By the Perspective Staff
With the stress of blocking and housing day out of the way, students are starting to choose roommates for next year. For many, living options are unfortunately constrained by considerations of gender. The college’s current limits on gender-neutral housing reinforce the gender binary and rely on the patriarchal and heteronormative assumptions that one should be closest friends with individuals of the same gender and attracted to individuals of the opposite gender. They also discriminate against trans* and gender-nonconforming students. Moreover, these limits deny students the right to decide their living situations as responsible adults. Thus, we urge Harvard College to enact an open (also called “gender-neutral” or “gender-inclusive”) housing policy that allows sophomores, juniors, and seniors to choose roommates of any gender and enables first-years to indicate on their housing forms the gender(s) with which they prefer to live.
Currently seven of the upperclass houses require students to live with roommates of the same gender. A limited number of students may apply for mixed-gender suites, but the College requires that bedroom occupants be of the same gender, with locks installed on every bedroom door. Since installing locks on walk-through bedrooms would violate Massachusetts state fire code regulations, the college’s policy prevents many suites from becoming open living spaces. A pilot program provides for open housing in five of the upperclass houses as well as the Dudley Co-Op; these houses do not require locks on bedroom doors. This pilot program has thus far been successful, but students are at the mercy of the housing lottery to determine whether they can participate.
To be clear about our terminology, we will use the World Health Organization definitions for sex and gender. While “sex” refers to the “biological and physiological characteristics that define men and women,” while “gender” refers to the “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women” and has more to do with the individual’s self-identification.
Harvard is falling behind our peer institutions on this issue. UPenn has offered gender-neutral housing to all students in all years for all room types since 2005, stipulating only that students under age 18 seeking co-gendered housing receive parental consent. At Columbia, co-gendered living is known as open housing and is available in all upperclass residential houses. Yale has a gender-neutral housing policy for juniors and seniors, and The Yale College Council has been working for over a year to extend this policy to sophomores.
But why is open housing necessary on our campus?
For students who identify as LGBTQ+ or outside the gender binary, mandatory same-gender living situations can be extremely uncomfortable. Unnecessary stress and anxiety can come from being forced to live in close quarters with individuals with whom one is not comfortable on the basis of gender. On a campus that is becoming increasingly aware of preferred gender pronouns and institutionally recognizing gender and sexual minorities, it is important to recognize the needs of students who identify as trans* or gender non-conforming. The current policy accommodates the needs of trans* students and students with “gender-based needs,” but this term is ambiguous. What qualifies as a gender-based need? For students who begin transitioning after their first year, what living options currently exist?
Opponents of open housing claim that couples will be the first to opt into this program, and that college-aged couples cannot be allowed to live together because they will likely break up and then be forced to remain in the same living situation. This argument relies on the heteronormative assumption that all couples are straight; it’s currently possible for queer couples to cohabitate in same-sex rooming situations, and no one has complained about the possibility. Furthermore, students ought to decide for themselves whether they wish to live with their sexual or romantic partners; it is condescending and paternalistic for the college to make these decisions for us.
Moreover, the College’s worries about specifically heterosexual cohabitation, merited or not, should not prevent other students from pursuing a living situation in which they feel comfortable and accepted. The simple truth is that men and women can be close but platonic friends interested in living together. The assumption that a locked door is needed between all individuals of different sexes implies an inherent tension or antagonism that is not real. In fact, female Yale students living in the open housing system reported “feeling less vulnerable having men in their suite” and that open housing could make men allies of women rather than threats.
Students are emerging adults capable of making our own decisions concerning what living situations will be most conducive to a healthy and enjoyable undergraduate experience. Our rooms are not only places of academic study but also of relaxation and socialization. It is only fair for students to expect to be able to design their living arrangements in a way that promotes all of these ends. Besides, many students – both couples and good friends – currently unofficially live in each other’s rooms, so enacting an open housing policy would simply legitimize what is already a common practice.
For centuries, Harvard has been at the vanguard of higher education. Yet the university’s lackadaisical approach towards achieving total open housing is pathetic when compared to the advancements made by its peer institutions. A lack of open housing could potentially drive prospective applicants away from pursuing a Harvard education.
So what would implementation of open housing look like? For freshmen, it would likely mean the simple adjustment of adding the option of open housing in the form of a check box, next to one for same-sex housing. For upperclassmen, it would mean the extension of open housing to all of the houses and locations in which Harvard undergrads currently live. No one would be forced to participate in this system, but the option would be widely available to anyone who opted. This would help to promote a community in which all self-identifications are welcomed and equal and would create both the immediate environment and the larger culture in which each individual feels at home.
This statement is endorsed by the following Harvard student groups:
Harvard College Democrats
Harvard College International Women’s Rights Collective
Harvard College GLOW
Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance
Harvard Student Labor Action Movement
Harvard Sustained Dialogue
Harvard Queer Students and Allies
Trans Task Force