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Originally published Sunday, April 24, 2011 at 7:42 PM

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Gender neutral housing grows; More colleges give students an option

Trend gained additional momentum after last September's suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi.

The Record (Hackensack N.J

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HACKENSACK, N.J. — Freshman Mark Rivera's roommate experience at William Paterson University wasn't exactly what he had envisioned.

After informing his roommate before school began that he was gay and sensing an air of tolerance, the student barely spoke to him during the first days and eventually switched rooms. He explained to Rivera by text that he was more homophobic than he realized.

"For the rest of the semester, I lived alone and still live alone," said 19-year-old Rivera, of Paterson, N.J. "No one should be robbed of the full college experience. It starts with a roommate."

It's a core reason why Rivera, vice president of Chosen: The Gay-Straight Alliance, said he and others are encouraging the university to join a growing number of colleges that allow students to choose roommates of the opposite sex to live with — identified as gender neutral housing.

The college's Residence Life office is researching the option and plans to speak to campus student groups, said Joseph Caffarelli, director of Residence Life. It currently requires same-sex room assignments.

"It would be a university decision once we get all of the information and look at what students think," he said.

Six years ago, only a handful of colleges in the country offered the housing, said Jeffrey Chang, co-founder of the National Student Genderblind Campaign, an organization that promotes LGBT-affirmative policies regarding campus housing.

Eight schools have implemented the change just since October, he said. Rutgers University became the 60th school and largest university in the nation to have the policy when it approved the option in March, said Chang, a Rutgers law student.

Discussions were partially born out of transgender students not always feeling comfortable rooming with someone of the same sex. As a result, many colleges provided limited options for transgender students such as placing them in single rooms, Chang said.

"Making the decision not to offer it tells transgender students that they have to be in a system that doesn't work for them," said Jenny Kurtz, director of the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities at Rutgers.

The trend gained additional momentum after last September's suicide of Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi, Chang said. Clementi, of Ridgewood, N.J., jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his college roommate allegedly streamed an intimate gay encounter to Internet viewers via a Web camera.

"In the aftermath of the Clementi tragedy, members of the university's LGBTQ community told the administration that gender neutral housing would help create an even more inclusive environment," according to a university statement. "Since then, the university has been exploring this in greater detail."

Rutgers will offer the housing this fall at New Gibbons on the Douglass Campus and Demarest Hall and suites in Rockoff Hall both on the College Avenue Campus in New Brunswick, Kurtz said. Gender neutral housing will take place in designated units on the Newark campus as well.

Rutgers students had been pushing for the option for the past five years, said Chang.

Students entering their sophomore, junior or senior years are eligible and don't have to reveal their sexual orientation or the reasons for their roommate requests, Kurtz said. Heterosexual students can also apply.

A pilot program called Rainbow Perspectives and designed for 40 students interested in attending programs and discussions on LGBT issues, will also be unveiled at New Gibbons for the upcoming semester.

While some colleges like Fairleigh Dickinson University's College at Florham are informally discussing the idea, others began offering the option years ago.

Gender neutral housing has existed at Montclair State University at the Hawk Crossings and The Village apartment complexes since 2004, said Amie MacMath, program assistant of the school's LGBT Center.

But the school also launched a housing option in 2010 within Hawk Crossings that requires students to take a class within the LGBT minor and perform community projects related to or advocate for LGBT related issues.

"Students need to feel comfortable and supported on campus in order to be successful in other areas," MacMath said.

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