The Chronicle: Can you describe how you worked with administration to bring about this expansion?
Sunny Frothingham: While we had many differences of opinion with the administration on the timeline and the scope of expansions during the discussions around our proposal in the 2011-2012 school year, Duke administration has consistently shown a clear commitment to working with us to improve Duke’s housing policies and make Duke a more inclusive place.
This year though, the process was refreshingly fast. After writing a detailed proposal with [senior] Jacob Tobia and [junior] Jacob Zionce about our ideas for continued expansion and corresponding rationales, and passing a resolution though Duke Student Government about our proposed changes, the administration was quick to embrace our proposal.
TC: Why do you think it is important for students to have access to gender neutral housing?
SF: For many college students, single-sex housing sections—men living with men, women living with women, male halls, female halls—can feel safe and comfortable, but on a practical level, this system fails to be optimal for every student, due to the limitations it places on roommate and bathroom choice. Single-sex residence halls are especially inadequate for transgender and genderqueer students. In a 2010 study by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, transgender and genderqueer students reported 38.1 percent more verbal harassment and more fear for their physical safety than people of other gender identities, and when students were asked about the location of harassment, 11.8 percent of harassment occurred in residence halls. The inclusion of gender-neutral housing options and bathrooms helps to ensure that every student, regardless of their gender identity, can find a housing option where they feel safe and comfortable. In these terms, it’s a pretty simple ask.
TC: Can you describe the organization of Duke Students for Gender Neutrality?
SF: Duke Students for Gender Neutrality started as a small student organization lead by Jacob Tobia and myself with the goal of increasing gender-neutral space on campus. The height of the organization was the 2011-2012 school year during which we put together an 84 page proposal which outlined the need for and the details of a more comprehensive gender-neutral housing program. In this process we gained endorsements from a wide range of campus organizations, including Duke Student Government, Selective House Council, [Interfraternity Council], Panhel, Spectrum, CAPS, The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity—then known as The Center for LGBT Life—and the Women’s Center. We gathered data on the views of the student body through a survey by Duke Student Government and found broad student support for opt-in gender-neutral housing. In response to our proposal, Duke Administration committed to expanding gender-neutral housing options starting in Fall 2013 by creating gender-neutral space on West Campus in addition to expanding the former gender-neutral options on Central Campus, and by allowing Selective Houses in certain areas to opt-in to the program.
In the 2012-2013 school year, Duke Students for Gender Neutrality worked closely with the House Model Working Group, Duke Student Government, and Blue Devils United to figure out the details of implementing the new program. This year Duke Students for Gender Neutrality is in the process of de-chartering as a student group, and merging more fully with Blue Devils United. We envision future efforts relating to gender neutral housing space and bathrooms coming together under the leadership of Blue Devils United and through partnerships with Duke Student Government, specifically with the director of LGBTQ affairs and policy and vice president of equity and outreach.
TC: Now that this goal has been accomplished, what are the next steps for Duke Students for Gender Neutrality?
SF: When I arrived at Duke, the gender-neutral housing options were limited to a small program on Central Campus, and I am excited to see Duke administration committing to make opt-in gender-neutral housing available to all Duke students, by expanding gender-neutral housing options to East Campus and all Selective Houses. It’s been an amazing opportunity to work on this issue alongside other student leaders and administration, and to witness so much progress on this issue during my time at Duke.
Looking ahead Blue Devils United hopes to reach out to and partner with students on other college campuses seeking to increase gender-neutral housing options. We specifically hope to support the efforts of student activists at UNC Chapel Hill and other UNC schools following the statewide ban of gender-neutral housing at all seventeen UNC system campuses by the UNC Board of Governors this summer.
Moving forward, we are excited to see the cultural impacts of broad gender-neutral housing options at Duke and our peer institutions as gender-neutral housing programs continue to grow and fundamentally transform housing in higher education.
TC: If you could say one thing to members of the incoming class who identifies as transgender or genderqueer, what would it be?
SF: Realistically, Duke isn't perfect and you will likely encounter heteronormativity here as much as anywhere. That said, we do have some of the best gender-neutral housing options and trans health benefits in higher education, as well as a beautiful new Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. More broadly you will be coming to a place where you can enact substantive change with student leaders and an administration committed to making Duke better for each new class.