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Office of Student Life Develops Gender-Neutral Housing Policy

By Alice E. M. Underwood, Crimson Staff Writer

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.

“My interest as chair of TTF is to make sure that any future policies prioritize the needs of gender-nonconforming students,” she says, adding that the current case-by-case basis system is successful in fulfilling most needs.

THE PROCESS

According to administrators, students who put in a request for gender-neutral housing must consult with the OSL and their House about their needs.

Associate Dean of Student Life Joshua G. McIntosh says there was some debate about placing students with gender-based needs in Houses that could better accommodate their needs architecturally, but that the OSL ruled to maintain the current housing lottery system.

“We wanted to continue the randomization process that allows the diverse communities we see in the Houses,” says McIntosh.

He adds that the OSL is working with the Houses to keep these students in the lottery without isolating them in singles far from their friends.

“We’re committed to trying to bring people from different backgrounds together while being as inclusive as we can of transgender students and others,” he says.

Rosenberg agrees that this is the best way to approach providing gender-neutral housing without making students feel segregated.

“Because the Houses differ so greatly, it’s almost impossible to imagine a blanket policy,” she says. “But it’s important to have a general policy to let students know their needs will be met and also an individual policy to put into practice.”

THE LIMITS

Though differences between House structure make a universal solution unrealistic, the Report on Harvard House Renewal—which includes guidelines for the physical renovation of the Houses aimed to enhance residential life—includes recommendations that “examine housing policies related to the availability of gender-neutral housing.”

In order to make such living arrangements an architectural possibility, the Report suggests eliminating walkthroughs and fitting locks on all bathroom doors and private bedrooms within suites, as the College policy requires that bedroom occupants be of the same gender even in mixed-gender suites.

According to McIntosh, housing students of different genders in separate bedrooms with personal bathrooms within the same suite is difficult in certain Houses.

“We can’t put locks on many of our bedroom doors because many times locking a door prevents access to either a bathroom or a mode of egress,” he says.

He adds that the OSL determined which suites in which Houses could fit these architectural requirements for gender-neutral housing.

“We can provide gender-neutral housing in every House but there are significant constraints given the number of students living there,” he says, clarifying that bedrooms for more than one resident cannot be included because of the ban on mixed-gender bedrooms.

WHAT’S NEXT

Emphasizing the importance of providing for students with the greatest need first, QSA Co-Chair Marco Chan ’11 says it is important to make the undergraduate population at large aware of the current policies. Though the current OSL website contains information regarding gender-neutral housing, this information is rather difficult to find, and it should not be presumed that the QSA or TTF will get information to people on a need-to-know basis.

“Whether with websites, House literature, or otherwise, this needs to be made as visible and explicit as possible,” says Chan, noting that greater visibility will benefit not only those who want gender-neutral housing, but will also serve as “an affirmation of the College’s dedication to gender-nonconforming students as a part of student community with a set of needs we all need to actively think about.”

The OSL is working to address these issues without appearing to require that students “come out” to the College. For example, the OSL is developing a database to manage information about preferred nickname and gender. Housing questionnaires now include boxes marked “transgender” and “other,” accompanied by a text box for self-identification.

Chan says most members of the QSA are pleased with the progress, but they add that more must be done.

“The onus is on the College administration to be proactive in disseminating information,” Chan says. “Inclusion and safety for all students is the college’s responsibility.”

—Staff writer Alice E.M. Underwood can be reached at aeunderw@fas.harvard.edu.

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Undergraduate CouncilStudent LifeLGBT