May 25, 2007

Gender-neutral housing gets overwhelming IHC pass

The Inter-House Council (IHC) passed a non-binding resolution Tuesday recommending that University administration and housing officials adopt a gender-neutral housing policy that would allow students living in University housing to select roommates “without restriction based on birth-assigned gender or gender identification.”

The resolution, which passed by a vote of 15-1, was the result of what first-year IHC member Christopher Williams called “a major student concern” that had been brought to IHC’s attention.

The approved resolution will be presented to University housing officials, who will work with IHC to discuss possibilities for the implementation of the resolution, Williams said.

The issue of gender-blind housing options on university campuses is one that has received increased attention in recent years, as growing numbers of students have pressed administrators to adopt policies that recognize personal gender identification, the gender with which a person identifies, regardless of biological sex.

Universities nationwide have adopted or amended their non-discrimination statements to include gender identity, and several have implemented housing policies that give students broader options when it comes to selecting roommates.

In February, Harvard University adopted a formalized process by which students who identify as transgendered can obtain gender-neutral housing. At the University of Pennsylvania, all non-freshman students, whether or not they are transgendered, can elect to live with members of the opposite sex. Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Swarthmore College, among others, have adopted similar policies.

While the University’s non-discrimination policy does not specify gender identity, second-year IHC member Debra Noe said that “the ideals embodied in that statement reflect what we’re trying to do with our proposal.”

While it is not yet clear if or how the housing office will adopt the resolution or take steps to begin implementing it, “they are working closely with us and encouraged us to continue working on this,” Williams said.

The transition to gender-blind housing would not eliminate single-sex floors in University buildings, Williams and Noe said.

IHC hopes that once adopted by administrators, the proposal will make it possible for designated spaces within the housing system to be devoted specifically for gender-blind housing, Williams and Noe said. While recognizing that the policy would not be in place by the start of the coming school year, they hope that the option would be available to students by fall of 2008. Asked about the possibility of designating such a space in the new dorm building being constructed south of the Midway, Williams said that any concrete plans would be the result of dialogue between students and the administration.

IHC began investigating the possibility of gender-blind housing after being alerted of the desire, at least of some students, for the option. The group formed a subcommittee charged with researching the issue and, assuming feasibility and sufficient student demand, drafting an appropriate proposal.

“The housing office does not make considerations based on gender identity, so we have to resolve this issue in some way. Part of the reason for doing this is that this is what students asked for. They didn’t ask to be able to go in a single. They asked to be able to live with any roommate they chose to live with,” Williams said.

A housing system–wide survey conducted by the subcommittee yielded encouraging results that affirmed general acceptance of such a policy, committee members said.

“You have most people in the center, who could go either way. They’re not strongly in favor of it but they don’t have anything against it,” Noe said.

But Greg Kubarych, the only member of IHC to vote against the resolution, saw some potential problems with the proposal as it was presented to the voting body.

“You’re going to have essentially just guys and girls living together. From the University’s perspective, that’s a really dangerous thing. You’ve got massive potential for lawsuits,” Kubarych said. Among the potential problems arising from allowing any student to live with a member of the opposite sex, he said, were sexual assault or uncomfortable situations for couples whose relationships unexpectedly ended.

While he is not opposed in principle to adopting a gender-blind housing policy, Kubarych said he would prefer to see the resolution first narrowly tailored, like Harvard’s, to apply “to people who really need it, and by that, I mean students who are uncomfortable living with someone of the same sex,” such as transgendered students.

If the policy were successful, Kubarych said he would be open to extending the option to any student who wanted to live with the opposite sex, but he believes there should be a strict application process in those cases.