TAMPA — A transgender student made University of South Florida officials stop and think.
Frustrated by a hostile housing experience, Taylor McCue wanted USF to join the growing number of colleges across the country — like Rutgers and Harvard — now offering students the option to live with anyone of any gender.
Couldn't USF do the same?
Yes, it turns out, and it is. Today the university goes beyond what other universities in Florida typically do with transgender students, by actively offering them the chance to live alone or with a friend of any gender. They can also live with a random roommate without being outed. At other schools, the burden to ask for special treatment is often on the student.
This is just USF's first step.
In the spring, the school will launch a pilot program offering several gender-neutral dorm rooms, where anybody of any gender can live with anybody else.
USF believes it's the first in Florida to do that. The test program will offer eight to 10 spots for students who want to live with another student of a different gender.
The students will have to already know their preferred roommates. Rooming with romantic partners will be discouraged. And as far as USF is concerned, parents won't have a say in the decision, just like they don't have the right to be notified about students' grades.
School officials say the campus will still be dominated by traditional dorms. But "we feel passionately about making USF a complete living and learning environment," said spokesman Michael Hoad.
In the end, officials hope McCue's ordeal with dorm mates — "They hated me, and I hated them." — won't be repeated.
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There are more than 75 college campuses across the country with gender-neutral housing options. That's up from about 50 last year, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute.
"In just about every place that's created gender-neutral housing, they've had no problem filling it," said Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a board member at that institute.
Some schools, like Harvard, provide gender-neutral housing to any students who identify as transgender. Others, including Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, Oberlin College in Ohio and Yale University in Connecticut, exclude first-year students from that option.
The changes, like the one USF is rolling out, will affect more than just housing, Beemyn said.
"It requires a reconsideration of the whole college environment.''
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McCue never intended to be an advocate.
The soft-spoken psychology major from Clearwater wanted to transition quietly, privately. At the time, USF's housing application only had two gender boxes, male and female. With Mom staring over a shoulder, McCue, who declined to share the first name given by his parents, chose male. It was the sex he was born with, the gender his family recognized.
McCue hoped for the best.
So much for that. "Misogyny and homophobia," is the way McCue describes the ensuing roommate drama.
McCue hadn't begun taking female hormones yet, but guys on the floor constantly asked about McCue's sexuality, cracked jokes and called names. McCue complained to a residence hall adviser.
"Why did I have to go through this?" McCue asked USF official after USF official. Finally, someone said, "You know, Dorie Paine likes to ruffle feathers."
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Paine, USF's housing director, said her office had already been thinking about exploring gender-neutral options when McCue came to her.
"Taylor helped us see that need in a different way," Paine said.
Though often lumped together in campus organizations with gays or lesbians, transgender students have much different challenges. Because society — and by extension, college campuses — isn't generally equipped to deal with anything other than male or female, transgender students often have to choose or be left out. Think: sororities and fraternities, sports teams, bathrooms, even pronouns.
USF doesn't know how many transgender students are on campus. But Paine said she's already had one transitioning student this summer request an alternate housing option.
She knows there could be some backlash from those who don't accept the transgender lifestyle, but that's not a good enough reason for USF to reconsider what it's doing.
"It's about making our students comfortable," Paine said. "It someone's not okay with it, that's unfortunate."
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It's too late for McCue. Now a senior, McCue has five months left on an off-campus apartment.
But in the fall, maybe there will be a kid standing in the housing office with a life-changing secret and, for the first time, a box to check.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Reach Kim Wilmath at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.