When the year's housing lottery begins this spring, students will be given the opportunity to live in gender-blind double bedrooms when they return in the fall, allowing male and female students to share a room together.
While no formal announcement has been made to the campus community, students involved in the long campaign for gender-neutral housing options were informed yesterday morning of the change.
"We are responding to the concerns and interest expressed by our gay and lesbian community," wrote Associate Dean of Student Affairs and Director of Residential Life Mary Pat McMahon in an e-mail to the Orient, "and we are joining a growing list of other colleges and universities—including Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Stanford and Swarthmore—that allow similar options."
The change complements the existing policy allowing for mixed-gender suites. It does not apply to incoming first-year students, nor to one-room triple bedrooms.
The new gender-blind policy for doubles could affect any housing that has one-bedroom doubles.
"There will not be specifically designated gender-blind spaces," wrote McMahon.
While gender-neutral housing has been a hot topic of discussion for Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) and other students for years, this decision comes on the heels of a Wednesday presentation to BSG by seniors Rory Brinkmann and Elsbeth Paige-Jeffers.
"All students in the process of choosing their living situation should have the right to live in an environment most conducive to their health, safety and development while at Bowdoin," states the proposal.
"Gender-neutral housing is not just a practical issue for our campus, it is a human rights issue," wrote Paige-Jeffers in an e-mail sent to the Orient shortly before news of the decision broke.
The revised system "will provide all upper-class students with the agency to choose living situations that are most conducive to their happiness and safety," wrote Paige-Jeffers. "Gender-neutral housing also affirms the identities of students who don't fall into normative categories of sexuality or gender identity; it recognizes that a heterosexist model of single-gender bedrooms is not sufficient for our campus or our reality."
Brinkmann and Paige-Jeffers had assembled an ad hoc committee to discuss the existing policy and potential changes. When asked about the possibility of polling the campus about this issue on Wednesday, Paige-Jeffers responded, "It's not up to the campus to decide who gets the rights."
Without directly making reference to the Wednesday proposal, McMahon told the Orient on Thursday that "this change comes in response to student concerns on this issue."
"I know students have cared about this and have been working on this for a while," said Director of the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity Kate Stern. "I'm impressed by their ability to work together. I'm impressed by their leadership."
"I wouldn't say that the decision was a direct result of the student focus group's proposal," said Brinkman, citing the extent of past efforts, "but the proposal definitely did contribute."
"I think this is a big step in the right direction," added Brinkmann. "Yes, it is exciting."
A new policy
On the annual Housing Intent Form, sent out at the beginning of March, students planning to return in the fall will have a new option to live in a gender-blind double.
"They don't need to do any other follow-up for approval of that request, and it will be approved as long as we receive the request by April 1," the same deadline as for other housing issues, wrote McMahon.
This change stands in contrast to the oft-criticized pre-existing policy, by which students could be granted permission to live in a gender-blind double only after meeting with the director of residential life and explaining their situation.
"I hate to throw around buzz words like 'heteronormative,' but that's what it is," said Elliott Munn '11 of the current system.
"This change allows students the ability to exercise this option without feeling like they need to discuss reasons that can be quite private with someone they don't know," wrote McMahon.
"Students, I know, really felt sort of intimidated," said Stern. "And now that barrier has been removed, which I think will make it easier for the queer students to utilize it."
"Based on the experience at other colleges and universities, we expect fewer than a handful of students to take advantage of this option," wrote McMahon.
In the year and a half for which she has been with the Office of Residential Life, McMahon has had only one conversation in which students requested permission to live together in a mixed-gender double.
Preliminary student reaction appeared to range from neutrality to full support.
"I don't see why anyone would have a problem with it," said Michael Mort '12. "It's college. Most people are over 18 at this point. I think it's pretty cool."
Said John Lehman '10, "I think we're all grown-ups here." Besides, "the fact that it's not offered doesn't mean people don't room together already."
Past resistance to the initiative has stemmed in part from suggestions that the existing system, with mixed-gender suites and case-by-case exceptions, was sufficient. Others worried that mixed-gender doubles could allow the development of unhealthy social dynamics.
"People were worried about the fireworks that could potentially result" from a heterosexual couple rooming together, said Brinkmann at the BSG meeting.
"The College will continue to strongly discourage students involved in intimate relationships from living together," said McMahon, "and we will send an e-mail expressing that expectation to all students choosing the gender-blind double option."
Proponents of gender-neutral housing have responded that students of minority sexual and gender identities may have already been put in situations that are just as uncomfortable or worse.
"What I heard from LGBTQ students is that being forced to live with someone of the same gender isn't always comfortable," said Stern. "Some gay male students talk about being uncomfortable living with a heterosexual male," especially when there is a possibility that said roommate is homophobic.
"I'm really proud of the student leadership and the people working together at Bowdoin; I'm very thankful for the thoughtfulness of the administration," Stern added. "I think that for some queer students, it's a big deal. And I'm looking forward to supporting them as this rolls out."
"I think it's great," said Joe Babler '10 of the decision. "I think it's only going to allow people to make choices that make them happier without hindering anyone else."
"It's worked well at other colleges our size," said Nathan Merritt '11. "More choice is almost always a good thing."
—Mariya Ilyas contributed to this report.