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Equal Housing, Unequal Houses

Despite acceptance of gender-neutral housing, policies vary widely across Houses, with inconsistent policies

By Quynh-Nhu Le, Contributing Writer

Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16 was disappointed when Cabot House administrators did not agree to consider his request for mixed-gender housing last spring.

According to Blecher-Cohen, House administrators said that they wanted to get to know his blocking group while they were sophomores before placing them in a mixed-gender suite.

Disturbed by the varying accessibility of mixed-gender housing within the House, Blecher-Cohen and his blockmates engaged with Cabot staff in person and via email throughout the summer and fall until they convinced administrators to begin offering mixed-gender housing—formerly available only for juniors and seniors in the House—to sophomores starting next fall.

Blecher-Cohen is not alone in his desire for increased access to gender-neutral housing. As students have cast their votes in this year’s Undergraduate Council election, they have also been able to vote on a referendum, which made its way to the ballot after over 700 students signed a petition to make gender-neutral housing options available to all students.

The referendum, which is being voted upon through tomorrow evening, is the latest demonstration of student activism around the issue of gender-neutral housing, a movement born out of frustration with the inconsistent implementation and problematic stipulations that some students perceive in the College’s current policy.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

Though the push for gender-neutral housing at Harvard has gained momentum in recent years, some students remain dissatisfied with the conditions they must meet in order to guarantee their desired housing option.

The Office of Student Life first formalized a gender-neutral housing policy for the College in April 2010. As stated on its website, the OSL allows mixed-gender rooming on a case-by-case basis “in certain circumstances, such as to accommodate students with a gender-based need (i.e. transgender students).” The policy requires that the mixed-gender suites contain single-gender bedrooms with door locks.

But when applied to Houses with few singles and many walk-through bedrooms, these policies effectively restrict the number of potential mixed-gender suites, says W. Powell Eddins ’16, political co-chair of Queer Students and Allies.

In response to Houses’ limited abilities to meet demand for mixed-gender suites, the College relaxed the single-gender bedroom and lock stipulations through a pilot program that launched in June 2011. According to a University press release, the program, which at the time comprised five undergraduate Houses and the Dudley Housing Cooperative, would enable the College to better understand the operational issues involved in implementing gender-neutral housing.

Despite these advances, some students still say that mixed-gender housing should be available to all students rather than on the College’s terms.

“If everyone could just have gender-neutral housing, it would be so much better,” says M.G., a transgender student who asked to be identified only by his initials.

In the spring of his freshman year, M.G. met with a representative from the OSL to request placement in gender-neutral housing.

The OSL guaranteed this by placing M.G. in a special housing lottery that included only the Houses participating in the pilot program.

Though he currently lives in a gender-neutral double, M.G. says that he did not feel fully comfortable discussing his gender identity with administrators that he had never met before.

M.G. says that he does not think Harvard should be able to determine the circumstances in which students need gender-neutral housing, and that the policy’s stipulations could be problematic for students who cannot successfully demonstrate their need to administrators.

“I’m happy that the College provides that option, but that’s as [Harvard] deem[s] it’s necessary,” he says. “I was on a lot of radars as a transgender student. It was deemed I had a ‘need’ and not a ‘want.’ But I’m sure it could pose a lot of problems for other students.”

PROBLEMS WITH THE PILOT

While the pilot program allows students without a gender-based need to request mixed-gender housing, some students cite further obstacles related to inconsistent and unclear policies within the program.

“Access to gender-neutral housing absolutely depends on which House you’re in,” says Eddins, who has worked to erase this difference by encouraging Houses to join the pilot program, which now includes eight Houses.

For example, Blecher-Cohen and his blockmates were denied gender-neutral housing in Cabot because they were sophomores, a policy that he says discriminates between single- and mixed-gender suites.

“With single-gendered suites, if there’s an issue, no one makes the assumption that the problem came from the fact that it’s single-gendered,” he says.

Meanwhile, Adams House, which is also in the pilot program, permits all students to apply for the alternative housing option. According to Marcy Holabaugh, Adams House Administrator, students who want a mixed-gender suite need only sign an additional form later in the rooming process.

Blecher-Cohen, who has discussed this issue with OSL and House administrators, says that he finds Harvard’s gender-neutral housing system very decentralized. It was unclear, he says, when and with whom he was meant to speak with while exploring the option.

Jordan T. Weiers ’16, one of Winthrop’s UC representatives and an organizer of the gender-neutral housing referendum petition, agrees. Reflecting on his experience seeking gender-neutral housing last year, he says, “It was clear that no one was in charge of it. It wasn’t really moving forward at all.”

Part of the problem, according to Weiers’ roommate and fellow referendum organizer Brianna J. Suslovic ’16, is that ambiguous information has been passed around through word of mouth, but not through a policy or formalized evaluation of the pilot program.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

According to College spokesperson Jeff Neal, the College is currently evaluating the pilot program.

“Historically, like many peer institutions, the College long required single-gender living arrangements,” he says. “As planned, the College is engaged this year in a review of the pilot program, and looks forward to learning more about student views on this issue as a part of that review.”

Harvard’s re-evaluation of its housing policies mirrors discussions taking place at other Ivy League colleges. Nearly all have expanded gender-neutral housing options for students in recent years, with the University of Pennsylvania leading the pack in offering gender-neutral housing to all upperclassmen beginning in 2005. Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale have all launched gender-neutral housing pilot programs in recent years.

Eddins says that the actions of other Ivies have highlighted that Harvard “is way behind on gender-neutral housing,” and, comparing participation in the pilot program to a “states’ rights”-style ratification system, continues to work to recruit Houses into the program.

Students like Sasanka N. Jinadasa ’15, a member of the Queer Advisory Council, stress that while the referendum represents a step forward in expanding awareness of and universalizing access to gender-neutral housing, it will not necessarily compel administrators to take action.

“Even if the referendum passes, we need to petition the House masters to support gender-inclusive housing policies in all the Houses,” she says.

This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification:

CLARIFICATION: Nov. 22, 2013

An earlier version of this article stated that Cabot House administrators denied Joshua D. Blecher-Cohen ’16’s request for mixed-gender housing last spring. To clarify, House administrators did not agree to consider his request.

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