they can be open. So, it just speaks volumes to see a policy like this throughout the University of Alaska system. Take advantage of it and really get the most out of it and cherish the fact that we have it. And continue to live just as you have before and continue to be successful with your academics.

KH: Is there any specific information about this new policy that you would like students to know about?

ER: On our website, there is a gender inclusive housing tab and you can read all about the specifics about the program in terms of eligibility, which units, which school year the program is, and there is a frequently asked questions program that we hope that people will utilize and access.

KH: Has there been vocal reception in terms of the LGBTQ+ community? Because this is a wonderful opportunity for them especially.
ER: Well, our campus inclusivity alliance, CIA, is our pride group on campus, they’re somewhat small this year, but from speaking with people who are active in the group and also I myself have been present at the safe zone trainings earlier this semester… And we’ve relayed that this is a program we’re introducing, it’s gotten great response. The faculty and staff have introduced to the program and they’re very supportive. From residence life’s perspective our aim is to make sure everybody is informed on what the policy is and what is means for them, so that we can help to inform students. And we’ve just gotten an overwhelming support from everyone involved, including our Vice Chancellor and Chancellor. It’s been really appreciated and wonderful.

KH: This is really good, I think, because to hear that the community that is UAS is so supportive of it is so great. Despite the smaller voices that might be a little finicky about it.

ER: And it’s okay that there are people who are concerned. I think, it’s okay to vocalize those concerns. The concerns are how we make sure we have the best policies in place. And I think, my response to the people who have concerns is to, you know, access myself access some of our resident life staff and ask us questions. Let us know what’s on your mind and we’ll help you to make sure you understand the policy in its entirety. I think that will help a lot of people realize just how beneficial it’s going to be for the campus.

KH: Because this is going to be such a big opportunity for so many people on this campus, who may or may not open about how they identify. So, I wanted to say, personally, as someone who is part of the LGBTQ+, thank you so much for this! Because this means a lot.

ER: Thank you. That one response to me means that this whole year of review, process, fretting and planning… My own frustration and trying to make sure that we get this in on time is all worth it. If one person is more comfortable, it’s worth it.

KH: Thank you so much.

Gender Inclusive Housing is a great opportunity, especially with new fall housing applications out currently, that some may want to look into. If you have any questions, I would suggest going to the Resident Living staff to get all the information you can. They are happy to help and make you feel safe and welcome. Once again I would like to thank Em Rademaker for letting me interview them and getting the information I could out there.


Sources Given by Em

Colleges and Universities that Provide Gender-Inclusive Housing

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