Ben Bechle showed a single room on the Rainbow Floor of Karlgaard Towers Hall South at UW-Eau Claire on Friday. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

UW-Eau Claire’s first LGBTQ living community will open in the fall semester, welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and other students as well as allies.

The “Rainbow Floor” is on the seventh floor of Karlgaard Towers South, 642 University Dr.

The new student community has interested plenty of students already: Its roughly 50 beds have already been filled, said Ben Bechle, assistant director of UW-Eau Claire Housing and Residence Life.

The university plans to place overflow rainbow housing on the eighth floor, Bechle said.

The university has accommodated students who requested a single room or a particular roommate due to gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation, but the Rainbow Floor is a step further, Bechle said.

“While students were able to be housed various ways before … it’s the first time we’re doing a living community specifically for LGBTQ-plus folks and allies, if they so choose,” said Christopher Jorgenson, director of the university’s Gender and Sexuality Resource Center.

Students on the Rainbow Floor aren’t assigned to rooms based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or assigned sex, Jorgenson said.

Students can request to live there, but placement is based on availability.

The space gives LGBTQ students a place to explore their identity, Bechle said.

“So many students come in and they don’t really know much about themselves yet,” Bechle said. “This provides an opportunity for students who have gone through some of that exploration, or are looking to do some more, or are there to be an ally.”

Traditionally, two resident assistants work on each floor. The Rainbow Floor will also host a live-in student peer counselor, aimed at helping students navigate low-level anxiety, depression or personal problems.

“We know, because there’s so much data and research, that LGBTQ people experience depression, anxiety, suicidality, homelesness and substance abuse at disproportionate rates over the general population,” Jorgenson said. “We just want to make sure we’re prepared to be able to offer the support and services that the students will need.”

If a student needs counseling, the peer counselor will help the student access those services, Bechle said.

“The peer counselor is a student too,” Bechle said. “We tend to find they’re more likely to go to their peers for direct issues.”

Many institutions around the U.S. have similar housing programs, Jorgenson said.

“We’re not paving the way in this regard,” Jorgenson said. “It’s not about segregation, and it’s certainly not about providing special accommodations.”

After renovations, each floor of the Karlgaard Towers South building has two restrooms for students. On the Rainbow Floor, all bathrooms are gender-inclusive, including a bathroom with an attached shower, Bechle said.

About 11 of the Rainbow Floor’s 50 beds will be filled by returning students, the rest by new students.

“We were really hoping we’d fill this one, and we were successful,” Bechle said.

Jorgenson wasn’t surprised UW-Eau Claire students showed so much interest.

“UW-Eau Claire in the last several years has positioned itself as a leader for LGBTQ inclusivity,” Jorgenson said. “Given our national and statewide rankings, we are attracting far more LGBTQ students … I’m not at all surprised it filled up immediately, and we already have an overflow situation.”

UW-Eau Claire was named number three in the top 50 best campuses for LGBTQ students in 2017 by College Choice, a university and program ranking website.

UW-Stout has had a similar community, Out@Stout, that will host about 98 students in the 2019 semester, said Kathi Baker, Director of University Housing.

“That community has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, to the point where this year we’re moving them into an even larger community,” Baker said.

Stout students select the Out@Stout community when they sign up for housing. The university also accommodates student requests for special arrangements, such as a private room or access to a private bathroom, Baker said.

If the Rainbow Floor is successful and demand grows, the university may expand the community, Bechle said.

“From my perspective in working with the LGBTQ community, it’s a little bit more tight-knit. You’re bringing a community, of not just interests, but identity together,” Bechle said. “Students tend to become really close and form friendship circles.”

For Jorgenson, creating a LGBTQ living community at UW-Eau Claire was a logical next step.

“It’s so interesting how many people are interested in the idea of a rainbow floor,” Jorgenson said. “For us, it was just a no-brainer.

“Living communities have been a staple in higher ed for decades. This is just a community that hasn’t been historically accessed.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sxseifert on Twitter