Removing distinctions

This week, as we near Room Draw, we’re faced with many choices. Where do we want to live? What kind of living space do we prefer? Do we want the privacy of a single or the companionship of a double? If it’s the latter, students are faced with yet another set of choices. We’re stuck with our roommates for the entire year, so we contemplate this carefully, matching noise levels, sleeping habits and likelihood of a sexile. There’s one thing students don’t currently have a choice about, though: the gender of their roommates.

Many liberal arts colleges have switched to gender-neutral housing policies – including Dartmouth, Oberlin and Swarthmore – but Williams hasn’t yet followed suit. But our current arrangement demands reconsideration. There’s no credible reason that a college like Williams with its history of progressive policies should restrict housing by gender. We already have gender-neutral hallways and bathrooms. Let’s take the next step and implement gender-neutral rooms. Our current housing policy presents a myriad of problems regarding fairness, privacy and gay and lesbian equality.

To start with, the present Williams housing situation forces gays and lesbians either to pick a single or to room with someone of the same gender, something with which they may or may not feel comfortable. Transgendered students are similarly affected, and the complexity of gender identity, gender presentation and physical sex makes this an even greater hurdle for the gender-non-conforming. Many queer-identified students don’t have a problem with roommates of the same sex, but we can’t assume this for everyone. For some, it may be much the same as forcing a woman to live with a man. This is especially true of first-year roommates, whom students do not get to choose. Incoming gay, lesbian and transgendered first-years would particularly benefit from being able to check a box on a housing form and be matched with an opposite-sex roommate in a similar situation. Cutting down on this particular brand of first-year anxiety would benefit us all.

Even students who aren’t queer-identified might feel, for one reason or another, that they’d like to room with a member of the opposite sex. Setting aside the issue of couples, there’s no reason that male and female students in platonic friendships shouldn’t become roommates. Williams students are not known for being prudes – our bathrooms and hallways are co-ed – and I can’t imagine that any student would faint at the sight of their underwear-clad opposite-sex roommate. Even factoring in romantic relationships, we’re assuming here that couples who room together are more likely to break up or have fights. After hearing plenty of friends’ same-sex roommate woes, I’m not ready to assume anything. Furthermore, we’re devaluing same-sex couples when we make this our excuse. This argument basically tells gay and lesbian students that their relationships don’t matter enough to affect housing policy. Other colleges with gender-neutral policies recognize this. Connecticut College discourages couples from living together, but states in their housing policy that “two women or two men who choose to live together are not questioned about the nature of their relationship, and we believe that requiring students who apply for gender-neutral housing to explain their relationship is intrusive and unfair.”

It’s largely a privacy issue. Roommate choice is a personal matter and doesn’t affect those outside of the housing arrangement more than any interpersonal association affects the community. The College should stay out of student relationships, even if this requires the occasional room switch. Bottom line: We’re adults, and the College is doing us no favor by protecting us from ourselves. Freedom of choice takes us further along the road of preparing for the choices we’ll encounter outside of college, housing or otherwise. Some of us might use gender-neutral housing to make good roommate decisions; some, bad. But, like any of our choices in college, it’s better if we make them ourselves.

Andrew Triska ’11 is from Estacada, Ore. He lives in Lehman.