Wednesday, March 25, 2009

LGBT College Students and Roommate Problems

I actually wrote this piece a while ago, but having just served on a panel for a higher education class where I brought up this issue I’ve been thinking about it again. Hopefully some of the people in that class will took what I said and try to apply it to their careers.

Growing up as an LGBT kid in the U.S. is largely defined by fear. Fear of what might happen if you come out to your parents, your extended family, your friends or your co-workers, and a sense of having a Sword of Damocles over your head that could drop if you come out to the wrong person or are too public about your orientation. A major way this comes into play occurs in the transitional period of moving to college, when LGBT students usually find themselves rooming with strangers who they know little about and who know little about them. The worst fear of any LGBT kid is that they could end up with a homophobe who will be violent or negatively affect their college experience, and there have been far too many cases of LGBT students leaving college altogether because of harassment from roommates and peers to simply dismiss these fears as overblown or unimportant, but in my experience the responses by administrators to this problem tend to be nonexistent, lackluster or outright dismissive.

This is a personal issue for me, since I worried about it at the beginning of my freshman year, to the point that I sent a letter to the people in charge of room assignments stating my concerns and making it clear that should a potential roommate have a problem with me I would gladly allow them to live with someone else. I never heard a word back from them and spent a good deal of time worrying about it both before and after moving in, to the point that it negatively affected my relationships with the first group of people I roomed with, who eventually moved out for unrelated reasons still not knowing that I was gay, since I'd been too scared to come out to them. I’m glad to say that the second set of roommates I ended up with were very accepting, wonderful people who also turned out to be LGBT allies, but I was one of the lucky ones. I’ve heard enough stories from my LGBT friends to say that I was far from alone when it came to roommate concerns, and in most cases the only time the issues was addressed was after something had already happened, in most cases leaving behind a level of trauma for the LGBT student and leaving them feeling unsafe in their own dorm rooms.

I’ve thought about ways to relieve this sort of stress, and probably the simplest solution would be for the usual questions about your lifestyle (what time you go to bed, whether you like to study in your room with music on, etc.) to include something along the lines of “Would you be comfortable living with an LGBT student?” with Yes and No checkboxes. It’s brief, painless, and it allows people who would have serious concerns to get them out in the open.

But despite how seemingly simple this would be to implement, several times when I’ve suggested it to people who work on the dorm staff they’ve reacted negatively to the idea, and as far as I know no college currently uses a question of this kind on their applications. I realize that their are logistical and privacy issues involved, but even with that in mind some of the responses I've gotten have been downright dismissive of the very problem a method like this would be trying to address. A justification I heard for not including it from one person in an administrative position was that college is a learning experience, so it’s good for kids to live with people who aren’t like them and have different backgrounds. This year I've had the opportunity to live with two people of very different ethnic and social backgrounds than myself, and that has been positive and eye opening experience, but I draw the line at the point when my physical and emotional safety is considered less important than someone else’s “learning experience”, not to mention the fact that it diminishes the very real fear that an LGBT student faces when they’re forced to live with someone who might hurt them.

One criticism that I’ve seen leveled at LGBT students who bring this up is that they should just come out and state their orientations right from the start, but this is a case of things being much easier said than done. I made it a point to state my orientation on my Facebook profile for precisely this reason, but other people clearly don’t pay as much attention to the “interested in” line as I do, since I still meet people I’ve added on Facebook who react with surprise when I say that I’m gay and dating another girl. Clearly that method doesn’t work at getting the information out there, and it puts an unfair burden on us to have to check with each individual person we might live with when what we should be doing is concentrating on enjoying our college experience. Forcing us to “take responsibility” for our safety in our own dorms only marginalizes us further and increases the fear that if something happens to us we’ll have nowhere to go and no one to turn to. We’re not asking to be coddled, all we want is to have our fears acknowledged and have some way to address them before something happens to us.

Besides that, the process of coming out is extremely scary, and I’ve compared it to dealing with a live landmine to try and get across how you just never know how people will react. Practically all the people I’ve chosen to come out to have had absolutely no problem with it, but there’s always the fear that there might be someone who would do serious harm to you out there, and just as you can never tell if someone is gay until they tell you it’s equally hard to spot the violent homophobes. We all know the stories of the Matthew Shepards and the Gwen Araujos, and the last thing we want to worry about is becoming a victim in our own dorm rooms, and I’ve heard far too many horror stories to dismiss homophobia on college campuses as being either uncommon or isolated incidents.

What I’m proposing wouldn’t solve all of the problems LGBT youth face on campuses, but it would help relieve a fear that no kid should have to go through when they begin their college careers. I don't think it's an unreasonable expectation to be able to feel safe in the places where we live regardless of our orientation.

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