By Catherine Weitzel
In addition to new apartment options, Kenyon students will soon gain an even greater variety of housing opportunities. The College gave gender-neutral housing a try this year, offering students the choice to live with roommates of the opposite gender. Because of its success and an overwhelmingly positive response to discussions regarding this issue, Kenyon will offer gender-neutral housing in many upperclassmen areas next year.
“Basically, we will permit upper-class students to choose a roommate of any gender,” said Rebecca Driesen, assistant director for housing and residential life for Mather and McBride Halls. “It’s not across campus in every building; there will still be some specific buildings and halls, plenty of them, that will serve the single-gender experience, but we wanted to accommodate a variety of needs. To live in a gender-neutral area, you wouldn’t have to choose someone of another gender as a roommate, but you could.”
Assistant Dean of Students for Housing and Residential Life and First-Year Dean Alicia Dugas also emphasized the importance of students’ abilities to choose living situations that make them most comfortable. “It’s all about options – we want students to be able to choose what is right for them,” she said.
Though the big-picture aspect of gender-neutral housing is relatively simple, working out the logistics of the new living situations will take some thought. “Whenever you’re changing things, it’s really good to have a big idea, but it always comes out to those little details, and one of those things is that we’ve been talking about, well, what will this mean for our bathrooms?” Dreisen said. “We recognize that not every student is going to want this; not every student is going to want to share a bathroom with people of any gender. So we’re looking at those areas with multiple bathrooms on a floor for having one or two single-gender and one all-gender; that way we can really make sure no one’s being marginalized.” This way, ResLife can ensure the comfort of the greatest possible number of students.
Kenyon will not be the first to implement this housing policy, according to Rachel Walsh ’12, head of the Housing and Dining Committee. “There are several schools of our caliber and size that are also moving towards this housing system,” she said.
Four students are currently living in gender-neutral housing in Mather, according to Walsh. All had to apply for the housing, but the application will not be necessary in the future. The process will be greatly simplified at the upcoming housing lottery.
“There won’t be red and blue dots on rooms in the floor plans at the housing lottery indicating female or male rooms,” Dugas said. “Instead, students of any gender can pick any room, with a roommate of the same gender or opposite.” Some areas, like Watson, Bushnell and Manning Halls, will remain as they are now, to provide single-gender housing to those who are more comfortable in that situation.
One of the major reasons this concept has been so well-received is related to students’ responses in the recent Quality of Life survey. “We added three questions to the end of the survey to gauge how students were feeling about the proposal,” Walsh said. “One, how would they feel living in an area that was gender-neutral housing? Two, would they want to live in that type of housing? And then how they feel about bathrooms?”
Of the 963 students who responded to the survey, 48.18 percent said they would consider living in a gender-neutral area with a roommate of either gender, and 28.76 percent said they would consider living there with a roommate of the same gender. Only 23.05 percent of students said they would not live in a gender-neutral area.
The feedback, needless to say, has been encouraging. “So far it’s been really positive, and even in my informal interactions with students about the change it’s been something they’re really looking forward to, something really worthwhile, which is affirming for us,” Driesen said.
While many students are excited by the policy change, some parents may not be too thrilled. “I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if we heard comments from parents,” President S. Georgia Nugent said. “My guess would be that an argument that people could make against it is they don’t want romantically involved, erotically involved couples living together. That would be the first place that I would think parents might go.”
Some students, however, argue that objections like these overshadow the real value of gender-neutral housing.
Many students are excited to see the campus moving toward a more inclusive housing situation. “My housing situation would have been different this year if gender-neutral housing was a possibility,” said Sara Carminati ’13. “It’s a way to make the campus a far more open and welcoming place. This opens up our community to include intersex or transgender individuals, which is a great thing.”
Robbie Sellers ’14, Unity House co-manager felt similarly. “Gender-neutral housing is necessary for the college community because it provides a safe and comfortable housing situation for LGBTQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning] students,” he said.
The new proposal will benefit the LGBTQ community, but the College hopes it will achieve more than that. “I think that there’s no way to talk about gender-neutral housing and not say, ‘Well, it does serve those students who are GLBT or identify as that,’ and I think that’s awesome. We should be serving those students,” Driesen said. “But I don’t think those are the only students that it serves. It’s cool when you can do something that serves a community that historically has been marginalized, but also serves a broader community.”
In attempting to serve the broader community, however, some students may not feel so comfortable. Daniel Akuma ’14, an international student from Nigeria, expressed some concerns. “I suggest that international students be conferred with immensely on this issue,” he said. “A lot of international students come from cultures where single-gender-by-room residences like McBride need some getting used to, not to talk of single-gender-by-half-of-the-room. While a few of the students might overcome the culture shock speedily, knowing that not everything is going to be like home here, a lot of others will likely find this difficult to live with. Even if all of us are at home with the idea, a lot of our parents freak out on issues like this. Seriously, this is the sort of things they look at when consenting to our studying a thousand miles away from home.”
Parents may have a hard time adjusting to this new idea. “For parents, the concept is a little more shocking than to our generation because it is such a new idea out there,” Walsh said. “But I think it’s a really positive thing, and we want to make as many students feel as comfortable as we can on this campus.”
The accommodation of a variety of needs and situations is, undeniably, a main goal of the gender-neutral housing project.
Driesen stressed that Kenyon students, as adults, are responsible enough to be able to determine the best living situation for themselves.
“This change is really about offering more options to our students and recognizing that people – adults – get to choose who they live with,” she said. “We want our students to be able to do that, to be comfortable in their homes. It’s not about choosing something for someone; it’s a completely opt-in policy. It’s really empowering for students. Just the fact that it’s there demonstrates how much of an inclusive community we are, and that’s one of the really special things about Kenyon – its community – and this holds us to our own standards.”