Attracting three times more applications than expected, the University’s exclusively LGBT+ student flats could be set to expand before they have begun.
A national first, the 12 rooms originally envisaged for September’s freshers have been met with more than 30 applications.
The new initiative, proposed by the Students’ Union’s LGBT+ committee working with the Residence Life accommodation team, will be implemented on a three-year trial phase this autumn.
The University have told Forge Press that they hope to ensure all the scheme’s applications are met with room offerings.
Mixed opinions have greeted the new scheme, with a debate across three national newspapers featuring warnings of “creeping segregation”, while others say it is something gay and queer students “have dreamed about”.
It follows a report this year from gay rights charity Stonewall showing that 42 percent of LGBT+ students in Britain have to hide their sexuality at university.
“this is something that gay young people, especially those from more rural or conservative areas, have dreamed about”
The SU and University say the LGBT+ only halls will provide “a safe space for students to be themselves”, an attempt to prevent “bullying and harassment” in mainstream flats.
“Put simply, this accommodation allows our students the choice of living with people from the LGBT+ community and offers a safe space for students to be themselves,” they told Forge in a joint statement.
“Everyone deserves to feel safe, respected and able to be themselves in their own homes and we believe this accommodation will further ensure that this happens at the University of Sheffield.”
Celeste Jones, last year’s SU Women’s Officer, added: “By no means is this accommodation compulsory, nor do we wish to encourage segregation, but we feel it is extremely important that our students have the choice of living in LGBT+ only accommodation if they so desire.”
But as reported in The Telegraph, Simon Thompson, the director of Accommodation for Students – one of the country’s largest accommodation websites – has spoken out against the idea.
“University is about opening your horizons and meeting people from different cultures, different backgrounds, different sexualities, everything,” he said.
“I think it’s a disadvantage if people close themselves off and don’t socialise with straight people. It just seems madness to me.”
Thompson likened the idea to the informally known ‘Chinese-only’ student flats in Manchester, Liverpool and London, but argued Sheffield’s proposal goes further in formally banning heterosexual and gender binary-defining students from applying to these flats.
Based in Endcliffe and Ranmoor student villages, the Accommodation Office told Forge the initial 12 rooms across two flats “quickly booked up” and will now expand to meet demand.
Although the en-suite and standard flats involved will be LGBT+ only, they will be based in blocks where other flats are not necessarily part of the scheme.
Found in no other UK university, the three year pilot phase will assess demand, although the reported level interest in its first year was unexpected and, should it continue, may mean these halls become a permanent feature.
Writing in the Guardian, Brian Moylan rebuked the criticisms, saying: “The idea that college students, perhaps the most social humans on the planet, will only befriend those in their immediate vicinity is madness.
“The fledgling queers of this world need a place where they feel like they belong to gain the confidence needed to operate in the world at large. This living arrangement doesn’t hinder their ability to integrate, it optimises it.
“What straight critics of LGBT dorm life fail to realise is that this is something that gay young people, especially those from more rural or conservative areas, have dreamed about.”
Ms Jones explained how the initiative was brought about following a lengthy consultation process between LGBT+ committee and members of the LGBT+ community.
“LGBT+ Committee collected personal experiences from LGBT+ students, co-produced a proposal with the Residence Life Team, and have collaborated throughout the year to achieve this massive success,” she told Forge.
“We strive to ensure that all University accommodation is LGBT+ inclusive; bullying and harassment is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
“However, LGBT+ students have felt that their experience in university accommodation would be improved by having the option to live in LGBT+ specific accommodation.”
Gay-only houses were also considered by Birmingham University in 2016, but lack of demand from students meant the idea caved in.
They have been a permanent feature at some US universities, however, including Georgetown University which is run by Jesuit Catholics. Other American universities have also implemented dorms based on race, attracting much criticism.
Pete Mercer, Stonewall’s Head of Public Sector Memberships Programme, said: “LGBT-only accommodation initiatives can address problems LGBT people face in the short-term by creating safe spaces for them.
“Ensuring everyone is free to be themselves is also about changing the wider culture to be inclusive and accepting of all people, and institutions have a really important role to play in that.
“The University of Sheffield have already made great strides towards LGBT inclusion, placing 24th in our Top 100 employers list this year, and we’re working with them to further improve their inclusive practices.”