What is the problem with a gender-neutral housing option? As the YCC Proposal for Expansion of Gender-Neutral Housing bends over backward to explain, it appears to be the panacea for all problems. Students will be happier, they’ll be discouraged from living off-campus, homosexuality will be “normalized,” gender-queer, trans and non-straight individuals will have housing options they’ll be much more comfortable with, inter-sex friendships will be fostered and so on. Most importantly, the perennially talked about “sexual climate” of the college will improve, in the long run.
It is interesting to examine the premises that lead the proposal’s writers, Joseph Yagoda and Isabel Santos-Gonzalez, to these conclusions. Gender-based housing completely ignores homosexuality and the many identity issues it brings along.
Moreover, they think that gender-based housing promotes same-gender friendships at the expense of inter-gender friendships, which “can make students feel ostracized.” Gender-neutral housing would be one more step toward “deconstructing gender boundaries” and “decreasing the notion that men and women have morally relevant distinctions between them that merit disparate treatment.”
Of all the YCC’s premises, I do agree with one — I do think gender-queer people can have a tough time if constrained strictly within gender-based housing and they should be given the option to live with friends of any gender or sexual orientation. That said, one must remember that they do not constitute the majority of the student body and an option for them cannot automatically be generalized for the entire student body.
First, Yale’s current gender-based housing system prevents no student from forming close bonds with people of the opposite sex, just like living in a particular residential college prevents nobody from having friends in other colleges. Most of my close friends at Yale are male, all of them live in other colleges and I didn’t have to share a suite with any of them to form those close friendships. There are weeks when I only see the sleeping form of my roommate or say a cursory “hi” to her. Yale has too many things going on for people to build meaningful relationships only in their suites.
A more disturbing idea implicit in the proposal is that gender-based housing implies a disparity in the treatment of men and women. Neither in its rationale nor in its practice does gender-based housing imply that men and women are unequal. On the contrary, it is based on a respect for the distinction between men and women — one that holds strong despite political, social or economic equality. The concept of equality has been used far too often in history to abolish all difference when difference and equality can and do coexist.
You might ask just what the need for this difference is, why Yale must oppress people by demanding that they not live with their friends of the opposite sex. Before I answer that, I must point out that Yale has a duty not only to the well-being of its student body but also to tradition and its own mission. The mission of Yale College is “to seek exceptionally promising students … and to educate them, through mental discipline and social experience, to develop their intellectual, moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest.”
Now, gender-based housing institutes no great mental discipline on us; it prevents no two people from hooking up or having sex with each other, nor does it prevent people in relationships from living, de facto, in one suite. We already live on mixed-sex floors. Given the current scenario, there would appear to be little utility in the University demanding this extra bit of adherence when we already have full freedom to flout the essence of this little rule. But there are things beyond utility. As an acknowledgement of the distinction between men and women and a sign of respect for the idea that the union of the two sexes isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be an ordinary, casual and impersonal experience, the University’s policy must still be one of encouraging and maintaining the status quo of gender-based housing.
Gender-queer people should be given the option of gender-neutral housing. Not all of these people would be comfortable identifying themselves as such. But whether it is through the LGBTQ Co-op, masters’ offices or other measures, I have full confidence that a mechanism that is not embarrassing or humiliating for gender-queer people can be figured out, without sacrificing, at the same time, the University’s obligation to its essence and mission.
Radhika Koul is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.