Why Is North Carolina's GOP Fighting a War On Its Own College Students?

The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature has captured the nation’s attention of late. From attempting to establish an official state religion to proposed budget cuts, the GOP has led what many citizens of North Carolina have deemed an unrelenting offensive against minority groups.

In recent months, the GOP has turned its attention to one of North Carolina’s most vocal minorities: college students. Two piece of legislation filed in early April come to mind: S.B. 667, which would penalize students and their families for registering to vote in their college district, and S.B. 658, which would "prohibit the assignment of members of the opposite sex to the same room, suite, or campus apartment.”

S.B. 658 takes direct aim at the recently-implemented Gender Non-Specific Housing option at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which would allow students of different genders to room in the same suite as one another. Initiated by students concerned with on-campus safety, the housing program seeks to improve student safety by reducing dorm harassment on the basis of sexual orientation and other personal characteristics related to gender. The housing program received over 2,800 signatures of support from students and the backing of 55 student organizations, committees, and academic departments. In addition to student body support, the program was unanimously approved by the UNC-CH Board of Trustees and former Chancellor Holden Thorp. Across the country, 99 academic institutions, both public and private, have implemented a gender-neutral housing option to support campus safety and academic success.

The argument for S.B. 658 has reverted to two conservative no-no’s: sexual activity and social experiments. Many in the N.C. GOP ranks have claimed that the gender non-specific housing option would allow for straight partners to take advantage of the housing option and engage in sexual activity. First off, let’s be real — sexual activity occurs on campus regardless of housing policies. Secondly, gender non-specific housing involves an opt-in process, which means that students must apply to even be considered. According to research conducted by the UNC-CH LGBTQ Center, only a few people who apply for gender neutral housing at programs around the country are in fact heterosexual couples. The second defense, against social experimenting, was articulated by Senator David Curtis (R), one of the bill’s primary sponsors: “UNC did not become a national leader in academics by wasting time and tax dollars on frivolous social experiments.” Aside from the fact that it does not cost taxpayers a penny, the gender non-specific housing program also does not reflect a “frivolous social experiment.” Rather it provides students with a safe living space, improving the overall environment for academic success. Former Chancellor Holden Thorp stated in a press release last fall, “Gender-neutral housing is an important project that is vital to protecting the safety of our students.” Far from frivolous, the program directly promotes the university’s academic mission.

Recognizing the recent pushback to their agenda, the Republican majority decided to drop S.B. 658, only to surreptitiously insert the language of the same bill in the N.C. Senate Budget Proposal as an amendment. Gender non-specific housing is an issue of student safety and academic success, an issue that's relevant but not directly salient to the North Carolina state budget. In an attempt to masquerade its intentions, the GOP clearly sought to avoid disappointing an already angered constituency.

The actions of the N.C. legislature demonstrate that the GOP preaches limited government only when it suits their interests. The GOP legislative agenda represents a blatant invasion of public autonomy for the N.C. community. By attempting to ban gender non-specific housing, the GOP has divested the university system of all authority over student issues. The legislature has an obligation to its constituency, especially to the students who will shape the future for this great state. Unfortunately, the GOP has faltered on this obligation.