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Politics & Society

Should Men and Women Room Together in College?

Or should administrators even ask about the gender of prospective roommates? Some colleges experiment with "gender-blind" dorms

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NEW YORK — You and your best friend are the perfect match. You share countless qualities: you both like to go to bed early, stay organized, listen to Lady Gaga – even eat cold pizza. But one of the few qualities you do not share is gender, and according to your school’s housing policy, this means you cannot share a room either.

Such a scenario is increasingly common for college students across America. LGBT rights advocates say that traditional housing arrangements, which require that roommates identify as the same gender, are antiquated and unfair. Some straight students insist that they should be allowed to room regardless of gender, platonically or in a relationship. But many parents, students, and officials assert that the traditional policy is necessary to regulate student behavior.

This year, though, more than 30 colleges nationwide are launching unprecedented gender-neutral, or gender blind, housing policies. Such a policy permits upperclassmen to select their own roommates, with no restrictions on gender. Participating schools include Cornell, Stanford, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Michigan, and Dartmouth.

Jeffrey Chang is the co-founder of the National Student Genderblind Campaign, a grassroots advocacy organization “for gender-neutral and LGBT-affirmative policies on college campuses.” The group’s website calls traditional housing policies “relics of an outdated past—a time when all students were assumed to be straight, transgender and queer identities were brushed aside, and friendships between men and women were less common.”

Columbia University is one school currently debating gender-neutral housing. Sean Udell is the president of the Columbia College Class of 2011 and leader of the Columbia Genderblind Housing Initiative. He said the newly-proposed policy goes beyond those gay males and straight females most comfortable in a “Will & Grace”-style existence.

“Our policy is first and foremost for transgender and gender-nonconforming students who don’t feel comfortable with the current housing options,” Udell said. “This is taking gender out of the equation.”

The group’s initial policy proposal in December 2009 attracted considerable attention from local and national media, much of it negative. The first line of a New York Post article said Columbia students would be “living in sin – on their parents’ dime.” The article also mentioned a parent who threatened to remove her son from housing as a result of the policy.

“The media didn’t get it. The Post clearly had a moral agenda,” Udell said. His organization’s website directly responds to the “living in sin” notion, pointing out that “the current policy allows homosexual couples to live together, and the implementation of this [new] policy would eliminate a double standard.”

The Columbia proposal passed almost unanimously in the university’s student senate. But just days before housing selection began in February, Dean of Students Kevin Shollenberger announced the policy would not be considered, due to insufficient student support. In response, the Columbia Genderblind Housing Initiative collected more than 1,000 student signatures for a petition, and hopes to draft a new proposal by September.

“They just don’t want to bother explaining this to incoming freshmen and parents,” Udell said of his university’s decision to reject the policy.

Though gender-blind housing is generally not available to freshmen, who are assigned roommates, some parents of incoming students are wary of the option.
“As a dad, I’d feel a little awkward about it,” said Bill Clarke of Bedford, N.Y., whose daughter is a prospective New York University student. The university currently allows mixed-sex suitemates, and is considering offering genderblind rooms.

“It should be a kid’s choice, but then again they’re still kids,” said one mother of another prospective NYU student who wished to remain anonymous. “I would trust my son, but I’m not sure everyone’s mature enough.”

Columbia and NYU may look to the almost 50 colleges nationwide that have implemented some form of genderblind housing, including many in the last year.
Ross Maxwell is the housing services coordinator at Occidental College in Los Angeles, which introduced three gender-neutral rooms in 2009.

“We’ve expanded it quite a bit this year and added a lot more rooms,” Maxwell said. “So far, we haven’t had a whole lot of complaints, but I think it helps that our institution is small and our student body is more liberal.”

Yet the idea of co-ed roommates irks some students and officials at other colleges.
“I would be afraid as a male that if I had conflicts, the female would always win, and say I tried to sexually harass them,” said Mark Cubbage, a junior at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Va. “And it makes relationships between heterosexual couples awkward. Can you imagine having a girlfriend and her suspicions about your female roommate?”

According to a recent study by Dr. Brian Willoughby, professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, “co-ed dorms seem to be associated with higher levels of risk-taking” activities like binge drinking.

Willoughby predicts co-ed rooms might force universities to handle notoriously unstable college relationships.

“Housing offices with co-ed rooms are likely going to be faced with attempting to relocate individuals who have broken up with their roommate,” Willoughby said. “Some universities have tried to get around this by requiring students to sign a release claiming they will not enter into a relationship with their roommates, but we can probably all guess how effective that will be.”

Chang said that at colleges that offer gender-blind housing, few participating residents are couples.

“Most students are smart enough to know not to live together if they’re in a relationship,” said Monroe France, director of the Office of LGBT Student Services at NYU and leading advocate of the university’s gender-blind housing proposal.

Dr. Gayatri Gopinath, director of Gender and Sexuality Studies at NYU, said she believes gender-blind housing embodies a logical evolution from earlier movements.

“Gender-blind housing should absolutely be an option,” Gopinath said. “Early feminism was about women’s empowerment, and this is a great progression to transgender empowerment. But we should remember that some people prefer the dynamic of single-sex housing.”

“I’m sure there’s some social value to the traditional policy,” Udell said. “But really it’s about choice. Everyone at this school is an adult, and should be able to make decisions for themselves.”

Jordan Mazza studies journalism at New York University.

A movement to allow college students to choose roommates of either gender is spreading. Photo by Dominic Chavez