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Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice
ISSN: 1949-6591 (Print) 1949-6605 (Online) Journal homepage:
From Best to Intentional Practices: Reimagining
Implementation of Gender-Inclusive Housing
Z Nicolazzo, Susan B. Marine & Rachel Wagner
To cite this article: Z Nicolazzo, Susan B. Marine & Rachel Wagner (2018) From Best to
Intentional Practices: Reimagining Implementation of Gender-Inclusive Housing, Journal of Student
Affairs Research and Practice, 55:2, 225-236, DOI: 10.1080/19496591.2018.1399896
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Published online: 15 Jan 2018.
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Nicolazzo, Z, Marine, S. B., & Wagner, R. (2018).
From Best to Intentional Practices: Reimagining Implementation of Gender-Inclusive Housing.
Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 55(2), 225–236.
ISSN: 1949-6591 (print)/1949-6605 (online)
Innovation in Practice Feature
From Best to Intentional Practices:
Reimagining Implementation of
Gender-Inclusive Housing
Z Nicolazzo, Northern Illinois University
Susan B. Marine, Merrimack College
Rachel Wagner, Clemson University
Using findings from a national study of trans* students’ experiences in
gender-inclusive housing, we argue student affairs educators must move
toward gender-inclusive housing as an intentional—rather than best—
practice. We frame this innovation in the practice of gender-inclusive
housing through findings related to the need to perform ongoing assessment regarding these housing options as well as challenging the conceptualization of gender-inclusive housing in ways that center cisgender
staff members’ fears and feelings.
Interviewer: What’s your sense of gender awareness within the broader umbrella of Residence
Life? Like, do you feel like you are one of the few voices screaming into the
wilderness or do you feel like there are a lot of people who are down for gender
I might be one of a few voices screaming into the wilderness and I … oh, and I
am really trying to think of [sic] anyone has ever brought up anything besides me.
That’s a good question.
Interviewer: So like, if you are in a broader staff meeting, and someone says something that
might be kind of f‐‐‐‐‐ up, do people just wait and say well, like “Shimika’s
gonna say something about that,” right?
Interviewer: Okay.
Yeah, oh you are making my heart hurt. Yes, that happens. Or if someone does
speak, they don’t push. No one pushes here, and I feel like I am the one who is like,
“No, like, do this.”
Despite the ongoing social presence of trans* people in the United States (Stryker, 2008), the field
of student affairs has just recently begun to recognize the trans* college student population. Whilst
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Z Nicolazzo at
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From Best to Intentional Practices
determining the exact numbers of trans* people1 is a specious project (Nicolazzo, 2017b) and does
not mediate the immediacy with which educators should attend to creating gender-expansive
environments, Susan Stryker—a leading trans* scholar—has noted that estimates suggest there are
three to six times more trans* people under the age of 18 than over that age (Gardner, 2017). This
means there may well be an uptick in trans* people attending college, as several scholars have noted
(Marine, 2011; Nicolazzo, 2016a, 2017b; Pryor, 2015). As a result, some colleges are adapting
practices and policies to better support trans* student success. One such practice is providing
gender-inclusive housing (GIH), or housing that enables students to self-select housing based on
criteria other than assigned sex or gender (Krum, Davis, & Galupo, 2013). GIH is designed to
better serve gender-diverse student populations, as well as to alleviate the effects of trans*
oppression, or the systemic oppression of “people whose gender identity or expression do not
conform to binary cultural norms and expectations” (Catalano & Griffin, 2016, p. 183). Some
common attributes of GIH may include: having a distinct specified area (e.g., a floor, wing, set of
suites, or building); having gender-inclusive and/or single-stall restrooms; and having genderinclusive-specific programming and/or a gender-inclusive living–learning community curriculum.
Some administrators and advocacy groups have even gone as far as to herald its implementation as a “best practice” (e.g., Trans* Policy Working Group, 2014). As such, a growing number of
student affairs administrators have positioned GIH as an important component to ensuring a safe
environment for trans* collegians. However, while some college and university administrators may
indeed see GIH as a “best practice,” the scarce amount of literature on the topic indicates there is a
lack of intentionality in terms of how many are implementing the practice. Put another way,
although there may be a growing sentiment that GIH is necessary for forwarding equity and
justice alongside trans* collegians, there is a lack of institutional support for the intentional
implementation of this practice. For example, as Shimika,2 the hall director for the GIH option
at Northeast University, highlighted in the epigraph quote, stated, she was painfully aware there
was a lack of shared commitment to intentional gender-inclusive practices, including GIH,
throughout her residential life department.
In this article, we elucidate findings from a national study of trans* students’ experiences in
GIH. We argue that student affairs educators must move toward GIH as an intentional practice
rather than its staid conceptualization as a best practice. In other words, contrary to the notion of
“best practices” that falsely suppose a standardized approach to improving campus environments
(Nicolazzo, 2017b), we propose moving toward the creation and maintenance of GIH as an
intentional practice that is prudently implemented, attentive to institution-specific histories and
contexts, and open to ongoing investigation and revision. Specifically, we frame this innovation in
the practice of GIH through findings related to the need to perform ongoing assessment. We also
question the conceptualization of GIH in ways that center cisgender staff members’ fears and
feelings rather than the trans* students for whom gender-inclusive spaces were originally intended.
In order to do so, this article addresses the following research questions: (a) How do trans*
students, as well as residential life and housing staff, experience GIH? and (b) What must be done,
if anything, to promote a more intentional framework through which student affairs administrators implement and maintain GIH?
It is beyond the scope of this article to detail how such attempts to quantify the trans* community both in the United
States and globally. Readers interested in learning more about this topic should review the complete special issue of TSQ:
Transgender Studies Quarterly (Vol. 2, Issue 1) titled, “Making Transgender Count.”
All participants, institutional affiliations, buildings, and locations in this article have been given pseudonyms to mask
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From Best to Intentional Practices
Trans* College Students in Residence
Responding to Marine’s (2011) assertion that “few or no examples of transgender students’
resiliency are noted” throughout higher education research (p. 73), there has been a recent
proliferation of research alongside trans* collegians from affirmative and resilience-based perspectives. That is, rather than replicating the deficit-based research about trans* students that position
the population as always under threat and/or not matching their cisgender peers across various
indicators for success, new empirical research—much of which is being done by trans* scholars—is
focusing on the ways trans* students are resilient and able to promote their own success, however
they understand it (e.g., Catalano, 2015; Jourian, 2017; Nicolazzo, 2016a, 2017b; Nicolazzo,
Pitcher, Renn, & Woodford, 2017).
Of this emerging research, few studies focus specifically on the experiences of trans* students
in residence (e.g., Nicolazzo, 2016a, 2017b; Nicolazzo & Marine, 2015; Pryor, Ta, & Hart,
2016), all of which highlighted both institutional trans* oppression and the various strategies
trans* students used to respond to living on campus. Moreover, at the time of submission, we as
authors could not identify any studies centering on trans* students’ experiences of GIH. For
example, while Kortegast (In press) wrote about the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans*,
queer (LGBTQ) students in housing, her study was neither trans*-specific nor was it focused on
GIH as a “best practice” in student affairs. To be clear, we do not intend this as a critique of
Kortegast or others who have studied LGBTQ student populations in residence (e.g., Krum et al.,
2013; Seelman, 2014). Instead, we conceptualize these previous studies as providing foundational
research upon which we built the present study.
Furthermore, as Catalano (2015) has pointed out, many studies that purport to be about
LGBT students may include few, if any, trans* student participants. As such, we find it of
importance to center trans* students as the sole population with which we researched, as well as
to address GIH specifically as a way to interrogate how this “best practice” is operating in relation
to its espoused benefits. Focusing specifically on trans* students and their engagements with GIH
also has the benefit of heeding Renn’s (2010) warning not to perpetuate the conflation of gender
and sexuality that continues to occur through educational research and practice. We now move to
a discussion of how we designed the current study before elucidating the study’s findings.
Study Design
The present study employed critical trans politics (CTP) as a theoretical framework (Spade,
2015). CTP was an outgrowth of critical race theory (CRT), and intentionally centers the lives and
experiences of trans* individuals. Parallel to critical theoretical frameworks framing of oppression
as an everyday phenomenon, CTP takes institutional trans* oppression as a given and elucidates
how such oppression negatively impacts the life chances of trans* people. Originally conceptualized
as a legal framework for addressing the ways legal policies and administrative practices further
perpetuated trans* oppression—what Spade (2015) termed administrative violence—higher education scholars are recognizing the transferability of CTP to educational praxis (e.g., Catalano, 2015;
Jourian, Simmons, & Devaney, 2015; Nicolazzo, 2016a, 2017b; Nicolazzo & Marine, 2015;
Pitcher, 2015). The present study draws from and adds to this lineage as a way to center trans*
students and their experiences in GIH options.
The methodology used for the present study was critical narrative inquiry (Jørgensen &
Largacha-Martinez, 2014). Not only did this methodology make the most sense given our use
of CTP as a theoretical framework, but critical narrative inquiry also provided a way to situate
participants’ narratives “within the context of cultural narratives which delimit what can be said,
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From Best to Intentional Practices
what stories can be told, what will count as meaningful, and what will seem to be nonsensical”
(Lawler, 2002, pp. 242–243). As such, our methodological choice to use critical narrative inquiry
allowed us to interrogate how “institutional discourses influence and are influenced by personal
everyday narratives” (Souto-Manning, 2014, p. 163).
Seeking to understand both institutional and personal narratives regarding trans* students’
experiences with GIH, we as researchers performed 60–90 minute semi-structured interviews with
19 trans* students and 13 student affairs administrators at four institutions throughout the United
States. We used maximum variation sampling (Merriam, 2009) in identifying both our four
research sites as well as our student participants. Not only did we seek research sites from a
range of geographic locations (i.e., Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, and Midwest) as well as
there being both public and private institutions in our sample (i.e., three public, one private), but
we also intentionally sought student participants with various racialized, disability, class, and
gender identities. Participants were chosen based on students’ responding to recruitment emails
sent out by key institutional constituents at each research site. Participants filled out an online
demographic survey, and we as researchers then contacted participants to establish a date and
location for our interviews (see Appendix A for student participant interview protocol). Participant
criterion consisted of individuals who (a) self-identified as transgender undergraduate students
who (b) currently or previously had lived in GIH.
In identifying staff participants for our study, we used critical case sampling (Patton, 2015).
This sampling practice allowed us as researchers to identify a small set of participants who would
“yield the most information and have the greatest impact on the development of knowledge” for
our particular study (Patton, 2015, p. 276). As such, we spoke with staff members who worked in
one of three distinct functional units: residence life, housing assignments, or the campus LGBTQ
center. Additionally, all staff we interviewed had a direct connection to the creation and/or
continued implementation of GIH on their respective campus. Although our interviews with
staff lacked a formal interview protocol, we used information gleaned from student interviews on
each particular campus to craft questions.
When analyzing data, the three primary researchers engaged in a three-step analytical process
(Saldaña, 2016). First, we each read sets of transcripts corresponding to two institutions, ensuring
that each institution was reviewed by at least two of the researchers. Our first step of coding
involved our reading all transcripts for each institution line-by-line to refamiliarize ourselves with
the data and create initial codes, using our theoretical framework and research questions as guides.
For our second step of analysis, we wrote analytical memos in which we “reorganize[ed] and
reanalyze[ed] data coded through first cycle methods” (Saldaña, 2016, p. 234). Our third step of
our analytical process involved sharing our individual analytical memos and talking through them
as a way to refine our coding schema and resultant findings further. In essence, our third round of
analysis mirrored Saldaña’s (2016) description of axial coding, albeit being verbal rather than
written. In addition, one of the primary researchers repeated this process with a research team of
three graduate students in a higher education master’s preparation program, with each student
analyzing either the student or staff interviews at one institution.
Several practices were undertaken to ensure the trustworthiness of the present study. First, our
sampling methods increased the confirmability and transferability of our findings. Specifically, by
ensuring maximum variation of research sites and student participants, we were able to highlight
how findings maintained consistency across geographies, institutional types, and student identities.
Furthermore, our choice of using critical case sampling for identifying staff participants increased
the dependability of our findings, as these participants were the most knowledgeable about GIH as
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From Best to Intentional Practices
it was conceptualized and implemented at their institutions. The multiple processes of individual
and group coding acted as a form of data triangulation, thus increasing the credibility of the study
(Mertens, 2015). Finally, we engaged participants in member-checking interview transcripts and
also presented preliminary findings at various national conferences, sometimes with participants
and other institutional agents from our four research sites in the audience. These practices not only
increased the credibility and confirmability of the study findings but also enhanced their transferability (Jourian, 2017; Mertens, 2015).
Collectively, we as a research team have over 20 years of experience in residence life administration. Furthermore, all three of us center critical approaches to gender (i.e., feminism, masculinities, and trans* resilience) through our research agendas, and have varying gender, racial,
disability, and ethnic backgrounds. Our administrative experiences and research acumen regarding
issues of gender in higher education are particularly salient in relation to the current project,
especially as they provided us a depth of practical and empirical knowledge with which to approach
this research study. In other words, we were able to bring together our research and practical
experiences to formulate critical perspectives on the implementation of GIH all while recognizing
the various limitations (e.g., budget, staffing, training) of doing so.
In the subsections that follow, we elucidate the findings from our research study. As a way to
reflect our framing this study through CTP, we have organized the findings around questions we
as researchers found to be central to sound policy formation regarding GIH. We arrived at these
questions based on what student participants were asking—explicitly and implicitly—of their
campuses policies related to GIH throughout our interviews with them. In doing so, we attempt
to foreground both the administrative violence (Spade, 2015) embedded throughout these policies,
as well as the ways in which trans* students are currently not centered in the creation and
implementation of GIH. Specifically, the questions student participants were asking of GIH
policies were: Where is the policy?; who is making the policy?; and why has there been no ongoing
assessment of the policy? It is also important to note that while students may not have used these
exact words to frame their questions of GIH policies on their campuses, the questions represent
the collective sentiment of students as shared through their interviews.
Where is the Policy?
Almost every single participant, across all campuses, described having a hard time finding
information regarding GIH options at their institutions. Not only were these policies hard to
locate, but many of them were ambiguous, leading to confusion regarding what GIH meant at
each campus. This ambiguity then led to several challenges in the actual implementation of GIH.
While these challenges are beyond the scope of this particular manuscript, we have written about
them elsewhere (Marine, Nicolazzo, & Wagner, in review).
For example, Addison (pronouns: they/them and she/her/hers), a first year student at
Midwest University, a small, highly selective, public, four-year institution, began describing
what seemed like a fairly simple process for accessing GIH. As Addison described, “I was filling
out my housing application and there was a little button that said, ‘Do you want GIH?’ and I
checked it. It was great.” However, the ease of …
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