Gender-neutral housing has swept through many of the nation’s most prestigious universities, but controversy has been notably absent in the vast majority of cases.
The switch to gender neutral housing follows several decades of males and females on college campuses living closer and closer to each other. Forty years ago, the transition to coed residence halls drew controversy from social conservatives. Nevertheless, coed environments started appearing in dorm halls and in bathrooms in greater and greater quantities over the following decade.
Gender-neutral housing, which permits those of the opposite sex to live together, is now the latest stage in the evolution of college housing. The concept has already made its way into dozens of universities across the nation. Mainly adopted in private and generally more progressive colleges, these programs have been enacted in response to campus activists calling for a new housing option that is friendlier to the LGBTQ community.
The movement began at smaller liberal arts colleges, but in 2005, the University of Pennsylvania adopted gender-neutral housing as well. In just five years, the rest of the Ivy League and another 40 other schools have followed suit, thanks in large part to the National Student Genderblind Campaign.
Stanford University adopted gender neutral housing in 2008 after student activists, specifically from the LGBTQ community, called for alternative rooming options. According to Stanford Housing’s website, the new policy was implemented in “an effort to find better ways of supporting transgender students.”
Stanford’s justification for the new program mirrors that of nearly every other school offering gender-neutral options. The Housing website explicitly outlines that gender-neutral housing “is *not *intended for romantic couples.” As of now, seven campus residences host the program.
Around the country, universities hope that these new housing arrangements will give more options to the LGBTQ and, specifically, the transgender communities. Before the introduction of gender-neutral housing, many in the LGBTQ community reported problems with the standard same-sex roommate set-up.
Christopher Bautista ’11, an open member of the queer community and previous gender-neutral housing resident, said that he “can see [same-sex housing] causing a lot of anxiety in gender queer people.” He finds the new gender-neutral housing to be “a very comforting option.”
However, many social conservatives, such as David French, a member of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), have raised complaints about the whole concept. “This is just part of the next logical step in a university project that is designed to cause students to rethink essentially everything they knew about sex and gender,” French said.
“The university culture seems to be engaged in a long term project to try to encourage students to think that gender is something that is completely and utterly [as] malleable as sexuality, and gender neutral housing is a logical part of what seems to be that effort,” he added.
Although the gender-neutral housing was originally intended for members of the LGBTQ community, many residents today are simply students who feel more comfortable living with a friend who is of a different gender.
Dean of Residential Education Deborah Golder said most of the conversations she has with students regarding this issue all sound very similar. According to Dean Golder, students have often told her: “That’s the person who I connect with most…. Why shouldn’t I have the opportunity to live with that person?”
French worries though about any mixture of genders, stating, “We’re probably going to see an increase in complaints of sexual assault and sexual harassment…. We pretty much know what happens, the closer you mix the sexes.” Despite these concerns, so far no complaints have been filed, or at least publicized, at Stanford.
In fact, the most significant controversy so far has been a result of the parent of a student. In 2009, Daisy Morin ‘09 lived in a Columbae quad with two male roommates and one female roommate. Morin’s mother, Karin, was outraged when she found out her daughter was placed in a coed room without specifically requesting one.
Karin wrote to the president of Stanford to rectify the situation. Housing contacted Daisy inquiring whether she would like to change rooms, but she declined. Karin, however, continued her fight by writing a letter to the National Review, in which she attributed the blame to Stanford. She refused to pay for her daughter’s final quarter of schooling, thus forcing Daisy to take out a $3,000 loan to finish her senior year.
“That was a family issue, and should be worked out at the family level,” said Golder, responding to the conflict. She continued, “I don’t think the university should be stepping in the middle of that.”
Bautista emphasized that “it’s a system that you opt into, and if you don’t want to opt into it, then don’t opt into it.”
The University ensures that these housing options remain just options that are not forced upon anyone. When setting up gender-neutral configurations at Stanford, students choose with whom they would like to live, and both parties give consent before living arrangements are finalized.
In order to minimize conflict, though, Stanford students involved in romantic relationships are discouraged from rooming together.
“I knew several people who lived with their boyfriends and girlfriends and…it didn’t end well,” said Bautista.
Golder remarked that any negatives associated with gender-neutral housing are “no more than any other [residence]. Any potential outcomes are outcomes in any of our residential environments.”
Many such administrators around the country share Golder’s perspective, and thus, the spread of gender-neutral housing has been rapid. And absent abrupt change, the new housing option will likely remain a fixture of American universities.