For communication studies sophomore Ben King, the biggest adjustment to living with women was finding long, blonde hairs in the shower, he said.
King is the only male in his open-gender Poly Canyon Village apartment.
Continuing students who wish to live in Poly Canyon Village (PCV), an on-campus housing facility for second-year students and transfers, can be suitemates with members of a different gender. The open-gender housing program was piloted last year with three apartments. This year marks the first official year of the program, and eight apartments in PCV are open-gender, including King’s.
King lives with recreation, parks and tourism administration sophomore Lily Barnard, kinesiology sophomore Hannah Tappe and electrical engineering sophomore Kristen Leemon.
Barnard, Tappe and Leemon roomed together in the freshman residence halls, and even though King lived one tower away, he spent the majority of his first year in their dorm room, Leemon said.
“When he got home from his classes, he’d come straight to our room,” Leemon said.
For their sophomore year, however, the group opted for PCV’s open-gender housing. But even though they rarely analyze their gender roles, gender norms aren’t erased from the equation entirely.
King often cooks for the whole household, but he also fell into the role of garbage duty.
“The first time I saw him take out the trash, it was just natural,” Barnard said. “Like, all us girls were gagging, but he just tied it up and took it out. It’s like a dad does that, so even though Ben’s not really that masculine, it just fit.”
Suitemates in open-gender PCV apartments do not share rooms, but they split two bathrooms between four people.
King, who came out as gay during his junior year of high school, defies gender stereotypes in the bathroom he shares with Tappe, he said — at one point, King and Tappe’s bathroom had to be re-waxed because King’s hair spray and self-tanner coated the floor and ate through its wax.
“You’ll see all these products in our bathroom, and you’ll assume they’re all (Tappe’s), but they’re all mine — hair spray, hair mold, self-tanner, blow-dryer,” King said.
And though finding hairs in the shower is still strange, King said boxes of tampons don’t throw him off. Because the majority of his close friends have always been female, he’s “pretty cool with the whole period thing,” he said.
Still, Leemon said hearing King’s electric face razor for the first time was “really weird.”
“I guess my dad shaved his face too, but when you live at home, you’re not really close enough to hear it,” Leemon said. “It took me a minute to realize what that sound was.”
If the option for open-gender housing in PCV didn’t exist, King would have most likely ended up living with people he did not know in PCV and feeling uncomfortable, he said. Instead, their current apartment feels “more like a family,” King said.
“I’ll help them pick out outfits, but it’s not like they can’t get dressed without me,” he said. “And we all play video games like ‘Mario Party’ and ‘Just Dance.’”
A Cal Poly Residential Life and Education official said the open-gender housing program in PCV has been a “success” thus far. Emily Sandoval, a residential life learning community coordinator in charge of the open-gender housing program, said the program has had “no major issues at all.”
“When you talk about roommate conflicts in general, we haven’t had any come from open-gender housing,” Sandoval said. “I don’t know if it’s the mixed gender dynamics or what, but it’s been really easy from a (residential) life perspective.”
Residential Life and Education is in charge of the application process, too.
To live in an open-gender PCV apartment, suitemates must be continuing students who have lived in University Housing before, apply and complete an interview as a set group of four. Any group that meets the criteria and applies is approved.
“It’s more of a meeting; it’s not like you’re interviewing,” Sandoval said. “If you and three friends come in to do this, you’re in.”
Though housing combinations of all genders exist, the most common split is two females and two males. Following that, the next most common arrangement is three females and one male.
The majority of those who apply for open-gender housing are friends from the same major or groups who bonded in freshman housing, Sandoval said. When groups of mixed-gendered friends choose to live off-campus, they don’t have the limitation of only living with people of the same gender, she said.
“So this program makes living on-campus more marketable and more appealing,” she said. “Ultimately, this is here for the students to give them better satisfaction with their living arrangements and to allow them to choose the best roommates for them.”
But, until four years ago, open-gender housing was not even on Cal Poly’s radar.
How this came to be
University Housing does not ask about sexual orientation or gender identification in the application or interview.
“LGBT identification is not a question asked, but there have been a handful of students that have self-disclosed,” Sandoval said. “We consider the Pride Center a partner, and it shows that housing is becoming more open to the LGBT community.”
Gender Equity Center representative Veronica Heiskell agrees that open-gender housing is a large step for Cal Poly’s LGBT community.
Open-gender housing can be a supportive living space for those who have different gender identities and can lead to their bettered academic success, said Heiskell, a graduate assistant for the Gender Equity Center.
“For our students who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, it’s important for them to have a home where they can feel safe and comfortable,” she said.
National studies indicate approximately 1 in 500 to 1 in 250 people identify as transgender, Heiskell said.
She has no reason to suspect that Cal Poly differs from the national trend and “would estimate that the amount is on mark with national statistics.” Applying the national statistic to Cal Poly would suggest that Cal Poly has at least 38 community members who identify as transgender or gender nonconforming.
A national trend
Until 2005, four-year universities did not offer specialty housing for transgender or gender nonconforming students.
University of California, Riverside (UCR) was the first four-year university to offer gender-neutral housing when it launched Stonewall Hall. Stonewall Hall is much more geared toward the LGBT community on campus than the open-gender program in PCV, which is mainly marketed to groups of mixed gender friends.
Another difference between UCR and Cal Poly’s open-gender PCV apartments is that Stonewall Hall is the designated community hall for open-gender rooming. At Cal Poly, on the other hand, there is no singular designated building for the program. Suitemates request any PCV apartment building to live in with their mixed gendered suitemates, and so there are open-gender apartments in most PCV complexes.
Plans for expansion
The biggest distinction between UCR’s program and Cal Poly’s, though, is that students in Stonewall Hall can live in the same room as someone of the opposite gender, as opposed to just the same suite.
As of now, there are no plans to extend gender-neutral housing to shared bedrooms or first-year dorms. Still, University Housing said it will reevaluate what students want yearly.
Next year, there will be approximately 20 open-gender PCV apartments — a 566 percent increase from 2011’s pilot program.