Gender-neutral housing approved for2009 quarter after two years of debate

Open Housing pilot program will allow opposite sexes to live in dorm rooms together

By Asher Klein

University administrators announced Friday that a gender-neutral housing option will be available to upperclassmen starting next quarter. The option, called Open Housing, will allow students to live in campus housing with members of the opposite sex. It will be available in all houses, except those that are already same-sex only.

A plan submitted to the administration last year by the Inter-House Council (IHC) had been widely expected to pass in time for this school year, but Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students Kim Goff-Crews postponed approving the plan to conduct further investigation into gender-neutral housing.

Open Housing is a pilot program, but it is slated to go into full effect in the fall of 2009, said Director of Undergraduate Student Housing Katie Callow-Wright. It will undergo review after a year to determine if it will be continued indefinitely.

The mechanics of room changes and the room sign-up process will not change, nor will anyone be forced to live with a member of the opposite sex. There will be no limit to the number of gender-neutral rooms allowed in the housing system. While the housing office said it is hard to estimate how many students will choose Open Housing, peer institutions with gender-neutral housing report that two to four percent of students in housing live in gender-neutral rooms.

Other institutions that offer gender-neutral options include Carnegie-Mellon University, Brown University, Dartmouth College, New York University, Princeton University, Stanford University, Washington University in St. Louis, Harvard University, and the University of Pennsylvania, according to the U of C housing website.

No one will have to give a reason for choosing the option, Callow-Wright said, in the same way that no one has to give a reason for one’s roommate choice now. This means that heterosexual couples could conceivably live together, but according to the U of C housing website, “The Open Housing option is not intended for romantic couples.”

The Open Housing initiative was proposed by the IHC two years ago and represents the end of a long, and at times fraught, debate on campus.

“There was strong momentum for this policy from students, and we heard clearly that there was a need and that many people beyond those who experience the need support meeting it,” Callow-Wright said.

Callow-Wright said the extension of the option to incoming first-years will be considered during the 2010 review, but any matriculating student who would prefer gender-neutral rooming will be considered on a case-by-case basis by her office.

The initiative will have large implications for the University’s transgender community, which was involved in discussions throughout the process. Transgender students can feel uncomfortable when forced to room with students that share their biological—but not self-identified—gender, said third-year Antonia Clifford, the director of Queers and Associates.

Queers and Associates, an LGBTQ advocacy group on campus, was a strong proponent of gender-neutral housing. Clifford called the measure “a step forward.”

According to Callow-Wright, her office began monitoring a gender-neutral housing trend at other schools in 2006. This was around the same time University students began talking about implementing a similar policy at the U of C, she said.

To study the potential effects of gender-neutral housing, IHC convened a committee two years ago calling for open housing but did not outline what a plan would look like. Callow-Wright then called together IHC representatives, resident staff, a college adviser, and other students to create a concrete outline, leading to the current plan.

Despite active debate last year, Open Housing “dropped off our radar” in the spring, Clifford said, when Goff-Crews announced that it would not be implemented until at least January 2009.

Nevertheless, the Housing Office’s approach impressed Clifford.

“This was a surprise for us that it went through,” she said. “[The outcome says to me] ‘this isn’t just an issue for transgender students, but all students.’”

Nassira Nicola, a graduate student and one of the co-facilitators of Pronoun Hoedown, a group for trans, gender-queer, questioning, and allied students, is looking forward to the change. “In time,” she wrote in an e-mail, “when the program turns out to be the success that we’re all expecting, I hope we’ll be able to implement it even more broadly.”