On Tuesday afternoon, 12 students joined Director of Residential Life Mary Pat McMahon and Associate Director of Housing Operations Lisa Rendall to discuss the possibility of adopting a gender-neutral housing policy at Bowdoin. The students engaged McMahon and Rendall in conversation for the full hour of the meeting, held in the Baxter House common room, discussing the desire and need for a gender-neutral housing policy and the potential consequences such a policy might have on the campus.

McMahon explained at the beginning of the meeting that before the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) makes any permanent changes to its current policies, it is interested in gauging where students stand on theissue and understanding the rationale behind any desire for change.

At the meeting, predominant concerns voiced by the administrators and students included the complications that might arise in assigning a student to a gender-neutral room if an original resident were to move out, the potential for a living situation to become uncomfortable if roommates in a gender-neutral room developed a sexual relationship, and ensuring that such a policy change is really in the best interests of the student body and in response to an expressed need.

"We want to make people more comfortable with their options, not less comfortable," she said.

Current ResLife policy prohibits male and female students from occupying the same bedroom. Under the present policy, men and women are allowed to occupy separate bedrooms within suite-style dorms in Chamberlain Hall, Stowe Hall, Coles Tower, Brunswick Apartments, Harpswell Apartments, Pine Street Apartments and Howard Hall. Students may receive exceptions to these policies, but they must make arrangements with ResLife before the lottery deadlines in the spring.

The 2009 Housing Lottery Information found on the College's Web site, in a section titled "Other Circumstances," explains how students may seek exception to the policy. It notes that in the past, arrangements have been made to accommodate "students who are parents, transgendered students, or students with medical or psychological conditions."

Rendall said that two to three students are granted exceptions each year, and that requests for students of different genders to live together are "generally accepted" by the ResLife office.

McMahon noted that under the current policy, students of different genders do not need to provide an in-depth explanation when they request an exception.

"Right now, the way it works is case-by-case," McMahon said in an interview with the Orient on Thursday.

McMahon said that students don't need to define themselves in any category, but rather just explain that they are more comfortable living with a student of the opposite gender.

"If somebody comes to me and says, 'This is what I'm more comfortable doing,' I would respect that," she said.

Some students at the meeting expressed concern that this process was still not ideal. One student was particularly concerned that the process of gaining permission to live with a student of a different gender might necessarily "out" students who are homosexual, transgender or questioning of their gender identity or sexuality.

"To a gay student, they may still have the perceived feeling of outing themselves," Kate Stern, the director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity (RCSGD), said of the process students must go through to circumvent the current policy.

Others felt that the process by which students can seek exceptions to the policy is good, just poorly advertised.

"The College should advertise the possibility of exceptions more. This is the only change that should be made," Robert Flores '12 wrote in an e-mail to the Orient.

Flores, who attended Tuesday's meeting, also wrote that "the vast majority of people are heterosexual and the housing system is currently set up to accommodate the majority of people. There are exceptions that are liberally granted for people who do not belong to this majority, so I do not see a valid reason for ushering an overhaul of the current Residential Life system."

Sharon Ulery '11, who attended Tuesday's meeting wrote in an e-mail to the Orient, "I am aware that, in general, ResLife is very accommodating, but not every student who would prefer to live with students of a different gender is equally aware. If, for example, a student feels awkward talking to ResLife staff that he's never met, and predicts that they won't make an exception for him anyway, he is likely not to bother making the request."

Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster said that he was "not yet convinced" of the need for a change to ResLife's current policy, and explained, "I think we have a number of practical solutions in place."

McMahon stressed that as ResLife continues to discuss the possibility of gender-neutral housing, they are considering a few key points to determine if a change to the current policy is actually needed.

"Are we meeting student needs right now for people to feel like they have a safe, welcoming living community? That's obviously something that everybody should have," she said. "Is it a question that we should be more broadly promoting that deadline [to seek an exception], is that the way to meet student needs, or is it also a question separate from that?"

In terms of moving forward with policy change informed by the discussions taking place on campus, McMahon said, "It's definitely still open...We've thought about looking specifically at one-room doubles as the territory where we might make the policy change as opposed to a full change of policy."

"Ultimately if we're going to change the housing policy, [it would require] the Director of Residential Life's support, my support and the President's support," Foster said, adding that support from the Board of Trustees would not be necessary, but they would take an interest.

McMahon explained that entering the possibility of gender-neutral forced triples and quints becomes increasingly complicated when students move in and out of rooms. At the meeting, Rendall emphasized that ResLife would not place students in a mixed-gender environment, given that not all students would be comfortable with such a living situation.

First year housing would not become gender neutral if and when the College adopts any policy.

McMahon noted that in the past, dating students that have petitioned to room together officially have been discouraged by the ResLife staff and not granted an exception.

Being in a dating relationship, same-sex or heterosexual, "and then living together can be difficult [for students in terms of] being connected to the whole community," she said. "You can have a very small community if you're in that room with the person you're dating."

McMahon said that ResLife decided to hold the meeting at this point in the academic year because the office will soon be busy with the process of hiring student ResLife staff members as well as the application process for 2010-2011 College House residents.

She said that discussions on the subject have been occurring between students, ResLife and the RCSGD in a broad scope since last winter. In April, Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) engaged ResLife in discussion about the issue and current BSG President Mike Dooley spoke with McMahon about the issue this semester.

Dooley formed a student committee unaffiliated with BSG this fall to work on a policy recommendation to make a "gender-blind housing lottery." The goal of the committee is to broaden student knowledge of the gender-neutral housing issue and to increase student awareness and support for the committee's policy proposal. Dooley said he wasn't certain of the timing for the committee's anticipated publicity campaign, but said, "the wheels are definitely in motion."

Sadie Nott '12 attended Tuesday's meeting and wrote in an e-mail to the Orient that she was still conflicted in her own opinion of whether or not ResLife should enact a policy change.

"In any case," she said, "it seems to me that the next steps need to be inquiring as to what the general need is for this change in policy in the student body, but more importantly, to keep this conversation going, because I think it's an important one."

-Gemma Leghorn contributed to this report.