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Students react to USF's plan for gender-neutral dorms

TAMPA — University of South Florida officials talked to the staff, anticipated questions and had answers ready to go Thursday after announcing the college would start pursuing gender-neutral housing options.

The reaction on campus from students:

"Once you're 18, you should be able to decide for yourself," said USF senior David Davis.

"College is, you know, the start of your own life," said Crystal Perry, a sophomore.

"I think it's actually pretty cool," said freshman Devonte Thompson.

Even students who said they didn't agree with opposite-sex cohabitation said the new dorm choice didn't bother them.

The first immediate change will allow transgender students to identify themselves as so on housing applications, rather than being forced to choose male or female.

Then, beginning in spring, students will be able to apply to live in dorms with members of the opposite sex for the following fall semester. To start, the option will be available only in four to five dorms on campus, meaning eight to 10 spaces for students. If students want to take advantage of the option, they must have a roommate in mind and that person must agree to the situation.

USF is still working out the specifics of its plan, including which dorms will be affected and what kind of room layouts will be offered. But there will be no random assignments, and traditional gender-separated dorms aren't going anywhere.

"We're happy to speak to any parents to let them know why we're moving in this direction, but I think with an inventory of 5,550 beds on campus, there certainly are plenty of options," said Ana Hernandez, USF's dean of housing. As of Thursday afternoon, her office hadn't heard any complaints.

Schools around the country with similar programs had similar experiences at the start.

Judy Piercy, director of Ohio University's housing, said the 20,000-person campus got just a few dozen calls with questions. E.J. Miranda, a spokesman at Rutgers, said most of the reaction was positive, and any worries were diminished once the school explained that participation in the program was voluntary.

Sara Rotunno, from Colorado College, said there were a handful of concerns when the school started its program six years ago, but interest quickly waned. If anything, more than parents or students, she said she gets more calls from institutions exploring the idea.

"It is becoming a hot topic more and more," Rotunno said.

More than 75 schools nationwide now offer gender-neutral living arrangements. USF believes it's the first in Florida. Officials at the University of Florida, Florida State University and the University of Central Florida confirmed Thursday that they are not yet exploring gender-neutral dorms.

Such efforts are largely designed to accommodate transgender or transitioning students, but they also serve gay students who might be more comfortable with someone of the opposite sex, brothers and sisters, or guy-girl best friends. Romantic partners are usually discouraged.

One thing is for sure, though. Parents won't have a say in the matter — just like with grades, financial aid or medical records.

That part irked Crystal Carr, who was visiting USF from Georgia on Thursday with her high school graduate daughter.

Carr said she thought the new option sounded all right, as long as it's available only to those who specifically ask for it. But it bugged her that her daughter could opt in without her permission.

"If I'm the one footing the bill. … Oh, it would be hard," Carr said.

"Well, most kids would talk to their parents about it," said her daughter, Cherish, who was quick to point out that she'd rather live with another girl.

Her mom exhaled a little bit.

"I'd be okay with it," Carr said. "As long as everything's out in the open."

Reach Kim Wilmath at kwilmath@sptimes.com or 813-226-3337.

Students react to USF's plan for gender-neutral dorms 07/07/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2011 12:06am]

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