To allow optional gender-neutral housing to all upperclassmen is to adopt a logic whose final outcome will be mandatory gender-integrated housing for freshmen.
Sure, the argument today is premised on choice: To withhold the option of gender-neutral housing is to oppress a few, inconvenience many and deny students their freedom. To grant the option is to cease the infantilizing charade of in loco parentis and liberate students into adulthood. How could a logic enacting liberation ever lead to coercion?
The transformation from liberation to coercion is a trope of liberal policies. Liberalism begins by granting some sort of freedom to individuals. But it is soon recognized that, for many individuals, the conditions that would enable them to take advantage of the freedom they have been afforded are not in place. The result is the coercive action of modern liberalism that provides those conditions, enabling the universal enjoyment of that freedom.
In the case of gender-neutral housing, the argument will go something like this: Though upperclassmen have the choice to form mixed-gender suites, they don’t always choose well because they have no previous experience of mixed-gender living arrangements. Freshmen, the only students who cannot chose their suitemates, ought to be made to experience a mixed-gender living arrangement so they might make informed choices in later years. Yale should take full advantage of the social engineering potential of freshmen housing assignments.
The argument from informed choice will not be entirely convincing, however, until it is supported with arguments from feminism and diversity. From the point of view of feminism, the separation of men and women perpetuates the notion that men and women aren’t equal. Their integration is a necessary step in the full emancipation of women to equal social status as men. From the point of view of diversity, apparent gender differences are social constructs; students come to understand culture and are better able to put themselves in others’ shoes by exposure to such diversity.
With the support of feminism and diversity, the case for mandatory gender-integrated housing for freshmen looks more compelling. Indeed, each of these rationales was used in the history of racial integration. If the difference between man and woman is no more significant than the difference between black and white, then the holdouts against mandatory gender-integrated housing are little different than the segregationists of the Old South.
Under the pressure of this logic, the policy will transform. Optional gender-neutral housing for upperclassmen in 2010 will give way to optional gender-neutral housing for all in 2020. By 2030 the policy will be opt-out gender-neutral housing for freshmen, and in 2040 freshmen will be subjected to a full regime of gender-integrated housing. Why resist this logic and risk analogy with oppressors past?
Liberalism seeks to overthrow social norms that limit choice, but it fails to see the goods those social norms preserve. The advocates of gender-neutral housing insist the primary function of gender-segregated housing was to prevent sex, but because it is no longer achieving that purpose at Yale, it is an ineffective relic of the past (to say nothing of how horrible that purpose was).
The reality is gender-segregated housing is not about preventing sex, it is about preserving sexuality. It is premised on the recognition that masculinity and femininity are real, that they mean something, that they are partly constitutive of human identity, that their proper combination is in an exclusive relationship and that they are worth protection from adulteration by uncommitted overfamiliarity. Only the radical who believes man is nothing more than his will would countenance the end of sexuality.
By all means, the administration ought to allow gender-neutral housing to transgendered students and those who strongly identify with a gender opposite their biological appearance. Gender identification is not always a black and white issue, which is precisely why the gender-makeup of dorms ought not be submitted to a “checkbox” system on a housing form. Anyone who feels strongly enough about his gender identity to desire a housing change should be able to attain the approval of the master of his residential college. An “individual request” system will prevent abuse.
But it is important to maintain the standard of gender-homogenous housing. The recognition that we are a gendered species, which is to say, one part of our humanity, demands it.
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.