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In the viral video, “That’s Why I Chose Yale,” cheery Yalies sing about the merits of their suite camaraderie, in which a pair of roommates even have matching sheets.
But living in a suite of four girls, Adrien Gau ’17 almost never sees any of them, doesn’t have meals with them, and often doesn’t return there to sleep.
“I’d much rather hang out with my suite of guy friends every day,” they said. “It would’ve been much easier if I could’ve just lived with them.”
Gau has moved their schoolbooks and food into their common room, effectively creating a mixed-gender suite. Though on friendly terms with their four suitemates, Gau, who identifies as gender-neutral and prefers the corresponding pronouns, believes their living situation constitutes an unfair restriction of their choices.
“It is really dysphoric for me to think about how I’m forced to live with girls. It’s like a slap in the face from Yale,” they said. “It’s not that I don’t like girls, it’s just, that’s not me. I’m not a girl, but Yale doesn’t care.”
If Gau had entered the University one year later, they wouldn’t have had to move their books and food to their ideal suite. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway announced the expansion of gender-neutral housing to the sophomore class on Dec. 9, 2014 — it will become an option this fall, affecting the class of 2018.
In a survey sent to a random sample of undergraduate students by the News, 91 percent of 104 students surveyed were either in support of or indifferent to the policy extension.
Helen Price ’18, for one, is seriously considering living in a mixed gender suite as a sophomore. She’s happy to be able to live with her best friend next year, rather than wait until her junior year, just because he’s not female.
Many upperclassmen wish Yale had offered them this choice earlier. Dayrin Jones ’16, who currently lives in a suite with four women, found the lack of choices during his sophomore year frustrating, and considered transferring colleges at the end of his freshman year.
“I thought about rooming options outside of [Ezra Stiles College] because I had few male friends in my college,” he said. “I almost ran out of time before I found a roommate sophomore year, because I had no possibilities in mind.”
The class of 2018, whether or not they choose mixed-gender housing, will at least have all the possibilities open to them.
Even students who don’t plan on taking advantage of this opportunity commend the change. Though Summer Kim ’18 has personal reservations about co-ed housing, she appreciates that it’s now available, especially at a place like Yale, because her concerns “don’t resonate with everyone or even a majority of students here.”
Despite the fact that 50 percent of freshmen surveyed expressed interest in mixed-gender housing next year, historically speaking, it has not been quick to catch on. In 2010–11, the first year with mixed-gender housing as a Yale College policy, only 39 seniors took advantage of it. Though Jones, Gau and Price have strong feelings about the issue, and though they have the support of the student body, they may be in the minority.
The greatest change may not be the number of students who live in co-ed suites, but rather the way the policy’s adoption affects campus culture.
Daniel Dangaran ’15, a freshman counselor in Ezra Stiles College, said his freshmen are very excited. One freshman told him he was glad the YCC succeeded in its task — even if he does not live in a co-ed suite next year, he’s happy the option is available to other freshman.
Dangaran knows that freshmen may hesitate at first.
“Only time will tell which freshmen will decide to take advantage of the policy and opt to live in mixed-gender suites,” he said, “but the option will help to normalize having friendships with people of all genders.”
Yale’s spaces seem already gender-neutral in many ways, with shared bathrooms, suites connected by fire doors (which are then left open, creating “double suites” of men and women), and even unofficial room swaps or permanent sleepover situations. But, Jones said, an improvised situation is not enough.
“In those instances, there still is a lack of the shared space that you would experience if you were living together,” he said. “With the policy change, I think campus culture will see an increase in respect for the opposite sex.”
The YCC has argued that co-ed suites will de-sexualize spaces — in a suite where men and women choose to live together as friends, the environment mitigates potential instances of sexual hostility. Price agrees with this assessment, adding that the policy change breaks down the symbolic barrier between men and women.
“Now I feel like I can live with my friends, and some of them just happen to be boys. Separating the genders seems very juvenile,” she said.
Alex Borsa ’16, former president of the LGBTQ Co-Op, meanwhile, believes that the policy change will not generate a massive shift in campus culture. The great majority of students, who have supported the policy even if it will never affect them, have already created a gender-neutral environment.
He added that the extension is a success for many queer and gender non-conforming students, and finds it ridiculous that it hasn’t already happened.
Only the official label has been missing. YCC Vice President and project manager for the issue Maia Eliscovich Sigal ’16 said that the administration’s approval was key.
“I think that the rules that they impose shape the culture we live in,” she said. “Through those rules they make it more open, and more flexible.”
Kim shared a similar perspective, adding that “the administration making it official recognizes how students at Yale already live, and how they would feel most comfortable, which is awesome.”
For most Yalies, the new policy merely adapts the suite, the cornerstone of university living, to fit the relationships we have come to rely on for late night food runs, inside jokes and emotional support. The friends we live with are the family we choose for ourselves, unobstructed by gender norms or bureaucratic policies.
Will there be any obstacles for freshmen next year, despite this seemingly perfect policy? YCC President Michael Herbert ’16 came up with one: “A potential mistake freshmen could make would be choosing to live with someone with whom they are in a relationship,” he explained. “Such relationships often do not last, which could lead to a very awkward situation.”
One set of connected sophomore suites, which became gender-neutral once the fire door was unlocked, saw the effects of one such relationship. The room by the door, the border between the men and the women, now has a sign. “My room is Sweden. Neutral zone.”
Zachary Blickensderfer ’16, a Jonathan Edwards housing representative, dismissed these pitfalls.
“The question of ‘living with significant others’ as being a legitimate concern is absurd, because the University should feel no obligation to prevent couples from making that stupid decision,” he said.
Dangaran is enthusiastic about that freedom, arguing that those who create their suites with all genders will forge trust-filled bonds in a comfortable setting, without gender as a barrier. Dangaran stresses that those who do not wish to live with suitemates of the opposite gender will obviously have their wishes respected. To him, the change in policy won’t be an obstacle to their campus welfare.
As YCC project manager for the issue, Eliscovich Sigal never encountered any opposition to the change among fellow students. And not a single student interviewed objected to the policy. They all briefly endorsed it, almost surprised that I had even asked.
Blickensderfer agreed that the policy is just common sense. “Living with people you like is fun. It’s as simple as that.” Simple, but a complicated process.
In 2013, Holloway told the News he was not in support of mixed-gender suites for sophomores.
“There was a feeling that developmentally, sophomores are not ready for mixed-gender suites,” he said. “There are a whole host of cognitive and social abilities sophomores are still forming, and I think many are not quite ready for the interesting complications that may arise from gender-neutral housing.”
Yet, by the end of 2014, the administration had decided that the complications were secondary to the benefits of the policy.
The possibility of change was first brought to the administration in December 2007, after the LGBTQ Co-Op led demonstrations like a public “sleep-in” on Cross Campus in the snow. The YCC followed, with formal reports that would soon become a staple in their efforts to expand the policy.
From the beginning, the YCC found that “support for gender-neutral housing at home was wide: some Yale students needed gender-neutral housing and virtually none were opposed,” according to Eliscovich Sigal’s letter in the Winter 2014 newsletter. In 2010, after three years of lobbying, the Yale Corporation extended the option for seniors, but some in the administration still considered it an “experiment.”
Since 2010, half a decade has passed, in which the YCC has often returned to students, and heard universally positive experiences from those who chose mixed-gender housing. Herbert explained that at the beginning of this academic year, YCC chose their issues of focus, which included divestment, financial aid, mental health and improving Yale’s sexual climate.
“But of all of the important subjects, the one with the most straightforward fix was the expansion of mixed-gender housing to sophomores,” he said.
Former Yale College Dean Mary Miller had concurred, leaving a recommendation for her successor that the plan become a reality.
So when Herbert and Eliscovich Sigal brought up the issue at their weekly meeting with Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry in September, they were astonished to be told that the option had been taken off the table due to logistical impossibilities. Herbert was floored, feeling that the “sentiment of permanence had not been communicated to students, and … we did not really understand what “logistically impossible” meant.”
At this point, Yale was “the exception, not the rule, in the Ivy League,” so Herbert and Eliscovich Sigal reached out to residential college deans, and to Holloway. They then asked both the YCC Council of Representatives and the Freshman Class Council to vote — both voted unanimously in favor of the policy change.
Herbert lauds campus enthusiasm for the issue, citing various op-eds from students, and the FCC’s engagement with the freshman class, the first to be affected by the change.
Throughout the fall of 2014, Holloway worked with the YCC, citing reasons for the length of the process: difficulties in housing configurations due to more possible options, the readiness of new housing software, and the various administrative channels the policy had to pass through before a decision.
Herbert and Eliscovich Sigal returned to the drawing board, as their predecessors had done many times since 2007, trying to galvanize support from the administration and students. Herbert found Dean Holloway to be receptive and engaged, and the students and administrators collaborated throughout the fall. Eventually, the Council of Masters approved the policy without obstacles, culminating in this major coup for YCC.
Eliscovich Sigal considers this “a victory to be celebrated by every Yale student as a triumph of student voice. Only we know our experiences here.”