Skip to main content

University considers 'gender-neutral' housing

By Yvonne Kalawur, CNN
Students at Columbia University may soon have the option of "gender-neutral" on-campus housing.
Students at Columbia University may soon have the option of "gender-neutral" on-campus housing.
  • About 30 universities allow opposite-sex students to live together on campus
  • Goal of program is not to provide housing for couples, university says
  • It's mainly for students who are more comfortable with opposite-sex roommate
  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students often in that category, supporter says

New York (CNN) -- When Columbia University student Sean Udell Manning enters his senior year next fall, he wants to share a one-bedroom apartment with one of his closest friends.

His friend just happens to be female.

Manning's wish may become a reality if Columbia University becomes one of the latest universities to adopt co-ed rooming, which would allow students of opposite sexes to live together on campus, Columbia University spokesman Robert Hornsby told CNN.

If the proposal is approved by administrators, the Ivy League university will join an estimated 30 universities and colleges across the country that have already taken the plunge and offer "gender-neutral" housing, according to Jeffrey Chang, co-founder of The National Student Genderblind Campaign, a grassroots organization that helps students and college administrators develop gender-neutral housing policies.

"We have seen this tremendous increase among college institutions in the past two to three years moving toward gender-neutral housing," Chang said.

While gender-neutral housing may upset parents who consider sharing a room to mean sharing a bed, advocates say that allowing heterosexual couples to live together is not the real motive for gender-neutral housing.

"It's not intended to be a couples' housing proposal," said Sarah Weiss, a student government member who voted affirmatively for the Columbia University proposal. "It's really a proposal for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender to have the opportunity to live with a roommate they feel comfortable with."

The crux of the argument is that people should have the opportunity to live with whomever they want regardless of gender, Weiss said. And those students who identify themselves as being LGBT often feel safer living with someone of the opposite sex.

Columbia University student Manning, who identifies himself as gay, remembers being concerned as a freshman that his randomly-selected male roommate would not understand his lifestyle.

"I was really relieved I had such an accepting roommate," Manning said, who ended up rooming with a straight male. "But this is not common to people in the LGBT community."

In universities that have gender-neutral housing policies, no student is assigned to a roommate of the opposite sex without prior consent, according to representatives at several colleges.

While policies vary by school, at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, in order to live in a co-ed living situation, both students must be at least 18 years old, have sophomore standing, and sign up in person, according to university spokesman Ron Ozio.

Not every college is jumping on board. Danny Armitage, assistant vice president for campus services at the University of Memphis, says the gender-neutral housing movement is not as prevalent at southern universities, where more traditional housing policies, such as single-sex dormitories and restricted visiting hours for members of the opposite sex, still exist.

"Our culture here is such that it still lends itself that people prefer single-sex housing," Armitage said.

Armitage said that the university surveys its students every three to four years about housing issues and has found that students, especially females, simply feel more comfortable and safe in a single-sex environment because they have more privacy.

Michelle Garcia, a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, who shared a dorm room with a male student last year, does not understand the fuss about gender-neutral housing. The roommates, who are friends but not romantically involved, slept in separate beds and respected each other's space when it came to getting dressed, she says.

"Quite frankly, you see more in college campus hallways with people walking in their bathrobe to the shower than we ever saw living with each other," Garcia said.

While her parents were initially concerned about the living situation, they got used to it over time and would often check in to make sure she was okay, "just like any parent would do with any roommate," Garcia said.

Weiss said couples should use caution if they are thinking of living together.

"We strongly advise same-sex or heterosexual couples [in romantic relationships] not to live together," she said.

Couples don't seem to be rushing to do so, Chang said. At universities that offer the option, usually less than 1 percent of students choose it, he said.

And if a couple does move in together and then break up, it's not that big a deal.

"There are always people who request roommate changes," University of Pennsylvania spokesman Ozio said. "That is not usual."