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Gender Neutral Housing: A Quiet Revolution

This January, Ohio University (OU) witnessed a minor housing revolution when the administration approved a policy to allow students of different genders to share the same living space. But if that shakeup passed you by unnoticed—you’re not the only one. The new policy ruffled few feathers, either in the University community or beyond its borders.

The OU policy is part of a quiet movement that has taken hold at universities across the United States for “gender-neutral” housing, a catchall term for policies that allow students of different genders to share campus living accommodations.

In place at more than 50 universities nationwide, gender-neutral housing policies run a wide spectrum, from Yale, where seniors of different sexes can share suites—but not bedrooms—in certain dormitories, to Hampshire College, which since 1970 has allowed every student to choose roommates regardless of gender. But all of these policies all share a common trait: They give adult students the right to decide who they feel most safe and comfortable sharing their living space with.

In the mixed-up history of American higher education, that’s a pretty radical idea, but the spread of gender-neutral housing on campuses nationwide has happened nearly silently. This fall alone, Columbia, George Washington, Emory, Ohio University, and Beloit Collegehave approved some form of opposite-sex roommate pairings. And though some people might get squeamish at the idea, the process at most of those schools was startling drama free. Students made a proposal, the administration accepted, and the university rolled out a pilot program.

“It is our hope that this … program will broaden students’ choices and help ensure living arrangements that are welcoming and inclusive for all members of our community,” two Columbia University deans told their student newspaper in November.

Such an accepting attitude reveals gender-neutral housing for what it really is: Not a big deal. But that’s why it’s all the more startling to see the gap that is opening up between schools where students can choose the sex of their roommate and those where they still can’t. Away from the coasts and elite private institutions, gender-neutral housing remains a rare exception [PDF], meaning that the vast majority of American college students who live on their campus are still hemmed in by an antiquated sex-segregated system.

As long as the ability to determine the sex of your roommate remains a privilege afforded only to a few, only that minority will reap the benefits of the more open and safe living space that gender neutral housing enables. And in a country where class, race and geography already play a tremendous role in determining who is able to pursue a college degree, the last thing the system of higher education needs to be doing is creating more social divides.

Ryan Brown is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can e-mail her at ryan.brown@duke.edu.

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