DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa Western Community College is offering a pilot housing program that aims to help transgender students feel more comfortable.

The Des Moines Register reports that students were given the option this year of joining the program, which assigns them to a roommate based on their gender identity or expression rather than their legal sex. According to school officials, more than 80 students expressed interest in living in the community. The school accepted 35 students who were most in need of such a living arrangement.

"We don't want it to grow so big that it attracts students who aren't actively interested in living in a gender-inclusive environment," said Elizabeth Luiken, the school’s director of residence life.

School officials said, for the present, they are planning to keep the program at its current size.

"I wish other schools would recognize that they would get a larger student base out of (becoming more gender-inclusive)," said Mikey Fletcher, a 23-year-old student that lives in the community with a male roommate. "After learning about this option, I basically did shun other schools (that) didn't offer something similar. ... I wouldn't have really known what to do."

Similar collegiate housing options have gained momentum since the University of Iowa became the first major university to add gender identity protections to its nondiscrimination statement in the mid-1990s, said D.A. Dirks, co-chair of the Consortium of Higher Education Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Professionals.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance that clarifies that transgender students are protected from discrimination under federal civil rights legislation Title IX.

Schools often have to wait until students advocate for more housing alternatives, as the living spaces have structural limitations concerning how students share bathrooms and sleeping areas.

"My (personal) opinion is that students should just be able to room with whomever regardless of their gender identity," said Dirks, who also serves as senior academic planner for LGBTQ programs and student affects in the University of Wisconsin system. "But again, there has to be the element of respecting people's own restrictions."

Even without a label, housing officials at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa say they always will provide case-by-case accommodations.


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