This past Monday, the Yale College Council released its “Proposal for the Expansion of Gender Neutral Housing.” Unsurprisingly, the YCC continued its strong advocacy for extending mixed-gender suites beyond the senior class and reported strong student support for the effort. And given current social trends, it is safe to assume that if the Yale Corporation and administration don’t expand gender-neutral housing this coming February, they will do so in the not too distant future.
I fall into that overwhelming majority of students that sees no need to restrict our classmates’ rooming choices. But I also actually took the time to read the YCC’s report and was disturbed and alarmed by much of it. I assume the report was compiled with the best intentions, but it managed to marginalize a new group of students in a manner precisely parallel to the harmful structures the report criticizes. The YCC should do better.
The most glaring shortcoming of the report is the total absence of engagement with those opposed to expanding gender-neutral housing. After declaring 92.7 percent of the student population in favor or indifferent, the YCC apparently decided that its work was done. The report quotes a number of supporters of the change, but there was no sign of any attempt to reach out to objectors. One would think a policy that is explicitly – and commendably – designed to protect minority groups would avoid cavalierly dismissing the 7 percent of students who happen to disagree with a novel social consensus.
A responsible report would have engaged seriously with those who resist this broad policy change. The YCC should have spoken to objectors in person, genuinely listened to what they had to say and published their concerns. Even more important, the YCC should have sought ways to alleviate those concerns, crafting a policy that advances the interests of students who want to live with members of the opposite gender while also addressing the concerns of those worried by the changes.
It is certainly worth remembering that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo passed his landmark same-sex marriage legislation after a process of serious engagement with faith leaders. The policy that resulted — extending the benefits of marriage while preserving religious freedom — was infinitely the better because of the effort.
How could the YCC have addressed these concerns? Obviously, that would depend on what these objections actually are — and so I would encourage the YCC to do its homework and gather actual data from the 7 percent. But as an example, I will raise one concern recently mentioned by a friend. She worries that as mixed-gender dorming arrangements become widespread (as the YCC’s data implies), it will become even more difficult than it currently is for more traditional students to avoid mixed-gender bathrooms and hallways.
If the YCC were truly committed to honoring individual students’ values and preferences, it would advocate for students like my concerned friend with zeal comparable to that it shows for gender-neutral housing. Surely creating a few entryways with single-gender bathrooms and floors would not be all that difficult. And advocacy for students more comfortable with such arrangements would dovetail perfectly with advocacy for the comfort of those groups for whom the YCC already advocates.
Beyond the YCC’s neglect of students uncomfortable with the prevailing position, the text of the report also raises deeper concerns. Why complicate a genuine attempt to respond to students’ needs with the off-putting jargon of “deconstruction” and the dangerous assumption that the purpose of Yale’s housing policies is politically-motivated social engineering?
Even more problematic are the claims that mixed-gender suiting is actually superior to the alternatives, reducing sexism and sexual violence. Single-gender housing, by contrast, represents social immaturity and contributes to a climate of gender-based violence. This is a step too far. The YCC’s report is no longer about protecting individuals and expanding choice but instead represents an implicit condemnation of those who actively choose single-sex suites, their values and their choices. That bias is just as pernicious as the sexism that the YCC laudably seeks to combat.
Currently, students who live in single-sex suites compose an overwhelming majority and surely don’t feel attacked. But given the YCC’s survey and current trends, those numbers are likely to swing drastically. Will the YCC advocate for students who have traditional notions of modesty and sexuality as they feel increasingly marginalized, or will it continue to dismiss them as primitive contributors to society’s ills? Yale must make clear — through action as well as words — that proposed changes in housing policy are truly about making all students more comfortable.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.