Office of Student Life Develops Gender-Neutral Housing Policy

From choosing blocking groups to navigating the rooming lottery, Harvard housing can be stressful. But the process can cause even more worries for students who feel out of place living with people of the same gender.

To alleviate at least that aspect of housing anxiety, the Office of Student Life has been working in concert with various student groups to develop a gender-neutral housing policy in which mixed-gender living arrangements could help students feel safer and more comfortable in their House.

THE NEEDS

Though students want to live with members of the opposite sex for a variety of reasons, the OSL prioritizes students with a gender-based need when accommodating requests for gender-neutral housing.

The official policy states that the OSL may, in consultation with the Houses, permit mixed-gender rooming groups “to accommodate students with a gender-based need—i.e., transgender students.”

The OSL met with the UndergraduateCouncil, the Transgender Task Force, and the Harvard Queer Students and Allies to determine this definition.

“The phrasing has been carefully articulated to serve students who may not feel comfortable identifying as transgender or transsexual, but for reasons related to gender identity or gender expression need what is legally considered a mixed-gender housing situation,” says Eva B. Rosenberg ’10, chair of TTF.

Officials say that fostering awareness of the different housing needs that transgender and gender-nonconforming students can have is key to creating rooming arrangements where students can feel comfortable and, above all, safe.

“It is extremely important that students with a gender-based need have access to housing in which they feel safe in their preferred gender identity and expression regardless of medical transition, pronoun preference, or other gender-nonconforming status,” says Rosenberg. She adds that safety includes a student’s physical and mental wellbeing in addition to protection from harassment or abuse.

‘INGRAINED ASSUMPTIONS’

Ryan R. Thoreson ’07—who collaborated with both the UC and the OSL in discussions on gender-neutral housing when he chaired BGLTSA, now QSA—says that though he appreciates the College’s efforts, the required separation of men and women, even by a locked door, raises questions about assumed gender roles and student heterosexuality.

“There are few barriers to choosing the roommate you’re most comfortable with, and gender is one of those barriers,” he says. “If it is an issue of student safety, the architectural limits should be something the administration thinks about for all students and not just students who are heterosexual or presumably in danger of sexual violence.”

Rosenberg agrees that the barriers to mixed-gender housing are based on ingrained assumptions.

“The premise of gender-neutral housing is that women are safer with other women, that men are potential sexual predators, and that sexual attraction is between members of opposite sex only,” she says. “Those assumptions are outdated and often don’t apply.”

Nonetheless, Rosenberg says the College’s attempts to cater to students with gender-based needs have been forward-thinking.

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