My favourite [sic] Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, said “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”
Considering Duke administration as the “state,” and students as the “nation,” Trudeau’s maxim should ring true for the roll-out of Duke’s new gender-neutral housing policy.
But, so far, it hasn’t. Even with a new policy that is an improvement of the status quo, RLHS is still self-conscious of the perceived “controversies” that could arise from the policy’s initial implementation, such as angry parent phone calls and rabid, sex-crazed couples.
So what are the elements of this policy? One is that groups selecting three-bedroom (four-person) apartments on Central Campus “are limited to a block consisting of one same gender roommate pair and one mixed gender pair.” I asked Joe Gonzalez, associate dean for residential life, about this clause, and he answered “I’d have to ask someone else, as I think about it, you could have two and two.” You COULD have two and two, as one gender could get the two singles in those apartments and the other gender could share the double. Or you could be risky, and let the students work it out for themselves.
Another element is that if “someone moves out of a gender-neutral apartment, the gender-neutral grouping of students is dissolved and the apartment changes back to single-gender housing,” which may require “one or all of the remaining apartment-mates to move to different rooms or apartments.” Gonzalez explained that RLHS is trying to write a “policy for the what-ifs, so they’re already covered.” Conceivably, there could be still two of one gender and one of the other remaining after one moves out, but Gonzalez says “for the first year... we’re taking a conservative approach for how we can manage the community.”
I might sound whiny, but I’m not alone. Sophomore Erin Sweeney jokingly noted that RLHS’ thought-process must have been: “The only... people who would want this are three girls and their gay best friend, right? [T]his is a two-birds-with-one-stone deal. We stop sorority girls AND their gay best friends from complaining about their lack of housing.”
The University of Pennsylvania led the way in establishing a gender-neutral policy in 2005. Yale and Columbia became the last Ivy League schools to implement for this year and next year, respectively. Indeed, Yalies actually gathered for a “sleep-in” in 2009 to protest a delay in making the policy decision. Gonzalez says Duke “did get some guidance from how other institutions approach this.”
Gonzalez doesn’t “expect demand to exceed availability, but because it’s the first year it’s hard to predict.” There are some unknowns. However, there are some educated guesses we can make. The first is that we’re not going to see a stampede of couples, whether of different genders or the same, choosing to cohabitate. Gonzalez and I agreed that it’s a good idea for RLHS to “discourage students who are romantically involved from pursuing this.” Adults should be able to make their own decisions... but (in my opinion) living (officially) together as undergraduates is an unwise decision. Having this policy isn’t going to increase the amount of sex Duke students have... and even if it does, who cares?
In our interview, Gonzalez used phrases like “best attempt,” “intial trepidation,” “safe side” and “comfort level,” to describe the rationale behind certain elements of this policy. I understand RLHS’ reasoning that “there are some who are very uncomfortable with [the policy].” But expecting that this “pilot approach” will lead to bad trends rather than good freedoms is negating it from the start. If you predicate the policy on the assumption that there will be “controversial elements,” then it’s doomed to be viewed as a giant experiment rather an option that should exist.
Senior Michelle Sohn, who worked with the administration in moving towards this policy, said in an e-mail, “If we’re so worried about couples living together then perhaps we should just put everyone in singles and have a curfew.” She added, “I’m happy that they worked hard to get this done, but perhaps our administrators think too much in terms of ‘worst-case scenarios.’”
There are students who would like this on Duke’s other two campuses. Freshman Jacob Tobia is in the process of forming (DSGNing) a new student group called Duke Students for Gender Neutrality. He is living in Round Table section next year, where he “can’t formally room with a girl, even though everyone in my section is OK with it, because Round Table is on West.”
These gender issues will be pervasive until we stop dictating how to be gender neutral and feel confident in leaving it up to students. The policy is a start. But it could have been, as Sohn says, “bolder.”