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Colleges Going Gender-Neutral with Co-Ed Dorms

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Living on campus can definitely be one of the best aspects of your entire college experience, but we’ve all heard the horror stories about freshmen being forced to live with incompatible (translation—annoying!) roommates for an entire school year.

These days, colleges use questionnaires, compatibility tests, even roommate-matching websites and Facebook apps to pair up incoming freshmen, and although most schools offer co-ed residence halls, dorm rooms are typically segregated by sex—-women live with women and men live with men. However, colleges with co-ed dorm rooms—rooms in which a female student lives with a male student—are growing in popularity and experts are hoping that the trend catches on.

Evolution of College Dorms

According to The L.A. Times, most U.S. colleges and universities eventually transitioned from single-sex dorm buildings to co-ed residence halls with males and females housed on separate floors or wings. Co-ed hallways and bathrooms soon followed, and some colleges are now allowing students of the opposite sex to be roomies.

Rutgers University Offering Co-Ed Dorm Rooms

Following the Tyler Clementi tragedy—the 18-year-old freshman committed suicide in September 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed and posted a video online of a sexual encounter between Clementi and another male—Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ has decided to offer students the option of living with roommates of the opposite sex.

As reported by ABC News in March 2011, Clementi’s suicide sparked a nationwide debate over bullying, particularly the bullying of gay youth.

Although it’s been speculated that Rutgers’ co-ed dorm room decision had to do with Clementi’s suicide, an announcement issued by the university stated “This has been under discussion for a long time. Many other universities around the country already have gender neutral housing. In the aftermath of the Clementi tragedy, members of the university’s LGBTQ community told the administration that gender neutral housing would help create an even more inclusive environment. Since then, the university has been exploring this in greater detail.”

Jenny Kurtz, director of the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, explained to the media that with Rutgers’ gender-neutral housing pilot program, select upperclassmen will be able to choose specific roommates of the opposite sex. The Rutgers campuses will offer gender-neutral housing in designated halls or floors.

Ohio University Trying Out Co-Ed Dorms

Ohio University in Athens, OH also decided to make co-ed dorms available on specific floors in three of its residence halls. The one-year test program is being held to see if officials will make the gender-neutral housing program permanent, The Columbus Dispatch reported in January 2011.

Student activists had been campaigning for the program as a way to help gay and transgender students feel more comfortable on campus, but Ohio University’s housing officials feel that it’s a way to allow all students, regardless of sexual orientation, to choose compatible roommates.

“I think a lot of college presidents would shy away from this opportunity because it has the potential to upset some parents and alumni,” Kent Smith, vice president for student affairs, told the media. “But I think it is the right decision since we have such a diversity of students.”

Working Together for Gender Equality

Ohio and Rutgers are not alone. According to the National Student Genderblind Campaign, a grassroots network of student activists working toward broader gender equality, more and more college campuses across the country are embracing co-ed dorms as a method of creating a safer environment for all students, particularly those that consider themselves LGBT. Columbia University, George Washington University, Emory University, Beloit College, SUNY Stony Brook, Ramapo College and the University of Michigan have all started or approved various gender-neutral housing plans.

Grinnell College Adds Gender-Neutral Locker Rooms

In addition to being the state of Iowa’s only college to offer co-ed dorm options three years ago, Grinnell College took things a step further. The college offers students the choice to share bathrooms, shower rooms, or locker rooms with anyone they choose—male, female, straight, gay, lesbian, or transgender.

USA Today reports that the idea was the spark of transgender students who don’t identify themselves as either male or female and students transitioning from one gender to the other. “It’s about creating a safe and welcoming space. It’s not about being able to room with your significant other,” Grinnell senior Lily Cross, who helped persuade school officials to offer gender-neutral housing, told reporters who wondered if romantic couples will try to become roommies.

Catholic University Phasing Out Co-Ed Dorms

At the other end of the spectrum, Catholic University in Washington, DC is returning to single-sex dorm buildings in hopes of fighting back against binge drinking and casual hookups. The school’s president, John Garvey, acknowledges that the decision is “slightly old-fashioned,” states NPR. Opponents argue that co-ed residence halls are not the root of the problem, and that co-ed dorm mates look out for one another, almost like brothers and sisters.

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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