Beyond Coed: A Growing Number of Universities Are Taking a "Gender-Blind" Approach to Higher Education

Article excerpt

The college experience is laden with traditions, like fraternity parties and late-night cram sessions. But some colleges and universities are tweaking that experience this fall, especially as it relates to gender, and revolutionizing college life as we've known it.

Few moments in college are as memorable as meeting your first roommate. But freshmen at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., have a new option this year--to live in a dorm hall where roommates are matched without regard to gender. The 12-person gender-blind hall, a section on the first floor of a 210-student dormitory, is likely the first of its kind in the country.

The goal of the gender-blind hall, says dean of student services Michael Whaley, is to create a more comfortable environment for transgendered students. "When you look at breaking away from traditional gender identification and transcending gender, this seemed to make some sense to try," Whaley says.

The new residence hall program comes a few years after Wesleyan and Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pa., decided to allow sophomores, juniors, and seniors to live with any roommate of their choice, regardless of gender. Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., allows mixed-gender living for all students in any housing that is not single-occupancy.

"Room assignment by gender is really beginning to break down altogether," says Robert Schoenberg, director of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, which does not yet offer gender-blind housing. "People are addressing the whole binary gender system that not only ends up applying to the gay man wanting to live with the heterosexual female best friend but also to transgendered people."

Gender-blind housing is changing campus culture in the same way coed housing did in the 1970s, says Myrt Westphal, director of residential life at Swarthmore.

Most of the new gender-blind policies are the result of student-led campaigns to educate faculty, staff, and classmates about how a traditional gender-segregated system can be discriminatory. Students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, for example, launched the "Restroom Revolution" last year in an effort to get university officials to open at least one gender-blind rest room in every residence hall. Students wrote editorials in the school newspaper, secured endorsements from student government associations, circulated petitions, and posted fliers in rest room stalls that read DO YOU REALIZE YOU'RE IN A SEAT OF PRIVILEGE?

"Trans people and other people who have an alternative gender expression often face harassment when they walk into a bathroom," explains Mitch Boucher, a transgendered graduate student who helped launch the Restroom Revolution. …