“When I think about how much housing has impacted my experiences here in ways that others have not had to deal with, it just reminds me that this space wasn’t intended for a student like me. I feel less welcome and less affirmed. And no student should feel that way.”
This testimony from a trans Princeton student clearly demonstrates the particular issues that current University housing policies present for queer, trans, and non-binary students and highlights the need for truly accessible, gender-inclusive living spaces. As the current system stands, there are only a handful of options available to individuals in need of gender-neutral housing — including a box to indicate interest on the matriculation form for incoming first-year students, contact with a residential college Director of Student Life, and plain old luck when it comes to room draw — but access is not guaranteed.*
The limited avenues available for pursuing such housing typically place the onus on queer and non-binary students to secure the basic, everyday conditions for safety and comfort that their peers take for granted. This process forces many LGBTQA students — individuals often the most vulnerable to harassment and assault — to navigate a housing system that may not even recognize their gender identities. Many students would benefit hugely from access to gender-neutral housing, including queer and trans students, as well as cisgendered individuals whose closest friends identify with another gender.
The housing system places a special burden on first-year and sophomore students, given that the vast majority of gender-inclusive living spaces are only available to junors and seniors. Rockefeller College still does not have any gender-neutral rooms, while Wilson, Forbes, and Mathey each only have a few. Housing Services’ “n+1” rule greatly limits the number of rooms available for mixed-gender groups because it stipulates that a living space only qualifies as gender-neutral housing if the space has one more discrete room than the number of inhabitants. Only a relatively small number of rooms on campus meet this requirement.
Lily Gellman ’17, a leader in efforts to increase access to gender-neutral housing, spoke with me about the current status of dialogue among students and administrators regarding the potential for change. While University administration appears to be open to working on improving the system, support among the student body for expanding gender-neutral housing is critical. The University Student Life Committee is voting soon on a proposal to make any room designed for multiple roommates available to mixed-gender draw groups, essentially advocating that Housing Services eliminate the “n+1” rule.
As the system currently stands, students seeking gender-neutral rooms are not given preference over their peers, so these individuals must depend entirely on draw times and room availability in order to secure inclusive housing. The only avenue available to first-years and sophomores entails contacting a residential college’s Director of Student Life or Housing Services, an option that comes with no guarantee of securing inclusive housing. Plus, it establishes an unfair and potentially intimidating expectation for students to divulge what may be intensely private information about their gender and/or sexual identity to complete strangers in positions of power. This is especially true for incoming first-year students, who are unfamiliar with University administrative structures and have no control over roommate arrangements.
Juniors and seniors, however, are not in the clear. In an anonymous guest column published in the ‘Prince’ last spring, the writer explains the particular difficulties that room draw poses for non-binary juniors and seniors. For example, the writer’s draw group with two male friends did not qualify for gender-neutral housing, since Housing and Real Estate Services categorizes draw groups as mixed-gender by the assigned-at-birth sexes of the group members provided by the Office of the Registrar.
Many students need gender-neutral rooms in order to feel safe and at home, inhabiting spaces where they can develop intimate friendships and relationships without fear of judgment, harassment, or worse. Such safe living spaces are especially important for queer students excluded from heteronormative dating and hookup cultures and who feel uncomfortable or unsafe in less private social spaces, where they may face implicit or explicit judgment or harassment from their peers. Five years ago, Rutgers began offering gender-neutral housing after a gay freshman student was filmed, publicly humiliated, and bullied to the point of tragedy. Questions had risen at the time about whether the student had requested a room assignment.
As illustrated by the Editorial Board’s 2009 dissent, critics of gender-neutral housing often base their opposition on the heteronormative assumption that the primary effect of such a policy would be to allow heterosexual couples to room together. This argument only undermines the well-being of students in need of gender-inclusive livings spaces (not to mention that such a moralizing position ignores the fact that students are adults capable of making relationship decisions). In any case, there are now 207 universities that now offer some form of gender-neutral housing and messy (heterosexual) roommate breakups have not yet precipitated societal collapse.
Expanded access to gender-neutral housing would hugely benefit many students, whether they be queer or trans people in need of basic conditions that ensure personal safety and freedom from harassment or, more broadly, individuals who feel most comfortable around people who identify with different genders — whether they be queer, straight, non-binary, cisgender, trans, etc.
Students interested in reading testimonies or contributing a credited or anonymous comment or testimony of their own in support may visit www.betterprinceton.org. Students can also directly contact the University Student Life Council Chair Jenny Zhang to voice their support for the USLC proposal to expand the number of gender-neutral rooms.
* The terms “gender-neutral housing,” “gender-inclusive housing,” and “gender-affirmative housing” may be used interchangeably.
Max Grear ’18 is a Spanish and Portuguese major from Wakefield, R.I. He can be reached at email@example.com.