Rutgers University announced this month that it will allow boys and girls to room together next year, responding to the September suicide of student Tyler Clementi, who was harassed by his roommate for being gay. Rutgers joins a growing number of universities, including Stanford, which have created gender-neutral housing in an effort to make campuses more inclusive for gay students.
Gender-neutral housing, which started in the Northeast, initially for transgendered people, has now expanded to universities across the country, said Danielle Askini, national program manager for the Gay-Straight Alliance Network.
“One of the biggest things that gender-neutral housing offers is a safe space for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender) community,” said Stanford undergraduate Jason Carter, who rooms with a girl.
Stanford piloted a gender-neutral housing option in 2008, and after deciding that it was successful, the university instituted it as a permanent option in 2009. The option arose after gay students expressed social vulnerability living with students of the same gender.
At Yale University, “Students have been requesting it for years,” said Associate Dean for Student Organizations and Physical Resources John Meeske. “But I never heard complaints about gay roommates. It was more, gay students who sometimes felt uncomfortable with straight roommates.”
Students, many straight, are now asking that the program be expanded across many campuses -– but, contrary to what some campus leaders expected, students rarely request the option because they’re in romantic relationships.
Columbia University, George Washington University, Emory University, Beloit College and SUNY Stony Brook have all added gender-neutral housing options in the past year, according to the nationwide network of student activists and the National Student Genderblind Campaign, a nonprofit group.
Princeton University removed gender requirements from one of the campus’s upperclassman apartment buildings this year, after 36 students requested gender-neutral housing, the university’s Undergraduate Housing Manager Angela Hodgeman said in an email.
Yale University also began offering gender-neutral housing this year, when 35 seniors chose the option, Meeske said in an email. He said he’s heard “only a handful of complaints” from alumni, and none from students or parents.
Many of these schools, including Yale, do discourage romantic couples from selecting gender-neutral housing.
Askini said her school, the University of Southern Maine, made students sign statements saying they wouldn’t have an intimate relationship with roommates, “based off of the old-school notion that you can stop people from doing it.”
But most of the schools say that rather than worrying about the moral implications of having young men and women share the same room, they’re more concerned about not wanting to arbitrate students’ relationship woes.
Yale and Stanford both require individual sleeping areas to be single sex — although Stanford allows its self-managed cooperative houses to allow residents to compose their own room assignments (and gender configurations) in consensus meetings.
Stanford student Holly Fetter put a rainbow flag outside her door last year because she identifies herself as lesbian. But some people then thought that meant she was dating her female roommate, she said. “My roommate felt awkward because there was this assumption that she was also lesbian, which was totally unfounded and ridiculous.”
Stanford Executive Director of Student Housing Roger Whitney said in an email that he has not heard any concerns or problems with Stanford’s gender-neutral housing.
Stanford doesn’t track the number of gender-neutral room assignments because the assignments are made during the in-house draw process within each residence. “We maintain rosters of residents and their assignments, but do not have any reason to register gender-neutral assignments on those rosters,” Whitney said in an email.
College administrators say they are finding that the these programs succeed because they don’t address just the needs of gay students. Many straight students also prefer rooming with straight members of the opposite sex—even without romantic intent.
“There’s this misconception that by living with someone of the opposite sex, and having both be straight, that it necessarily has to be some sort of physical, sexual relationship and that it can’t be platonic,” Stanford student Autumn Albers said. She and her male roommate are both straight.
“My male roommate is just my friend, as have been all of the other guys that I’ve lived with,” she noted.
Albers said her boyfriend doesn’t get jealous but added that he’s probably an exception.
Other misconceptions include the notion that only women and gay guys live in gender-neutral rooms, Stanford undergraduate Sam Storey said.
Stanford students Caleb Jordan and Isabella Arzeno room together in one of the school’s cooperative houses. In the past, they both lived in single-gender rooms. They said that rooming with both genders has been a great education. Jordan feels that many students go through college without learning enough about the opposite sex and that, by living with girls, he has received an enhanced college experience.
“I feel most guys are still absolutely mystified by girls,” Jordan explained. “Now I understand people a lot better.”
“I’m really glad that gender-neutral housing exists,” Arzeno added. “Caleb is the best friend I could ask for, and being able to live with him has made this quarter absolutely amazing.”
Mixed-gender rooms can also benefit the community, Fetter said. She said she believes that having gay and lesbian neighbors and roommates are “good for the house, in changing the dynamics and making it less rigid and gendered.”
Stanford students now suggest that the university make the gender-neutral housing option more visible, particularly for incoming freshmen.
“I didn’t even know that you could have a gender-neutral room until the end of my freshman year,” Arzeno said.
Her roommate Jordan added, “If incoming freshmen have no idea gender-neutral housing is even possible, they’re not going to ask, and then they might spend their entire year being miserable or unhappy or really confused.”
Jordan and Storey both said they probably would have chosen mixed-gender housing for their freshman years, if they had known it was an option, because they’re usually closer and more comfortable with women.
Stanford’s gender-neutral housing program, however, isn’t without its hiccups. During the fall, the only gender-neutral bathroom in the Castaño dorm was converted into a male bathroom, Carter said. Residence staff converted the bathroom back to gender-neutral after Carter and his roommate objected.
“There needs to be more knowledge about LGBT identities in Stanford Housing and Residential Education,” Fetter noted, “especially transgender identities.”