There was a time, and not long ago, when the idea of Jack rooming with Jill seemed as radical as, say, a boy visiting a girl in her dorm room without a copy of War and Peace (or maybe something slimmer -- Silas Marner?) holding the door ajar.
How quickly policies become quaint. Today, The National Student Genderblind Campaign  -- a new, student-run organization dedicated to sharing resources for students seeking on-campus “gender-neutral" housing options – counts about two dozen institutions with a mixed-gender rooming alternative already in place, and many more actively discussing the option. Students often push for these policies not so Jack and Jill can tumble around, but to provide a housing alternative that some gay, lesbian and transgender students may be more comfortable with.
As Genderblind argues, "Gender-neutral housing policies provide options for transgender students, students in the process of discovering their gender identity, gay or bisexual students who feel uncomfortable with rooming with members of the same sex, intersex students who do not wish to be identified by any sex, and students who feel that they would cooperate better with a roommate of the opposite sex. The NSGC believes that current policies, without gender-neutral options, reflect a time of institutionalized heterosexism that marginalizes countless students today."
“The momentum is here; it’s no longer just a couple of schools,” said Jeffrey Chang, associate director of Genderblind and a sophomore at Clark University, in Massachusetts, where he wrote a successful proposal to offer a “gender neutral” option on campus. “Five years ago, probably just a handful, three to five schools, had this type of housing. Now the momentum is going -- I can’t use that word enough.”
He added: “We felt that the momentum was great and we needed to step up to the plate and found an organization that could give advice, that could give feedback, that could share resources, and really form a community for those who want to bring it to their college."
Clark University is the most recent institution to join the group of institutions -- liberal arts colleges, among them Bennington, Colorado, Haverford, Oberlin, Sarah Lawrence, Swarthmore and Wesleyan Colleges; a couple of Ivies, including the University of Pennsylvania; and state institutions, like the University of California at Riverside and the University of Southern Maine -- that Genderblind has identified as offering gender-neutral housing options, primarily for upperclassmen only.
“To be really honest, there were very few concerns that were raised,” said Denise Darrigrand, dean of students at Clark, where a newly announced gender-neutral housing option will be available for students starting fall 2007. “If you won’t put a male and a female together because of concerns about sexual tension, isn’t that a heterosexist assumption?”
That’s not to say the policies don’t risk inciting considerable ire. “We’re fighting against traditional gender norms all the time,” said Chang. The mixed-gender options have been criticized on a number of fronts, among them that they encourage sexual promiscuity, increase the risk of sexual assault and shield students from having to learn how to get along and live with someone of their own gender.
And in a 2004 Dartmouth Independent opinion piece , Michael B. Greene questioned whether they result in self-segregation: "And if gender is legitimate grounds for rejecting a potential roommate, wouldn’t race, religion, sexuality and the like also be rationale for requesting a special living arrangement? Where would the College draw the line on appeasing demands for special housing? Clearly, the College would be amiss in opening up the Pandora’s Box to this kind of self-segregation." (Genderblind says a campaign for mixed gender housing is continuing at Dartmouth).
At some institutions, the measures have proved to be broadly popular. At Washington University in St. Louis, where Rob Wild, the associate director of residential life, expects a formal proposal for gender-neutral housing will be presented to the administration soon, 67 percent of students responding to a survey supported mixed-gender housing, 22 percent were indifferent and 11 percent were opposed. “We have had some student interest in it. We want, like every university, to be adaptable to the students’ needs,” said Wild, who added that evidence from institutions with the gender-neutral housing option already in place suggests that concerns about the increased risk of sexual assault and heterosexual couples rooming together is generally misplaced -- an argument Darrigrand, who worked for Wesleyan before coming to Clark, seconded.
“Rarely, if ever, do a male and a female who are involved live together,” Darrigrand said, indicating that typically transgender and gay students take advantage of the alternative, along with close heterosexual friends.
Students from about 50 different institutions nationwide have logged onto the Genderblind Web site , said Chang. “We really discovered that schools across the country were facing this issue. What was most interesting was that this transcended all geographic barriers, all notions of urban and rural, of red and blue states.”
Genderblind’s Web site, which began this summer, is run by Chang and David Norton, a Guilford College student and the organization's executive director. The organization’s online-only presence has kept costs down as the two leaders seek outside funding, Chang said -- and take advantage of a movement that, if Web hits are any indication, is percolating. “It’s very infectious.”