It’s common for college students to run into some small conflicts with their roommates, and LGBTQIA+ students may have more anxiety around roommates and potential conflicts than their peers. These issues are generally small and easy to resolve, like different expectations for your room, small miscommunications, or just feeling stressed out from something unrelated and taking it out on the person who happens to be right in front of you. If you do encounter anti-LGBTQIA+ bigotry, it is important to remember both that your identity and being who you are did not “cause” the problem and that this is not a fight you have to face alone.
Setting fair rules with your roommate at the start of the year is the best way to avoid most conflicts. Ask yourself questions about both what rules will make you feel comfortable and at home in your room and what potential rules or boundaries matter the most to you. You can’t make any decisions without your roommate agreeing to them, but you can be proactive and think about your priorities and needs.
One common conflict with roommates is cleanliness and neatness. Think about where you are willing to compromise or bend and where you aren’t. If you would rather have a rule that dirty clothing can’t just be thrown on the floor around the room but your roommate doesn’t feel like that should be a rule, would you be okay with them just agreeing to keep that kind of messiness on their side of the room? Or if you are on the other side and your roommate does not like what you consider to be acceptable messiness, what compromises can you offer to make that work for them? If having dirty dishes sit around rather than be cleaned right away is something you know you can’t live with, how will you explain the importance of that to a roommate who may not see it as a big deal? Figuring out what your priorities are for your living space ahead of time can help make those conversations easier.
Another common disagreement between roommates is how often/when guests can be over. While many dorms will have policies about guests that students must follow, you and your roommate may want to agree on additional rules for your room that fit your needs. One of the things that may come up is if you want a plan for if/when one of you wants the room to themselves with a guest. This is one of the places where being LGBTQIA+ can become a relevant factor to rules that you set, because your roommate may make assumptions about what it means to have a guest over based on gender.
An example of this may be: Imagine a new college student who is a bisexual woman has a roommate who is also a woman and they are talking about rules for guests. Their sexuality has never come up, and in the discussion, the roommate says “We should have a rule that if one of us wants to have a boy over we should have a way to let the other know.” Hearing that from a new roommate may make the bi woman unsure if she is obliged to share her sexuality at the moment or worried the comment is the first red flag that there will be issues between her and the roommate. While the roommate’s wording is heteronormative (based on the broad assumption of most/all people being heterosexual) there is a significant chance the roommate did not think through why this wording could be harmful and just used it because she felt awkward or uncomfortable directly saying she wants a rule for sex/romantic alone time. While LGBTQIA+ people are never obliged to disclose their sexuality (at a specific moment or at all), if the bi student was already planning on sharing that she is bi and just hadn’t found a good moment, it may help to make that the moment and try to make a rule that does not base expectations on what kind of relationship they may have with guests on the guest’s gender.
You may also have conflicts due to individual comments or situations that you didn’t expect. These often aren’t moments you can proactively prevent, but you can think about how you want to deal with them if they arise. For example, if your roommate makes a single comment that you find offensive how will you address that? What if they tell you something you said upset or was offensive to them? You both may make statements that are not in bad faith but are based on misinformation or lack of familiarity with a certain topic that hurts the other. If you feel comfortable talking with your roommate about why something they clearly said in good faith was hurtful or offensive, that is often the most productive response to mistakes. Talking about complicated topics is hard, but open communication can help you both learn, grow, and feel welcome and safe in your room.
With small conflicts, it is best to first try to talk to your roommate to work out a good solution. Learning to advocate for yourself and find fair compromises in potentially awkward or complicated situations is an important step in becoming an adult, and these conversations can be great low-stakes practice and may actually end up making you closer to your roommate as you both start to understand each other better.
If a disagreement is becoming heated, you may feel like you need a third party to help facilitate a calm and fair discussion. If the disagreement is relatively small, the person to escalate to will be your Resident Assistant or RA. An RA is generally an upperclassman who has agreed to live in a dorm or hall for underclassmen and help guide students living in that dorm/hall. RAs are trained and have to follow codes of ethics similar to any other staff at the school. This is a way for schools to have someone consistently available to help new students who understand what they are going through, and dealing with minor roommate conflicts is one of the biggest parts of an RA’s responsibilities. You can ask your RA about setting up a time to have a meeting with them and your roommate to try to figure out a solution that works for everyone. Regardless of whose idea it is to involve the RA, their job is to be a neutral party and not take sides. On top of keeping the conversation productive and civil, neutrality may mean they can come up with fair compromises and solutions neither you nor your roommate considered.
There is a chance you may run into more serious problems with a roommate than you can or should try to remedy yourself or with an RA. Overt bigotry or ongoing microaggressions are times when it is better to escalate rather than try to resolve them yourself. In these situations do not go to your RA but directly to your school administration. If your school has a Diversity office you should be able to set up a meeting or walk in and talk to someone, and if not you can do the same with the school’s Campus Living department. If you are unsure of who to reach out to, you can call or go to the school’s general front desk/office and ask. If you have a family member you feel comfortable involving, that may help you feel more supported when meeting with staff and make it clear how seriously you are taking the situation. Some laws apply differently for state versus private colleges, but if you feel your school’s response violates relevant laws you may want to reach out to an LGBTQIA+ organization or lawyer to explore possible next steps. If you are looking for a starting point to see what options you may have, Education USA has a variety of resources for LGBTQIA+ college students at https://educationusa.state.gov/resources-lgbt-students.
Sharing a room with someone you just met can be overwhelming and scary, but you may find someone who starts off as a roommate and ends up being a friend you treasure the rest of your life. Most issues between roommates are easy to get past and will feel much less important when looking back on them than they do at the moment. Putting the time into establishing and maintaining rules and healthy boundaries will help you have the best possible roommate relationship so you can focus on enjoying this new chapter of your life.
Each month I am sharing information and advice for a different aspect of college life for LGBTQIA+ students! Next month I will be sharing tips for what to do if you are feeling homesick or overwhelmed as a new college student.