When Harry Met Sally … in the same dorm room


You and your best friend are the perfect match. You share countless qualities: You both like to go to bed early, stay organized, listen to Lady Gaga — even eat cold pizza.

You and your best friend are the perfect match. You share countless qualities: You both like to go to bed early, stay organized, listen to Lady Gaga — even eat cold pizza.

But one of the few qualities you do not share is gender, and, according to your school's housing policy, this means you cannot share a room.

LGBT rights advocates say that traditional housing arrangements, which require that roommates identify as the same gender, are antiquated and unfair, while some straight students insist that they should be allowed to room regardless of gender.

But many parents, students and officials assert that the traditional policy is necessary to regulate student behavior.

This year, though, more than 30 colleges nationwide have launched unprecedented gender-neutral, or gender-blind, housing policies. Such a policy permits upperclassmen to select their own roommates, with no restrictions on gender.

Philadelphia-area colleges have varying positions on gender-neutral housing. The University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College and Swarthmore College implemented gender-neutral policies within the last few years. Drexel University, Villanova University and Chestnut Hill College — the latter two are Catholic and Jesuit, respectively — do not offer co-ed rooms.

A housing spokesperson at Temple University said that the school offers co-ed floors in some buildings, but no co-ed rooms or suites.

Nationwide, participating schools include Cornell, Stanford, Sarah Lawrence, the University of Michigan and Dartmouth.

Jeffrey Chang is the co-founder of the National Student Genderblind Campaign, a grass-roots advocacy organization "for gender-neutral and LGBT-affirmative policies on college campuses."

The group's Web site calls traditional housing policies "relics of an outdated past — a time when all students were assumed to be straight, transgender and queer identities were brushed aside, and friendships between men and women were less common."

Columbia University is one school currently debating gender-neutral housing. Sean Udell, president of the Columbia College Class of 2011 and leader of the Columbia Genderblind Housing Initiative, said that the newly proposed policy goes beyond those gay males and straight females most comfortable in a "Will & Grace"-style existence.

"Our policy is first and foremost for transgender and gender-nonconforming students who don't feel comfortable with the current housing options," said Udell. "This is taking gender out of the equation."

The group's initial policy proposal in December 2009 attracted considerable attention from local and national media, much of it negative. The first line of a New York Post article said that Columbia students would be "living in sin — on their parents' dime."

Udell's organization's website directly responds to the "living in sin" notion, pointing out that "the current policy allows homosexual couples to live together, and the implementation of this [new] policy would eliminate a double standard."

The Columbia proposal passed almost unanimously in the university's student senate. But just days before housing selection began in February, Dean of Students Kevin Shollenberger announced that the policy would not be considered, due to insufficient student support.

"As a dad, I'd feel a little awkward about it," said Bill Clarke of Bedford, N.Y., whose daughter is a prospective New York University student. The university currently allows mixed-sex suitemates, and is considering offering gender-blind rooms.

"It should be a kid's choice, but then again, they're still kids," said one mother of another prospective NYU student who wished to remain anonymous. "I would trust my son, but I'm not sure everyone's mature enough."

Ross Maxwell is the housing services coordinator at Occidental College in Los Angeles, which introduced three gender-neutral rooms in 2009.

"We've expanded it quite a bit this year and added a lot more rooms," he said. "So far, we haven't had a whole lot of complaints, but I think it helps that our institution is small and our student body is more liberal."

Still, the idea of co-ed roommates irks some students and officials at other colleges. "I would be afraid as a male that if I had conflicts, the female would always win, and say I tried to sexually harass them," said Mark Cubbage, a junior at Bridgewater College in Bridgewater, Va.

According to a recent study by Brian Willoughby, professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, "co-ed dorms seem to be associated with higher levels of risk-taking."

"I'm sure there's some social value to the traditional policy," said Udell. "But really it's about choice. Everyone at this school is an adult, and should be able to make decisions for themselves."


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