Published December 5, 2012
When UB introduced gender-neutral housing at the start of the fall semester, the new policy reflected not only best practices in residential living for college students nationwide, it also incorporated a transgendered student’s thoughtful analysis and the ethical principles of social work he holds dear.
Unlike traditional housing that separates students by sex, gender-neutral housing allows male and female students to live within the same residence hall room or campus apartment. The program, now in a pilot phase, sets aside two floors in the Ellicott Complex, plus several apartments in Hadley and Creekside villages, expressly for this purpose.
Trey Ufholcz, MSW ’12, became interested in this topic during his field placement at the UB Gender Institute, which supports research and teaching related to women, gender and sexuality. Patricia Shelly, the center’s then-associate director, supervised his work there.
“Pat allowed me the opportunity and choice to research and advocate change in university policies to uphold equality for all students,” Ufholcz says. Diane E. Elze, associate professor of social work and director of the MSW program, also influenced his research “through her support and encouragement to hold myself and those around me to our ethical responsibility to foster equality for all people.”
Ufholcz was researching homelessness and the lack of safe housing for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth in Erie County. This inspired him, along with his work at the Pride Center of Western New York, which advocates for LGBTQ people. He soon realized that UB students were experiencing similar issues to what he was observing in his fieldwork.
“We encountered a lot of LGBTQ youth who were homeless, but they weren’t recognized as being homeless because they were couch-surfing at friends’ or neighbors’ homes,” he says. “I felt I needed to start here at UB and make the campus a welcoming place for LGBTQ students before going to the community.”
Ufholcz teamed up with Brian Haggerty, senior associate director of campus living, and James Bowman, special populations outreach coordinator in Wellness Education Services, to research national trends on campus housing and gender equity, and to develop a suitable proposal for UB’s residence halls.
“A safe living space is necessary for the wellness of the student body,” says Ufholcz. “Moreover, the university’s nondiscrimination policy includes gender identity so as to recognize and support differences, and all policies—including housing—should be reflective of this. Gender-neutral housing allows for self-determination by allowing students the choice to make decisions regarding their own needs.”
Nearly 90 U.S. colleges and universities currently offer gender-neutral or gender-inclusive housing in one form or another, according to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute. UB’s new policy on gender-neutral housing “advances the university to peer-status with other research institutions,” says Ufholcz. “It also increases resident retention by providing another housing option and creates a viable alternative to local private housing.”
The group’s proposal ultimately led to an executive summary that Haggerty presented to Dennis R. Black, vice president for university life and services. Black approved the option and the policy was announced last June.
About 40 students are participating this semester in the pilot program, which is expected to attract a broad range of students, from those who identify as LGBTQ to those who wish to live with friends of the opposite sex.
“The role of the university is not to determine with whom students may or may not live, but rather to empower its students to make their own decisions responsibly,” Andrea Costantino, director of campus living, said when the policy was announced.
Ufholcz says the availability of gender-neutral housing supports affected individuals while upholding the principles of his field. “The NASW (National Association of Social Workers) Code of Ethics calls for social and political action that emphasizes the ethical responsibility to advocate for all people so they have equal access to resources and opportunities. It also states that social workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people and promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity,” he says.
“Finally, it calls on social workers to prevent and eliminate discrimination. Traditional housing discriminates through heteronormative assumptions—a view that gender roles are fixed to one’s biological sex—and upholds people to traditional gender roles that are not accommodating to the entire student body.”
Now based in Florida, Ufholcz is researching alternatives for LGBTQ youth in foster care, such as the Host Home program in Minnesota. “This community-based program can be implemented without state or federal funding, as qualifying adults volunteer to open their homes to LGBTQ youth who do not have one,” he says.
As Ufholcz embarks on his professional career, the launch of UB’s new housing policy brings him profound satisfaction. “Knowing that students at UB currently have the choice of gender-neutral housing makes everything I did worthwhile.”