Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the group Andrea Fraser represented on a George Mason University campus-climate task force. This version has been corrected and adds context to her comments about the new gender-neutral housing policy’s implementation.
George Mason University will allow male and female students to live together in on-campus dorm rooms starting this fall, adding itself to the growing list of U.S. schools that formally offer gender-neutral housing.
The move places one of the largest schools in Virginia among nearly 150 other colleges or universities across the country that have stated policies providing gender-neutral housing. The practice is widely viewed as a way for colleges to ensure the safety and comfort of students who are uneasy about rooming with others of the same sex, and it also opens up on-campus housing to romantic couples of different sexes.
Advocacy groups believe George Mason is the first college or university in Virginia to formally offer the option.
“Mason prides itself on our student diversity,” said Ric Chollar, associate director for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning (LGBTQ) Resources at Mason. “When any set of students feels unsafe or can’t participate or drops out, a whole classroom, a whole community, is impacted by that.”
Gender-neutral housing — or flexible housing, as Mason calls it — will be available to groups of four or six students who currently reside on campus and would normally qualify for Mason housing in the fall.
Mason housing officials have been looking into the policy for years, Chollar said. Their efforts received a boost two years ago when a campus-climate task force on LGBT issues recommended “gender-inclusive housing.”
Jana Hurley, assistant vice president for university life, said about 150 students had applied for flexible housing as of last week. The housing application process for returning students ended Feb. 7, though Hurley said Mason officials will consider additional requests until all rooms are filled for the fall semester.
“At the core, it’s about the principle of it, empowering students to make important choices,” Hurley said. “It’s in the interest of all of our students’ satisfaction, ultimately.”
With the policy, Mason joins a growing national trend of colleges going on the record in support of gender-neutral housing. As of Feb. 2, the Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse, which tracks transgender policies at U.S. schools, counted 149 U.S. institutions where students can have a roommate of any sex, including nine colleges or universities in the District and Maryland. In Virginia, the University of Mary Washington hosts a living community organized around the general theme of gender neutrality — attracting students with an interest in the policy — but residents are still required to live with roommates of the same sex.
A 2010 report from the Education Advisory Board found that between 1 percent and 2 percent of college students lived in gender-neutral housing at several schools that were studied.
Michael Komo, who helped to lead a successful campaign for gender-neutral housing at George Washington University, estimated the number of U.S. schools formally offering the option was in the 50s as recently as a few years ago.
“Schools have become aware of the new issues students are facing and the need to adopt a nuanced view toward housing,” said Komo, a second-year law student who helped to lead a successful campaign for gender-neutral housing at George Washington University.
Critics of gender-neutral housing argue it could lead to romantic couples living together, creating the potential for messy breakups and other relationship problems. A spokesman for GWU’s conservative Young America’s Foundation, predicted an “administrative nightmare for the University and a distraction for students” while GWU was weighing gender-neutral housing in 2010, according to the student newspaper.
Chollar and Hurley said they have not heard any backlash to flexible housing at GMU. They pointed out that Mason has always discouraged romantic couples from living together.
Advocates of gender-neutral housing point to the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi as a devastating example of what could happen when LGBT students have no choice but to room with students of the same sex. Clementi’s male roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in their dorm room three days before Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.
For the LGBT community at Mason, flexible housing could mark a victory in a long fight to create a “culture of respect” on campus, but only if the housing department implements the policy well, said Andrea Fraser, who represented a group that promotes the causes of the LGBTQ community on the campus-climate task force.
Geoffrey Payne, communications chair of GMU Pride Alliance, emphasized in an e-mail that flexible housing is meant to serve a “wide range of different backgrounds and circumstances,” not just the LGBT community on campus. For example, the policy could appeal to students with disabilities who use assistants, sometimes of the opposite sex, to help them with day-to-day tasks. Gopi Raghu, a senior who has a disability and is majoring in civil engineering, said gender-neutral housing could be “extremely helpful” in that case.
Anne Whitlock, the mother of an incoming Mason freshman from Reston, said gender-neutral housing is a “lot to take in” amid all the other decisions facing college-bound students. Although Whitlock does not foresee her daughter taking advantage of flexible housing in the near future, she said she understands how it could benefit some students.
“I would want the school to have options,” Whitlock said. “Everybody just wants what’s best for their kid.”
Mason students said they welcome the policy but believe it largely will not affect them.
Walking into Northern Neck — a campus residence hall that has suite-style units for up to six roommates — Maya Cook said she has heard complaints from her married peers who wanted to live in on-campus housing.
“It’s time for [Mason] to make that change,” said Cook, of Bowie, a sophomore majoring in psychology.
Amanda Massey, a junior majoring in global community health, said she believes the policy makes sense only if it effectively serves students who are dissatisfied with traditional living arrangements.
“If they’re comfortable with it, that’s all that matters,” said Massey, of Long Island, N.Y.
It is unclear if other Virginia colleges will follow suit. McGregor McCance, a spokesman for the University of Virginia, said the school does not have a “stated policy” regarding gender-neutral housing but accommodates similar living arrangements on a case-by-case basis.
Regardless of whether schools craft stated policies, proponents of gender-neutral housing see its rise as a sign of shifting social mores.
“If this is a trend, let’s keep it going, right?” Fraser said. “It makes it better for everyone.”