by Amy Osterman ’10
Given Princeton’s recent announcement about the introduction of gender-neutral housing, it would be instructive to look at other Ivy Leagues who have introduced programs. Two principal arguments have been articulated for instituting gender-neutral housing.
The first frames the argument as a solution to a special need, noting that there are students for whom traditional, same-sex housing constitutes a burden due to the individuals’ sexual orientation. For example, a transgender student might feel uncomfortable sharing a room or a bathroom with members of the same sex. In this context, instituting a small program for these individuals is seen as no different from accommodating students who for medical reasons would be more comfortable residing on the first floor, or accommodating students who feel more comfortable residing in single-sex housing.
The second argument is that college students of legal age should be able to make their own decisions about roommates without interference from the University. These individuals argue that maintaining a housing system that automatically separates students on the basis of sex not only unjustly presumes that gender identity matches biological gender, but is also inaccurately based on the assumption that there will naturally be sexual tension between individuals of the opposite sex.
Brown’s gender-neutral housing program was started in 2003 and later expanded in 2008, making it the oldest such program within the Ivy League, closely followed by University of Pennsylvania in 2004. Gender-neutral housing was usually advocated by LGBT groups, both student-directed and those that are part of the university. These groups work in different capacities, sometimes as advocacy groups for the LGBT communities, sometimes more directly involved in the policymaking process through task forces. For example, the decision to make doubles available came after recommendations by the Brown LGBTQ Advisory Committee to the Diversity Advisory Board. Brown’s Gender-Neutral Housing Working Group includes both university administrators and students.
Often gender-neutral housing followed the updating of university nondiscrimination policies to include gender orientation, such as at University of Pennsylvania, Brown, Harvard, and Dartmouth. Dartmouth’s director of undergraduate housing was quoted in the Dartmouth student newspaper as saying that implementing gender-neutral housing was part of the university’s effort to follow its new nondiscrimination policy with regard to gender. Both Harvard and Brown now allow students to identify as transgender on housing forms.
Some LGBT groups have a more narrow aim of making gender-neutral housing available for LGBT students, whereas others, such as the Lambda Alliance at Penn, advocated a housing system which was completely “gender blind”, where gender-neutral housing was available to everyone. These groups often had the support of student governments.
Yale’s undergraduate student council (YCC) voted to support the introduction of gender-neutral housing at Yale in 2009. A student group named Alliance for Sensible College Housing was formed to bring the issue before the university. Yale currently has no gender-neutral housing program. Cornell’s Residential Student Congress passed a resolution in November of 2007 asking the administration to create a pilot program for gender-neutral housing, specifically to meet the needs of the transgender community. Cornell’s student assembly also passed a resolution indicating their support of instituting gender-neutral housing. To date, according to Cornell’s Housing 2009/2010 Lottery/Room Selection Booklet students may not room with someone of the opposite sex in a room or a suite.
Harvard first implemented a gender-neutral housing program in 2007, wherein mixed gender suites may be approved on a case-by-case basis. Among Ivy League schools with gender-neutral housing, Harvard College is the only institution whose program is not widely available to all students. Its program is small and tailored to those whose need it purports to fill, primarily transgender students. According to Harvard’s housing website, while students in university housing are generally limited to single sex rooms, it permits “mixed-gender rooming groups in certain circumstances, such as to accommodate students with a gender-based need (i.e., transgender students).” Dartmouth, among other Ivy League institutions offering gender-neutral housing program, represents the opposite of the spectrum. In addition to dispersed gender-neutral housing, that school instituted a gender-neutral housing program floor, where “residents learn about and explore issues of gender identity in a supportive community.” For the 2007/2008 academic year, the program had 32 applications for 16 spots.
Requiring mixed sex rooms to have bedroom locks is a reasonable precaution, but is not a standard or fixed feature among Ivy League gender-neutral housing programs. Brown’s and Penn’s programs notably allow students of the opposite sex not only to room together in suites, but also in one room doubles, following colleges like Wesleyan. Dartmouth housing officials have said that they are considering allowing coed doubles in the future. Columbia, Harvard, and Cornell do not permit mixed sex occupancy of doubles. This is how almost all programs started, but the older programs, such as at Brown and Penn have also evolved to include other forms of housing, such as one room doubles.
Brown allows gender-neutral housing for suites and doubles. The administration stated that the strongest demand for more gender-neutral housing arose from sophomore students, who were often unable to draw the suites that previously had been the only available gender-neutral housing, particularly because the majority of Brown’s housing is doubles. However, when Brown instituted its pilot program allowing gender-neutral doubles, only 8 students, for a total of 4 rooms, took advantage of this option. Dartmouth offers apartments, suites, quads, and singles with connecting bathrooms, and the director of undergraduate housing has said that they are considering making traditional doubles available for gender-neutral housing. Columbia and Harvard do not allow doubles for gender-neutral. Marco Chan, a Co-Chair of Harvard’s College Queer Students and Allies noted that the need for locks on individual bedrooms of coed suites was also due to Massachusetts law.
Eva Rosenberg says that the small size of the program and the limitation of housing to suites with bedroom locks, can partially be ascribed concerns among university officials about legal liability, the concern being a possible increase in sexual assault. Such concerns have also been voiced at other campuses. For example, according to the Cornell Daily Sun, the Student Assembly vote that supported gender-neutral housing was not unanimous, with dissenting students voicing concerns about the potential for increased instances of sexual assault or abuse, and about the lack of information available about existing programs and their effects. The concern about the lack of studies was echoed by Yale in March of 2009, when its college dean announced that it would not be instituting a gender-neutral housing in the coming year.
Even at schools where housing zoned “gender-neutral” has been made widely available and anyone can form mixed gender draw groups, not many students take advantage of these programs. At University of Pennsylvania, as of spring 2006 less than 2 percent of rooms on campus were gender-neutral and only about 1.6% of students applied for gender-neutral housing. At Brown, about 20% of housing is classified as gender-neutral, and one third of all non-first year housing is gender-neutral, yet only 0.5% of its students chose to live in gender-neutral housing. At Dartmouth, for the 2007/2008 academic year there were only 13 gender-neutral suites or apartments out of the 52 offered. Most other schools do not have available figures for the percentage of students who take advantage of gender-neutral housing programs.
Although some voices at Harvard have advocated expanding the availability and eligibility gender-neutral housing program, Eva Rosenberg, chair of the Transgender Task Force at Harvard, says that the task force does not want the availability of gender-neutral housing to be jeopardized for students who have a need for it. Rosenberg emphasized that the priority for the housing should continue to go to students with need, not a want.
At Brown, a gradual expansion of gender-neutral housing was followed by the creation and expansion of gender-neutral bathrooms, 12 total as of 2009, including 9 single units and three traditional multi-unit bathrooms, making half of the single unit bathrooms in dorms gender-neutral. According to an online survey conducted by the university, students were divided over the issue, with 25.3% opposing gender-neutral bathrooms, 20.6% not sure, and 26.9% and 29.8% strongly agreeing or favoring the change.
Students applying for gender-neutral housing are usually not separated from the room selection process. However, since first year students are usually not eligible for gender-neutral housing, often LGBT students who contact the university with concerns will be accommodated by being placed in singles (such as at Brown and Harvard). Some students have argued that transgender students should have a separate process to ensure that their needs are met, but to date this has not happened and generally any draw group (mixed or not) can draw into housing designated as gender-neutral.
What can Princeton learn from the experiences of other colleges with gender-neutral housing? Most schools have come to the consensus that suites with bedroom locks are the most suitable and safe way of implementing gender-neutral housing. Harvard and Brown both offer very different models. The wide availability of gender-neutral housing and a limited number of available suites (which either mixed or single gender groups could select) led Brown to expand the types of housing available to include doubles, only to find that the demand was almost negligible. Harvard, unless it goes on a building spree (unlikely in this economy), also has a limited number of suites and has limited its program to students with a demonstrable need. According to Marco Chan, arrangements are made directly with the Director of Student Life who makes housing arrangements for students within their college. One down side of this approach is that it would appear to give transgender students priority in housing with regard to singles and suites, usually considered favorable housing options, in contrast to other universities where mixed groups participate in general room selection with everyone else. Other universities, apart from Harvard’s need-specific program, have not addressed the possibility of students in relationships taking advantage of gender-neutral housing. Brown’s housing website was also the only one on which I was able to find a statement from the university discouraging students in a relationship from rooming together.
Princeton’s new initiative in gender-neutral housing does not appear to be tailored to the needs of transgender individuals, but be shaped more along the lines of Brown, University of Pennsylvania, and Dartmouth. Mixed gender draw groups will not be given any preference in room draw, and the rule that at least half of the roommates in Spelman suites must be nonaffiliated with an eating club will remain. It would seem that the University’s primary concern in instituting gender-neutral housing is not ensuring that transgender students are comfortable, otherwise housing for sophomores would also be made available. Otherwise why limit gender-neutral housing to upperclassmen? Also, affiliated transgender students would be unable to take advantage of the program if their closest friends, who were willing to live in a mixed group, were also affiliated with an eating club. Even if a transgendered student were to put together a mixed draw group that included affiliated and independent students, given that Spelman is in high demand they might not get a place. Especially given the increasing demand for housing in Spelman by independent students and a lack of other housing with easily accessible kitchens, the introduction of gender-neutral housing is harder to justify. Other dormitories would have been suitable and could easily have locked bedrooms, including Scully, where individual rooms share an adjoining bathroom, as well as other dorms with three room or two room doubles. This would have had the added advantage of not relegating gender-neutral housing to only one dormitory, as most other universities have taken care to do in order to avoid a possible stigma associated with a particular dormitory. As it stands, the current program will create a different type of housing for which there is little demand, and which does not even ensure that the program is easily accessible to those students who actually have a need. It has simply added one more factor to the competitiveness of Spelman, hurting independent students.